Early warming means frost risk for fruit trees
Record-breaking temperatures meant spring arrived early this year for many Virginia fruit growers. And as more fruit trees flower before winter is over, many growers worry their early bloomers won’t make it through another frost.
The year started with above-average temperatures, with the first five days exceeding normal January highs by about 15 to 25 degrees. Richmond reported one of its hottest days on February 23, reaching a high of 83 degrees for the first time since 1932, according to the National Weather Service.
Northern regions also have experienced “exceptionally warm” conditions, according to John Marker, a Winchester orchardist and member of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Apple Advisory Committee. He predicts the entire state will experience early budding fruit trees this year.
His family-owned farm, Marker-Miller Orchards, already has apricot and plum trees in full bloom. Marker’s peach trees also are budding—over a month ahead of schedule. Most fruit-bearing trees bloom the last week in April to the beginning of May.
Peaches can briefly survive temperatures in the low 20s, depending on what stage they are in, but Marker anticipates colder days ahead.
He hopes enough buds will be left to make a decent crop by winter’s end. Like most years, his farm will likely thin its peaches and apples in the springtime shortly after they bloom.
“It’s a costly process, but I’d much rather do that than have nature do it for us,” Marker added.
To mitigate weather losses, his family has made use of long-term remedies over the years. Marker and other area orchardists plant apple and peach trees on high ground to avoid settling frost.
Some commercial fruit producers install large fans in their orchards to pull warm air to the ground, but they are expensive to install and operate. The best way to minimize frost injury is by planting on a frost-free site with good air drainage, typically 800 to 2,000 feet above sea level, according to Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Homeowners can protect their backyard fruit trees by covering them with insulating material and running an enclosed heater.
“Just keep praying and do everything you can, but ultimately, it’s not going to be up to us. I learned a long time ago that I wasn’t the one in charge,” Marker shared. “We don’t have that magic bullet yet.”
More tips and information on growing fruit in Virginia can be found on the Extension website at pubs.ext.vt.edu.