There are many ways to perceive or view winter damage to trees. One is to deny it, to say to yourself or others “Oh, it’s not really that bad,” and find ways to deflect attention to the injury. Another is to accept it, to realize that it is what it is, or aquí es en Español. A third is to fight it, to dig right in and think of ways to recover from it, or prevent it in the future.

Which of these works best? While this question can be difficult to answer, it’s helpful to understand the thought processes behind the feelings associated with the damage. In most scenarios, a combination of the latter two is usually most reasonable. After all, tree care providers are not in control of all the factors that affect trees, and as such it’s illogical to assume that as a result of your efforts nothing bad will ever happen again.

Consequences of damage

There are basic rules, or tenets, that are part of our culture and hard to argue with. The first two: There are only two things certain in life, death and taxes; and supply and demand drives our economy. The third: cause and effect. In the context of winter damage, the cause is usually unknown, at least in the short run, and the effects can be varied.

The most obvious effect is the injury to a woody plant. Many trees are quite valuable to clients in terms of aesthetics, temperature modification and property value; their demise is usually problematic.

If the damage is severe, one consequence may be the loss of a customer, even though the tree care company had nothing to do with the injury. Clients can be fickle and use the damage as a reason to switch to another company or discontinue tree care altogether.

The loss of a good reputation is also a possibility. Losing a positive reputation amongst the customer base, other tree care providers, city officials and suppliers can have long-term negative effects on a company, especially if it’s a small company and word-of-mouth is the primary advertising method.

Regardless of which of the three may be encountered, none are desirable. On the other hand, dealing with damage in a sound and responsive manner may increase your standing with the customer and positively reinforce the business relationship. Therefore, proceeding in a logical and straightforward manner is a worthy endeavor.

Seven steps

As with any of the problems that we encounter in life, a certain level of acceptance is healthy. It matters not whether you’re considering which eldercare facility is best for your parents or how to invest for retirement, a step-by-step process is a good course of action. The following seven steps, courtesy of Steven Rodie, ASLA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are an effective guiding procedure in terms of diagnosing winter damage and devising a healthy response for the customer.

1 Accept the situation

2 Analyze facts and feelings

3 Define goals and objectives

4 Generate ideas to achieve goals and objectives

5 Select best ideas or combination of ideas


7Evaluate; start over; never finished

Accept the situation. This requires work by both the tree care provider and the customer. Sure, it’s different work for each party in that the worker/owner/arborist usually sees the tree as a valuable part of nature and possible work for hire, while the owner will be thinking more locally and property specific. In the end, it is what it is; it happened.

Analyze facts and feelings. The fact may be that a large limb has fallen to the ground or is hanging on the house, or the entire tree has turned brown and needs to be dealt with. The owner often sees these facts, but combines the actual occurrence with the hurt or loss of a valuable asset and needs to process the feeling in their own mind. It’s best to keep this in mind when talking with the customer and give them some time to work through their feelings, especially if it is a memorial or historical tree.

Define goals and objectives. Depending on the severity of the injury, it is helpful to revisit the importance and purpose of the damaged tree. If the tree in question was an undesirable volunteer that sprouted 2 feet from the foundation, then this may be a blessing rather than a problem. Damage often provides an opportunity to rethink why each tree is in place on a given property in terms of the benefits it provides and the effort that is required for its care.

Generate ideas to achieve goals and objectives. Recovering from winter injury is usually easier if several ideas to move forward in a responsible manner are generated. These should be directly related to the goals and objectives for each tree as well as the property as a whole. As a tree care provider, it’s wise to generate some ideas based on your experience with other clients and share them with the customer, keeping in mind that they will likely have some ideas of their own.

Select best ideas or combination of ideas. Selection of “best” ideas is a highly subjective process. After the ideas are presented to the customer, unless their choice is a poor arboricultural practice such as topping a winter damaged tree or removing most of the lower limbs (lions-tailing), deferring to their choice is probably the best course of action. Once you have presented several reasonable and sound options, remember that it’s their tree and they have the right to choose their preferred course of action.

Once the choice has been made it’s time to implement the action. Some actions should be implemented immediately; for example removing a fallen limb. For some damage the required actions may be part of a longer-term plan. If this is the case, devise a simple project plan or punch list detailing the work and the time frame to get it done, and present it to the customer in a walk and talk around the property.

Evaluate; start over; never finished. After the implementation of the plan, it’s wise to evaluate how well the action accomplished the goals and objectives for the trees on the property. Did the removal leave an unacceptably large gap in the tree line? Does dead wood remain in the tree that needs to be removed? Would application of mulch around the remaining specimens improve their function and appearance? Have defects such as cracks, codominant leaders or decay developed since the implementation? All of these are important questions to ask and discuss with the customer. Following the discussion, it may be necessary to start over, or implement additional actions. In terms of good tree care, the use of best management practices is never finished, at least as long as the tree is in the ground on the property.

Diagnosing damage

For maladies that occur in winter, a good starting point is to attempt to distinguish between winter damage and other causes. This may be easier for existing clients than for new ones, in that notes and comments made in the records for each day’s work or routine inspection can provide a basis for comparison. As each are considered, the “cause and recovery” approach should be utilized.

The most common causes of winter damage are mice and other critters, winter construction projects, sunscald, desiccation, winter storms and miscellaneous forces. Depending on the area of the country and the length of time trees are covered with ice and snow and the soil is frozen, lots of damage can happen over the winter, most of which neither the tree care worker/arborist or the property owner has any control over. In certain instances it may be coincidental and could have just as easily occurred in the summer.

Miscellaneous causes can also be classified as “additive” causes, where slope, inadequate room for shoots and roots to grow, impervious soils, cold temperature stress from fluctuating winter temperatures, or any combination thereof can cause trees to fail.