This article was crafted with the help of John Tobias of Winkler’s Tree Service.

As the days grow shorter and the cold settles in, the trees that beautify our yards pass into a state of dormancy and bare their branches to the wintry elements. And while snow-topped limbs might make for a serene winter landscape, ice accumulation on those very same trees poses a genuine threat to their vitality. We spoke with John Tobias, a Certified Arborist with Winkler’s Tree Service in Chicago—a city certainly no stranger to ice—to learn more about what our trees are up against and what we can do to protect them from the ravages of a harsh winter.

Knowing the Enemy

To start, it’s important to understand how ice affects a tree that’s often battling additional seasonal elements such as strong wind and heavy snow. Ice accumulation basically acts as an extra strain on wood fibers that may already be under duress. “It’s simple physics,” John explains. “When you’re adding force to something that’s already under pressure from wind or more weight, it’s like a shock load.” So when a tree already at risk for failure takes on the brunt of a coat of ice, its structural integrity becomes further compromised, and the tree is in even greater jeopardy.

What Can Homeowners Do?

So how can you improve the chances that your trees survive the winter and return to full health after the thaw? According to John, it’s really all about proper planning from inception and regular, thorough maintenance throughout the course of the year.

For starters, when planting, you should attempt to carefully match the proper tree to the yard, knowing that while no tree is absolutely impervious to damage, a bit of forethought can go a long way. “If your goal is to accomplish a landscape that minimizes risk, you’re going to plant hardwood, slow-growing trees,” John advises. However, he cautions that this is just a general rule of thumb and that even mighty oaks are susceptible to damage. Other factors, such as the width and distance between branches, the shape and condition of the tree’s crotches, the degree to which a tree is shielded from the wind, or the health of the soil below can play a large role in determining a tree’s defense against ice.

What’s even more important, according to John, is to “commit to regular maintenance—pruning, fertilization, and visual inspections,” as it’s really the strength of the tree going into the harsh winter season that will determine its likelihood of success coming out. “Proactive fertilization is the single best thing that anyone can do to their trees on a yearly basis. Giving the tree nutrients will strengthen the wood fibers and allow the tree to sustain a lot of additional stresses that it wouldn’t normally survive.” Realize that if and when your trees do become burdened with ice, they’re in a compromised state, so attempting to knock the ice off is simply putting them through even more stress. As John puts it, “Nature is very good at taking care of itself,” and seeing icicles dangle perilously from branches doesn’t mean all hope is lost.

How Can a Tree Care Professional Help?

John emphasizes that since every tree possesses the inherent risk of failure, and since arboriculture is a constantly evolving science, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed-safe tree, especially in areas prone to ice storms. An experienced and pragmatic arborist or tree care professional knows that it’s all about mitigating risk and taking preemptive action toward protecting trees. But the importance of having an arborist regularly inspect your property cannot be overstated. Something as seemingly innocuous to a homeowner as the slight nick from a weed whacker pops out to a professional’s trained eye as a warning sign; discoloration or disfiguration might indicate a degree of decay that can greatly increase a tree’s vulnerability to the elements.


In the end, snow is going to fall, winds are going to howl, and ice is going to accumulate. That’s just Mother Nature in her winter garb. But by taking a proactive approach and incorporating the help of a trained tree care professional, you can give your trees a fighting chance in the battle against ice.

This spotlight article was crafted with the help of Winkler’s Tree Service, a Tree Services Best Pick in Chicago. While we strive to provide relevant information to all homeowners, some of the material we publish may not pertain to every area. Please contact your local Best Pick companies for any further area-specific advice.

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