Growers Worry about Likely Late Frost, But that’s the ‘Nature of the Beast’ in the High Country

Published Friday, March 23, 2012 at 12:38 pm

While co-eds are laying in the sun and motorists enjoy the breeze on the Blue Ridge Parkway, some growers are sweating the potential for a late frost that always looms over the High Country in early spring.

“I think any of your serious gardeners, landscapers and folks in agriculture…are very cautious and a little bit worried because with growth being accelerated or triggered due to weather, there is still a possibility for a major freeze putting a damper on production,” said Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Watauga County Extension.

One of those growers is Dylan Tatum of Grandfather Vineyard and Winery.

“We are definitely worried [because] buds are starting to swell,” Tatum said. “They are safe right now, but if it stays warm like this they will pop soon.”

He added that the vineyard does have a few tricks-of-the-trade to counter any disagreeable weather in the future. A waxy spray exists to encapsulate and protect the buds if the temperature drops to 28 degrees, and, also, he is waiting until the last minute to prune.

“If you see the buds might start coming out in the next few days, and yet see it is going to freeze a week from now, we will go ahead and prune,” Tatum said. “When you prune the vines, it kind of shocks them for a few days and stunts its growth [to] keep the buds [from blooming] for another few days.”

Every year, a late frost has the potential to devastate any crops, but usually the weather isn’t this warm, this early. According to data compiled by Ray’s Weather, the last spring temperature at or below 32 degrees happens on average in Boone on April 30; in Banner Elk on May 9; and in Jeffersonon May 11. The latest that it has frosted in Boone is on May 27; in Banner Elk on June 11; and in Jeffersonon June 6.

“That’s the nature of the beast in the mountains,” Brian Chatham, soil and water technician for the Watauga County Extension said. “We are a month and a half away before we are in the clear and the safe.”

Chatham said he has seen blooming apple trees and cherry blossoms and talked to farmers that are planting cold-weather crops, such as carrots, already.

“I think you are going to see people putting stuff out a lot earlier, [but] they are running the risk of freezing, severe risk,” Chatham said. “The [fruit-bearing plants] are a severe worry because it will knock out your production. If it don’t freeze the blooms, then it will freeze the immature fruit.”

On the bright side, Chatham said that farmers, himself included, are enjoying the warmer weather. The past couple years at this time have been cold, windy and snowy – bad weather for preparation work.

“Now, this year I am at where I am usually at the first of May,” Chatham said.

While the fruit growers may be shaking in their boots, those with livestock are taking advantage of the warmer season, which produces optimal grass and soil temperatures for more nutritious grazing – rather than relying on hay early in the season.

“Grasses are growing like crazy. Normally, they are not growing until April and May,” Chatham said. “Cattle men are loving it. Anybody grazing livestock is loving it.”

Hamilton said that a lot of people use the “Mother’s Day” rule as to when to plant to best avoid a potential frost. He said that it’s not just fruit-bearing trees that are affected; the frost can affect Japanese maples and other ornamental plants, as well as the High Country’s infamous Frasier fir.

“Even the Christmas tree industry is concerned. Frasier firs haven’t started budding out yet, but, yeah, there’s a real risk and real possibility that sets back the growth,” Hamilton said. “The plants are expending a lot of energy into producing new shoots and buds and flowers, and when a frost hits late, after expending all that energy it takes a lot out of them.”

He also added that pests are becoming a “big warm-weather issue.” Landscapers, farmers and gardeners, he said, “rely on a few really hard days of winters to knock back pest occupation. We will see a lot more pests – everything from mosquitoes to mites.”

For the non-commercial gardener, Hamilton recommends keeping blankets, buckets, and trashcans nearby to cover crops and more valuable plants when a frost is forecasted. Hamilton said he noticed big-box stores putting out their flowers and annuals but encourages folks to wait to purchase and plant their beloved garden plants.

“I would discourage folks from getting too excited to plant. It’s still way too early to start thinking about the garden,” Hamilton said. “There is still a very real good possibility that we get one of those Canadian clippers or systems that bring a blast of cold air into the area.” 

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