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Should American Yews Be Covered in the Winter?

Should American Yews Be Covered in the Winter?

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The American yew is usually grown as an ornamental tree to provide ground cover or a privacy screen. Those considering planting yews on their property for the first time often contend with the worry that the evergreen will not survive the winter months. 

It’s unnecessary to cover yews in winter if they are planted on the north-facing side of buildings as they don’t receive direct sunlight. Yews growing while exposed to direct sun can be covered with burlap to prevent the fluctuation between day and nighttime temperatures that cause winter burn. 

The rest of this article discusses the causes of winter damage and how to provide winter care for American yews over the winter months. If you’re worried about your yews in the coming winter, keep reading for more helpful information.

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Winter Care for American Yews

While the risk of winter damage cannot be 100% eliminated, some steps can be taken to provide adequate winter care to minimize these risks. However, prevention begins by understanding the causes (source).

Causes of Winter Damage

American yews are generally drought tolerant and winter hardy. That being said, extreme conditions can still harm your yews. However, contrary to what most people think, prolonged cold temperatures are not the main culprit of winter damage. So, what is?

The underlying causes of winter damage are:

  • Temperature fluctuations
  • Inadequate water at the root system

Winter damage occurs primarily due to temperature fluctuations caused by temperature differences between daytime and nighttime. When the yew needles get exposed to direct sunlight in the daytime, they become heated. 

When nighttime falls, temperatures can plummet significantly—this repetitive cycle of heat exposure and freezing cold causes winter burn that is evidenced by the browning of the yew needles. Understanding the effect of this cycle on your American yews is key to preventing winter damage (source).

A depleted water reserve at the root system can also contribute to winter damage, especially if the plant is exposed to sunlight during the day.

Watering the yews once winter has started can be ineffective because water would freeze on the top layer of soil and won’t trickle to the roots.

Signs of Winter Damage

Signs of winter damage usually appear in mid-winter and even extend into the spring. Prominent browning on the south and west sides of the plant indicates that winter damage has occurred. However, if buds remain green, there is a chance of a full recovery later in the spring. 

Preventing Winter Damage

Winter damage can be prevented or minimized by taking these preemptive steps:

  • Plant yews on the north-facing side of buildings
  • Use burlap to cover yews planted on other sides
  • Water frequently in the fall
  • Mulch around the base
  • Flush the base of the yews after deicing.

Plant Yews on the North-Facing Side of Buildings

The north-facing side of buildings generally gets less direct sunlight because of the natural trajectory of the sun. Strategically planting American yews on this side helps regulate the temperature fluctuations they experience.

Use Burlap To Cover Yews Planted on Other Sides

If your yews are already planted anywhere that isn’t north-facing, you can cover them with burlap from top to bottom. Start the covering in the late fall and continue until the snow melts (source).

Water Frequently in the Fall

Watering frequently in the fall, especially before winter, ensures that your yews have a water reserve to tide them over the winter months. Watering during winter won’t save your American yews from winter damage because the water won’t make it to the root system and will freeze near the surface

It is recommended that at least 2 feet (24 inches) of the soil be soaked before the ground freezes or when winter arrives. This will ensure that your yews’ moisture supply is catered for in the coming winter months.

Mulch Around the Base

Mulching around the base helps in the retention of water. Frequent watering should start in the fall to let the ground really soak up that moisture. Nonetheless, much of the moisture can still be lost before the ground freezes over. As such, mulching helps reduce moisture losses while storing up before winter. 

Flush the Base of the Yews After Deicing

Sometimes the culprit causing winter damage isn’t the fluctuating temperatures but the salt used in deicing. If the area near your American yews undergoes deicing, flush water over the base of the yews to wash away any salt and prevent it from getting soaked up. 

Treating Winter Damage

Once winter damage has set in, there isn’t much you can do but be patient. Hold off on pruning those browned parts because there is still a chance that they will recover come springtime. In the meantime, the best you can do is manage the cause of winter damage.

When you notice the onset of winter damage, assess the area. If your yews are browning even though they are on the north-facing side, check if the area around them has been deiced at any point. If deicing has been done, flush the area to mitigate the effects of the salt. 

If you’ve left your yews uncovered and they aren’t on the north-facing side, you might want to go ahead and cover them to prevent any further winter damage. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee you will save your yews by covering them after the fact. Covering is supposed to be done before winter. 

Keep in mind, however, that even if you’ve taken all the necessary measures to prevent winter damage, there is no guarantee that you can keep your yews unscathed. Some uncontrollable factors, such as exceptionally extreme winter temperatures, and high winter winds, can still trump your best efforts.

Final Thoughts 

Since the cause of winter damage is primarily the fluctuations between daytime and nighttime temperatures, covering American yews is only necessary for yews planted anywhere other than the north-facing side of buildings – or those exposed to direct sunlight.

In these cases, burlap should be draped over the yews in the fall before the first snowfall. 

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Willie Moore
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