Winter Weather Preparation

Faster than you might have expected, it’s time to prepare your home, yard and trees for winter.

Tree care is on many people’s minds and they have cause for concern. Leaves still clinging to branches can become landing spots for heavy ice and snow, and this additional weight may cause branches to snap, says Paul Ries, an urban forester with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

“If snow and ice arrive before the leaves drop off, the tree will react by bending, and if it has to, by breaking,” says Ries. “But if your trees are healthy and they have good branch structure, this should be less of a problem.”

Trees are tougher than a lot of people think, and a brief cold snap is unlikely to kill a tree, observes Ries. A prolonged period of cold weather is much more likely to cause significant tree damage or the death of a tree.

Whitney Dorer works with the nonprofit Friends of Trees organization, which helps neighborhoods plants young trees along city streets. She says she would have been more concerned about cold weather and young trees if there was also a low rain situation.

“We have been getting good rain, which means the soil is moist and that is always good for the roots,” she says.

She’s keeping her eyes on trees that have not yet gone into the ground and will protect their root systems and help them retain moisture by using burlap, straw or mulch.

Ries also recommends placing bark or wood chips around a mature tree in early winter to help it retain water and reduce temperature extremes. A thin layer of mulch acts like a blanket and helps give the tree’s roots extra winter protection. However, too much material can cause other problems such as providing a hiding place for rodents.

Here are other tips to prevent plants from suffering and pipes from bursting when temperatures drop:


  • Disconnect, drain and store garden hoses.
  • When the forecast calls for temperatures below 20 degrees, cover tender plants with an old sheet, tablecloth or even plastic, anchored with rocks or other weights. Leave the protection in place; when the weather warms, take it off.
  • Shake heavy snow off shrubs and trees to keep branches from breaking or bending, especially frail structures such as arborvitae, boxwoods, young rhododendrons and azaleas. Leave snow at the base of plants because it insulates roots.
  • Wrap rope around vulnerable branches of bushes and shrubs. Tying the branches upward helps restructure the branches to a more upright position before the storm.
  • Protect container plants since pots can freeze. Cover the plants with compost, mulch, old blankets or anything that can help insulate them. Don’t leave pots hanging. Place on the ground and cover.
  • Keep your greenhouse above 35 degrees and plants inside will likely survive.
  • Don’t walk on your lawn, especially if there is no snow insulating the grass. Walking on it can break the leaf tissue and damage the grass if it is frozen, Penhallegon said.
  • Generally, do not water your plants in freezing conditions but shrubs growing underneath the eaves of a house are susceptible to drought damage. Water them deeply every six to eight weeks only when the air temperature is above freezing and early in the day.
  • If you need specific help, call a local master garden expert.
  • Make sure you have snowmelt and a snow shovel on hand.


  • You know the drill: Check your roof, windows, doors and chimneys for air leaks. (Watch a video about the home audit experience.) Stop leaks with wall and attic insulation, weather stripping and door sweeps, and wrap pipes and caulk/seal.
  • Replace furnace filters and, if needed, hire a professional to give your furnace and HVAC systems a tune up.
  • Keep warm by closing your chimney damper when not in use. Close curtains at night to help insulate windows. Minimize use of kitchen and bath exhaust fans.
  • Check that all storm windows and windows are closed and latched.
  • Be prepared with back-up heat sources such as firewood or space heaters. Consider if you need a generator.
  • Are you worried about pipes bursting? Foundation vents are probably the greatest cause of frozen or split water lines, so seal them, say experts. Cut wood or plastic foam blocks to fit vent openings, then slide them in. Open the vents in the spring to prevent dry rot.
  • For pipes prone to freezing, leave nearby faucets dripping on coldest nights.
  • During winter months it’s best to open hot and cold water faucets enough to let them slowly drip. When water is moving inside pipes it will prevent freezing.
  • If pipes are frozen, don’t let them burst. Safely thaw them by heating the pipe with a hairdryer. If this fails, call a plumber immediately. In case a pipe does burst, shut off the water.
  • Wrap pipes in unheated crawl spaces, attics and garages with foam insulators. Thermostatically controlled electric “heat tapes” can be used in some cases but require extra care.
  • If you have a basement, keep it heated during the cold snap.
  • Open cupboard doors if you have kitchen pipes along an exterior wall.

Originally published in The Oregonian. Written by Janet Eastman.