Like a scolded dog with its tail between its legs, winter is apt to snarl back at the end and give you and your plants a departing nip. This week’s night frosts are not unusual in that regard, but they are remarkable for their tenacity. Freezing temperatures, seen Monday night within the Capital Beltway, are anticipated for the overnight hours on Tuesday and may return Friday night.
What has turned this phenomenon into something really scary for gardeners and farmers alike is that this week’s freezes are coinciding with a strangely precocious spring. Among its effects is the coming and going already of the Tidal Basin Yoshino cherries, now spared this week’s weather. But for other beloved spring plants, this odd confluence of early growth and late frosts poses real problems.
At Saunders Brothers, a family-owned nursery and orchard in central Virginia, Bennett Saunders was getting ready on Tuesday afternoon for a long night, especially in the 200-acre fruit orchards, where the apples, peaches, pears and cherry trees are early to bloom this year and all at risk. When the temperatures descend to 30 degrees, nursery workers will crank up large, gasoline-powered fans to stir up the air. “When it gets to 28 degrees, it kills 10 percent of the blooms, and 25 degrees will kill 95 percent of the blooms,” he said. “The forecast for this area is 25 degrees.”
Saunders is also a major grower of boxwood, and its field-grown stock will be irrigated to ward off frost damage.
Winter weather patterns in the Mid-Atlantic have become so erratic in recent years that growers seem to have given up comparing aberrations to the norm, because they are not sure what the norm is anymore.
The Saunders orchards, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge near Lynchburg, are 10 to 14 days ahead of schedule this year, meaning that if past were prologue, Saunders would only have to worry about the peaches at this point — the apples and pears would be snugly in tight bud.
“The good news is that we have some sites above 900 feet that should fare much better,” he said. Cold air sinks — plant your apple trees as high up the slope as you can.
To get a handle on just how precocious this spring has become, I asked Luis Marmol, gardener at Dumbarton Oaks in the District, to show me what’s cooking, so to speak. The Chinese wisterias are either in early bloom, or, in the case of the vines on the south-facing Guest House, already in full flower. Will they survive?
“We’ll see,” Marmol said as we took a path next to a lilac that had begun to bloom. On Crabapple Hill, the apple blooms had either opened or were about to, depending on variety. The hybrid tulips were in early stages of their flower display. These are all plants that used to flower in Washington in the third week of April. Perhaps the most bizarre sight was of Virginia bluebells in bloom — a generation ago, they were a woodland display of early May in these parts.
Of this collection, I would say the apple blossoms and the wisterias were most at risk, but Marmol reported that they seemed to have come through the first frosty night without any evident damage.
I think we will see some damage on the tender new growth of certain shrubs, all of which have been coaxed into growth by last week’s heat. These include boxwood, photinia and hydrangea. For the first two, this is cosmetic — any dead growth will just look awful for weeks — but for the hydrangeas, freeze damage will mean a much-reduced flowering display in June.
Cool season vegetables may benefit from being covered, especially if you are not sure they have been hardened off. I held off putting mine in, anticipating this week’s cold, as did Marmol, who has his transplants safely protected in cold frames. If you were daft enough to plant tomatoes and basil — yes, they have been on display at retailers for a couple of weeks — you can kiss them goodbye. Temperatures in the 30s and 40s are enough to set them back badly, if not kill them.
In my Alexandria garden, I may cover the hydrangeas and will be keeping an eye on the McIntosh apples, now in full bloom. It takes 12 to 24 hours for freeze damage to manifest itself on apple flowers, said Tom Burford, a veteran orchardist and heirloom apple authority, based in Amherst County, Va.
There may be tears this spring. Burford is old enough to remember a similar spring in 1943 when most of the peach crop in central Virginia was destroyed. Those who raised crops were able to sell them for $5 a bushel, “which was an unheard-of price at the time,” he said. “Most fruit growers are fatalists,” he said.
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