Warm weather accelerates spring blooms (4/15/10)

But gardeners should hold off on planting

April 15, 2010

By Greg Duggan

Observer staff

Many trees and bushes in the Champlain Valley, enticed by record high temperatures in early April and several weeks of above average warmth, already sport green buds on their branches.

John Adams, one of the owners of Adams Apple Orchard & Farm Market in Williston, said his apple trees are budding two or three weeks ahead of schedule this year. Lisa Boutin, who owns Boutin Family Farm in Williston, said her raspberry and strawberry bushes have budded about two weeks earlier than normal.

“Everything is maturing, coming into bloom or coming into life quicker this year,” Adams said.

While the early maturation means fruit is likely to appear earlier in the season, it also puts the fruit at risk. When buds appear earlier than normal, they become more susceptible to cold weather. Freezing temperatures can damage or kill buds, and simply because the weather has been warm this spring doesn’t mean more seasonable temperatures won’t return.

Adams pays close attention to fluctuations in temperatures. Inside his house, posted just inside his entryway, are two sheets of paper that Adams calls his “bible.” One sheet has photos of apple tree buds in various phases of bloom. The other sheet has a chart of temperature approximations detailing at what point the crop is in danger.

Adams thinks his trees are currently at the 1/2-inch green stage, the third phase in the blooming process. According to his chart, Adams is at risk of losing 10 percent of his crop if the temperature drops to 20 degrees. If the temperature falls to 10 degrees, he could lose 90 percent of his crop. The exact numbers depend on numerous factors, such as humidity, but the chart gives a good idea of what to expect.

Ultimately, however, Adams knows that he has to leave his crop in the hands of nature. And this year, nature has produced anything but normal temperatures.

The record highs of April 2 and April 3 — the National Weather Service in Burlington recorded 79 degrees and 81 degrees, respectively — marked the height of a two-month warm spell. Starting Feb. 8 and running through Monday, Burlington recorded temperatures at or above normal on 62 of 64 days, said Scott Whittier, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“I’d have to say that’s up there as one of the warmest stretches ever,” Whittier said, though he admitted that no database exists to compare the trend with past years.

Adams and Boutin said if the buds survive any cold weather, they’ll likely produce fruit two weeks or so earlier than normal. That also means the fruit season will end ahead of schedule.


Starting to garden

Even though the fruit season could arrive earlier than normal, that doesn’t mean home gardeners should start planting vegetables. June Jones, a Williston resident and Vermont master gardener through the University of Vermont Extension, said soil has not warmed up enough to plant most seeds.

Furthermore, Whittier projected that the next week or 10 days could bring temperatures at or slightly below normal levels. He said those cooler temps may even produce a few snowflakes in Williston.

Jones said peas are the one vegetable that can be planted in colder weather, but gardeners should wait until Memorial Day for the remainder of their veggies. Starting to grow certain plants, including tomatoes and peppers, indoors is also an option.

Still, gardeners can head outside in the nice weather and start prepping their plots. Jones and Sue Stanne, another Williston resident and master gardener, had a number of suggestions for working outside in a garden.

“You can do things like … test soil,” Jones said. “Clean up leaves, twigs and all that stuff before black flies come out. Then, you can rototill the garden. Put compost on them. You can test the soil.”

Whittier agreed with the master gardeners about waiting until at least Memorial Day to plant gardens.

“We as an office have always kind of said it’s never really safe until Memorial Day, and even then it’s not really safe,” Whittier said.

Once a garden is planted and the forecast calls for temperatures dipping into the mid-30s or colder, Whittier recommended taking steps to cover and protect vegetation.

“I encourage people to not listen to the words ‘frost’ or ‘freeze,’ but listen to the actual temperatures, the minimum temperature forecast,” he said.