Temperatures in the 20s threaten plants, crops -- many already in full bloom
By Sally Voth -- email@example.com
Mother Nature may have played a cruel trick on fruit trees and flowers in the Shenandoah Valley -- teasing them out early only to freeze them in the first week of spring.
The National Weather Service issued a freeze warning for early today. The warning was in effect for northern and central Virginia, eastern West Virginia and central and western Maryland from 3 to 9 a.m. today, according to the National Weather Service's website, weather.gov.
The warning says the temperatures could be in the lower to mid-20s, and that unprotected vegetation was most susceptible when temperatures are at 27 degrees and below for at least three hours.
That could be bad for business at area orchards.
"We're very concerned," said Harman Brumback, one of the owners of the Woodbine Farm Market west of Strasburg.
Peaches have already progressed beyond the bloom stage, and the apples have started to bloom, while plums are also in bloom, he said. The orchard also grows cherry trees.
"We're probably a month ahead of where we should be at this time," Brumback said. "We're hoping that the wind will continue to blow, and it won't be as cold as they're calling for. There's not really a great deal we can do."
The orchard doesn't have any wind or heat machinery, he said.
"Unfortunately, we have a long way to go," Brumback said. "My dad, he always said around May 15, if you can get through May 15th without a frost [the crop would be fine].
"Your exposure is so much longer when you bloom this early. Before in the past, we would have a few warm days, but nothing with the stretch of warm weather we've had this year. This is the earliest I've ever seen things bloom."
Up in Winchester, the folks at Marker-Miller Orchards were dealing with similar worries.
"We're concerned and we're praying," partner John Marker said. "Peaches are just a little past bloom. Apples are just coming out. Plums are just about done. Cherries are just starting to bloom, so it's a very critical time. We hope it doesn't go below 30, or for not very long anyway. Everything's a month early from normal. We've seen two to three weeks early before, but never this early, or I haven't."
A harsh enough freeze could kill off an entire crop, he said.
"If it went to 25 [Monday night] ... there may be a few apples on some later varieties ..." Marker said. "It would take out all the peaches. It would take out all the plums. It would take out all the cherries, and a good part of the apples.
"We can handle 28 or 29 [degrees] for 20 minutes or a half hour. We're praying that it doesn't get below 30, that the air keeps moving."
Wind keeps air mixed, preventing cold spots from forming in hollows, he said. Marker, too, acknowledged it will be a while before the farmers are out of the danger zone.
"Hopefully, it's an early spring," he said. "I'm 64, and I can remember one [freeze] the 24th of May. Usually, if we get through the full moon of May, we've got a 90-percent chance of getting a decent crop. This is uncharted territory right now. We've just never seen it quite this early."
Three weeks of warm temperatures made blooms come on like "gangbusters," Marker said.
Both he and Brumback mentioned full moons affecting freezes.
"[I] don't know what the correlation is, or the scientific part of it, but it seems like if you have clear nights on a full moon, it's usually chilly," Marker said. "It's just an old farmers' tale that's ingrained in our minds."
Over at Glen Manor Vineyards in Front Royal, owner Jeff White wasn't as concerned as the orchard farmers.
"It probably will [affect vines] in some part of the state," he said. "Last time I saw [the forecast], they were looking at 32 degrees. Normally, it takes a temperature of 27, 28 to damage newly formed leaves.
"I only have a few buds that have opened and are susceptible. It looks like we're going to dodge one tonight."
As a mountainside vineyard owner, White takes a different view of wind. Denser cold air sinks to valley floors, displacing the warmer area up along the sides of the mountain, he said. A windy day or night can change that.
White said he doesn't take any special precautions because his positioning hasn't seen any significant frost issues.
"The most expensive thing to do is to rent a helicopter," he said.
The helicopters can be used to stir up winds and hopefully drive warm air on top of the vineyards, White said.
Kathy Lutz, of Tall Oaks Nursery and Landscaping in Mt. Jackson, said those who put flowers and plants out early could lose some bloom if they don't cover them.
The nursery has been open a couple of weeks, but only perennials are out there now, Lutz said.
"Spring got here quickly this year," she said.