Freeze warning issued again, putting early fruit crops at risk

The long, cold winter was good to farmers and gardeners as frigid temperatures and blankets of snow helped kill pests and moisten soil. So when spring arrived, early bloomers surged to life.

Then came plunging temperatures, frost and even snow Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

The winter already almost certainly means Marylanders will have to wait a few weeks longer than normal for a peach cake or strawberry shortcake topped with local produce. Now farmers are nervously waiting to learn whether two late-season frosts could damage or kill significant portions of blooming plum and peach trees, which are flowering now and particularly vulnerable to cold.

"That's the land of fruit growing at this time of year," said Dwight Baugher, operator of Baugher's Farm in Westminster. "You hope you get through it and hope you have something to pick."

Farmers and agriculture officials are optimistic that most crops will survive; they won't know for several more days. Some orchards could fare worse than others, and nature could end up giving them an assist by killing weaker blooms and sparing farmers from having to prune them.

Gardeners are optimistic that the frosts won't spoil their work planting in last weekend's balmy weather. Most early-blooming plants can survive short bursts of cold temperatures. But some could suffer damage, like the blooms of the star magnolia, known as "the heartbreak tree."

Temperatures across the Baltimore region dropped as cold as 28 degrees early Wednesday morning in Westminster, and were expected to plummet again early Thursday. At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, temperatures dropped to 31 degrees, 1 degree above a record low dating to 1962.

Meteorologists issued a second consecutive freeze warning for Thursday morning.

On Wednesday morning, farmers anxiously surveyed orchards of plums and peaches after an unexpected mix of rain, sleet and snow the night before. Breezy winds helped prevent frost from settling on crops after the precipitation cleared out, somewhat relieving their concerns. It's the cold that comes with clear skies and calm winds, as forecast for Thursday, that worries them more.

The return of winter weather comes at a poor time for fruit trees that are in their most fragile stage of the year, said Bryan Butler, a Carroll County agent of the University of Maryland Extension, an educational system that monitors agriculture issues.

There are about 800 acres of peach orchards in Maryland, each acre producing about five tons of peaches each year, worth $5 million annually in all. Most of them are sold at roadside stands and farmers' markets, though some end up in wholesale markets.

Losses of strawberries and other berries are not feared because they can be covered and protected from the cold. But about 8 percent of strawberries were in full bloom as of Sunday, compared with an average of 29 percent by this time of year.

At this time of year the flowers on peach trees that will one day become the fuzzy fruits are in various stages of blooming, the point at which they have least protection from cold and other threats.

Buds that haven't fully opened offer better protection for the ovules, which eventually become seeds at the center of mature fruits. This time of year, the ovules are the size of a pinhead in the middle of a bud, and if they freeze, they die. But that isn't immediately apparent; they turn brown or black several days later.

"I haven't even looked yet," said Lynn Moore, owner of Larriland Farm in Woodbine. "On Friday I'll go around with a knife and cut some buds and see what we've got. Hopefully we'll still have some green buds in there."

According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, 11 percent of peach blossoms were in full bloom across Maryland and Delaware as of April 13, behind the norm of 39 percent by this time of year. A peach flower in full bloom can survive temperatures down to 28 degrees, close to what was observed in many rural areas Wednesday morning.

"The temperatures were dancing around there," Moore said. "Sometimes 2 or 3 degrees is all you need" to harm or preserve the fruit.

Elsewhere, though, it wasn't as cold. It only got down to 31 degrees at Weber's Farm in Glen Arm, owner Steve Weber said, and he expects to fare better than a farmer friend in Thurmont who was concerned about a 26-degree low there. Weber's orchards lie on hillsides that help keep the fruit higher up, in slightly warmer air.

Staff at Green Fields, a nursery and landscaping shop in Mount Washington, took precautions to bring plants inside and cover others with tarps, and encouraged customers to do the same, general manager Pete Bieneman said.

Early-blooming plants like rhododendrons, forsythia, hyacinth and tulips fared well enough when temperatures dropped into the lower 30s early Wednesday morning in Baltimore, going slightly limp but then perking back up after sunrise, Bieneman said.

He said the magnolia in his yard "was incredible-looking this weekend, and then now that we've had rain and then cold, it's sort of taken some of the shine off of the blooms."

Backyard orchards that don't have the same deliberate placement as commercial farms also could be devastated, said Butler, with the University of Maryland Extension. If they lie in valleys where frost settles, they are exposed to harsher conditions than orchards at higher altitudes.

For many parts of the region, the chill comes later than spring's last frost normally would, according to the extension. In Baltimore City, the season's last frost comes on or after April 11 in 90 percent of years. In Frederick, it occurs on or after April 20 in just one out of every three years, with Westminster's risk of freezing lagging five days longer.

That means a risk of a chill could linger for another few weeks, though climate forecasts show a warming trend across the country in late April.

"I think we're seeing the many sides of early spring," Bieneman said.

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