Mild winter, early blooming have fruit growers concerned for freeze
FEDERALSBURG, Md. — Stephen Blades is worried about his plums and apricots.
After an abnormally mild winter, they’re already in bloom at Blades Orchard in Caroline County about four weeks ahead of schedule. Some of his peaches have also shed their winter shells and are beginning to show pink buds.
“It’s a lot of sleepless nights,” he said March 11, sitting inside his tasting room, which serves cider from the orchard. “Because there’s nothing you can do.”
The early blooming places both crops — and other fruits such as strawberries, pears, cherries and blueberries — at risk should the region experience freezing weather before the end of April.
The USA National Phenology Network, which monitors cyclic and seasonal patterns in plants and animals, said on March 9 that spring leaf-out in Washington, D.C., and New York City is 24 days early.
“We still have seven weeks of worry ahead for our fruiting crops,” wrote Gordon Johnson, vegetable and fruit specialist at the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, in the Extension’s March 7 weekly crop update. Open blooms are damaged at between 32 and 34 degrees, he said, but crop loss occurs for most fruits between 28 and 30 degrees.
“It’s kind of scary,” said Washington White, owner of Waters Orchard in Germantown, Md.
A freeze at Waters would be devastating, he said. He lost most of his crop to a hailstorm last year, and excessive rain and poor pollination the previous year also caused significant losses.
He has about 20,000 fruiting trees across 14 acres. He expects his pears to bloom next week along with his apples, which typically don’t start until the middle of April. Bees and other pollinators aren’t really around, however, so he’s considering having a bee service come to the orchard soon.
“We’re seeing a lot of things in full bloom now, which is unheard of,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting.”
Johnson advised that strawberry farmers could apply two layers of floating row covers to fight advective freezes caused by low temperatures and high winds. Wind machines and helicopters have also been used to stir the air and raise temperatures in orchards during freezes.
Farmers can also use top sprinklers, ground sprinklers, fans and heaters.
But Blades said freeze worry is nothing new for orchardists.
“Even in a perfect year, for two to three weeks, there’s a lot of stress,” he said. “A lot of wandering around the orchard, making sure things are happening.”
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