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Freeze sows ruin in fields, orchards


The days are finally warming up, and the ice sheets are retreating, but this winter's bitter cold has left behind a fatal legacy in Maryland.

Fruit growers say that morning temperatures far below zero in mid-January devastated dormant buds in many peach orchards. Nectarines and plums also suffered.

And nursery operators say that a week of stubborn cold last month probably damaged or killed a variety of vulnerable shrubs and recently planted ornamentals.

Winter wheat and barley planted last fall also might have suffered, experts say.

At Milburn Orchards in Elkton, where it was 13 below zero one morning last month, co-owner Evan Milburn puts the losses to his 120 acres of peaches at 90 percent, leaving just enough to stock his retail stand if the surviving buds bear fruit. His nectarines are a total loss.

"Ever since we've been farming here [his father began in 1936], we've never lost an entire crop to absolute cold weather in the wintertime," Mr. Milburn said.

Damage to fruit trees usually occurs when the flower buds are hit with frost after they have begun to swell in response to rising temperatures. This time the trees were in a deep, undisturbed dormancy. It simply got too cold.

A spring frost took Milburn Orchards' peach crop in 1990, he said, and "this year, we were just going to get over, financial-wise, what we lost before." Peaches account for 30 percent of the orchard's income. The farm has begun to take up the slack with more sweet cherries, which are hardier in the winter and weathered the cold well.

Robert E. Black, production manager for Catoctin Mountain Orchards, said the damage to peaches was "pretty much the talk of the hallway" at a recent meeting of Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey fruit growers in Hershey, Pa.

Mr. Black has been out among his own peach trees on 30 acres north of Thurmont in Frederick County and has found tissue damage after cutting open the tiny buds. "It could be very bad," he said.

"My dad is 74, and he's never seen it this cold," Mr. Black said. "We had 17 below, and once you get 10 below zero, you're going to have some damage. That's just fact."

Some Washington County growers reported temperatures as low as 24 below zero.

Growers report that their apple and pear trees did well. "Peaches are just a little more tender," Mr. Black said.

Louis Hoffman, owner of Maple Hill Farm in Glen Arm, said that even without his glasses, he could see "an awful lot of dead buds" as a result of the 12 below zero cold there in January. He estimated that he lost 90 percent of his nectarines and said that his plums are all gone.

Extension agent Dan Donnelly said it is too soon to say whether the cold has damaged peach buds in Southern Maryland. But heavy ice and high winds there have broken many limbs in the fruit orchards.

Nursery operators say this winter's cold also might have killed ornamental plants.

"There will be some losses," said Jim McWilliams, vice president of Maxalea Nurseries in Idlewylde.

The National Weather Service office at Baltimore-Washington International Airport recorded seven days with lows in the single digits or below zero from Jan. 15 to Jan. 22.

Most ornamental trees and shrubs withstand the cold well, however, and will emerge from winter dormancy unscathed, nursery owners say. High soil moisture and a coating of ice and snow might even have helped to protect them from the worst of the cold and wind.

Any damage would affect "marginal" species that aren't hardy enough for Maryland winters, including Burford holly, crape myrtles, camellias and aucubas.

After severe freezes in 1979 and 1983, most of those shrubs "dropped out of circulation for a little while because people lost them," said Erik Rosenbaum, president of Sun Nurseries in Cooksville. "But after a series of mild winters, you see them on the market again," he said.

Some plants, such as crape myrtles, might die back to ground level, he said, but if their roots are not badly damaged, they might recover.

Damage is already evident on camellias and aucubas. "You can see many leaves have turned black and the flower buds have dried up," Mr. McWilliams said. Nandinas, also called heavenly bamboo, are showing foliage damage, too.

If you can scratch the stem with your thumbnail and see green wood,he said, it's a good sign. If it's tan or burgundy-colored, the plant probably will suffer some "die-back" in the spring, he said.

Deep cold also can split stems and damage roots as water in plant cells freezes, expands and bursts the cell walls. The damage will be apparent in spring.

Mr. McWilliams said that "anything recently planted, in the last two years, the roots are not deep enough in the soil to be able to withstand the lower temperatures."

Christmas trees planted in December or early January also could be among the victims.

Heavy loads of snow and ice have already broken many branches on vulnerable plants such as white pines and boxwoods.

Azaleas appear to have fared well, though some could be slow to replace last year's leaves this spring, Mr. McWilliams said.

Dr. Galen P. Dively, extension pest management specialist at the University of Maryland College Park, said repeated freeze-thaw cycles might contribute to some winter kill of winter wheat, barley and alfalfa planted last fall.

"We might see unusual root diseases that we don't see every year," he said. "It will be interesting to see what happens."

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