Early spring brings fears of late frost

The Sperryville School House, seen last Friday behind the fresh blossoms on the young cherry trees that line the walkway leading to and from Sperryville’s Main Street.
Alex Sharp VIII | Rappahannock News
The Sperryville School House, seen last Friday behind the fresh blossoms on the young cherry trees that line the walkway leading to and from Sperryville’s Main Street.

In Rappahannock County, as in most of Virginia, spring has sprung early.

Fruit buds are blossoming, flowers are in full bloom, leaves are appearing on trees and shrubs, grass is popping up thick and dark. All is bright and green; until this week, temperatures in the county hadn’t dipped below freezing since March 12.

Experts estimate that the spring bloom this year is about three and a half weeks early – meaning that local fruit growers are crossing their fingers in hopes that a “killer freeze” doesn’t hit before May.

“The warm start to spring and the warm end to the winter allowed for more growing than would be typical this time of year,” said Brian Lasorsa, local forecast meteorologist for the National Weather Service, noting that the region’s last spring frost date this year is May 18. “So yeah, anything that bloomed early or has started early is at risk of frost damage because we do expect temps to go below freezing; tonight [Monday, March 26] there’s a freeze warning in effect for that area.”

Temperatures in Washington dipped Monday to close to freezing, and in some areas below freezing.

Longtime orchard owner (and county supervisor) Bryant Lee, who runs a fruit operation with four acres of peaches and three acres of apples on his Washington farm, said he hasn’t seen signs of frost damage to his trees after this week’s frost, which he said only settled into the lowest areas of his farm.

Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) spokesperson Elaine Lidholm noted that at last week’s Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services meeting, each farmer who reported early crop blooms also expressed worry about impending frost damage, since the last frost date in the region extends to mid-May.

“Right now we’re just hoping and praying that we don’t have a killing frost – because that could wipe out entire crops through the area; it can have a negative impact on all sorts of agriculture,” Lidholm said, noting that strawberries, wheat, and the budding and blooming of the apple and peach trees have started about three weeks early. She said that the newly-bloomed apples and peaches are at most risk of frost damage in early spring. “It’s the buds that get nipped; once they’re past the budding stage they should be fine.”

Lee agreed, saying there’s nothing to do about the potential frost but wait and see.

“This [spring] is comin’ early, and you’ve got too much of a chance to get a frost,” Lee said. “I mean one of my two orchards is wide open; the flowers are out on just about all of ‘em. We’ve had frosts clear up into the first of May, but usually you get ‘em this month and through April – so it’s gonna be tough to get through that spell without having a heavy frost.”

Lee has endured multiple killing frosts in the past, he said, noting that the presence of wind is enough to prevent a heavy frost, because the air movement keeps moisture from accumulating on the fruit blossoms (which are at the most risk of frost damage).

He also said that since peaches are at higher risk of being “knocked out” by frost, Lee planted his peaches in separate blocks, so as to prevent total losses if a killing freeze did strike a low point on the property. He also said, as did VDACS’ Lidholm, that temperatures would likely need to hit the low 20s to cause significant bud damage.

According to a March 2012 weather summary compiled by Gid Brown Hollow weather station operator Dave Yowell (rappahannockweather.com), there were only three instances of noteworthy precipitation this month: .49 inches of rain fell on March 2, .27 inches on March 24 and .10 inches on March 25 (totalling less than an inch from March 1-27).

The last substantial rain occurred on Feb. 29, when 1.43 inches fell in Gid Brown during a thunderstorm (and the next highest rainfall that month was recorded at .32 inches on Feb. 24).

The month’s low was 24.1 degrees on March 6. There were eight days that temperatures reached record highs for the area in March; temperatures reached 65-plus 15 times, and topped 80 four times. Temperatures this month only dipped below freezing on five occasions (all before March 12).

Resident tree expert Lyt Wood, who first moved to the county in the late 1970s as a forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry, said the cherry and apple trees at his property near Sperryville were already “popping.”

“So it’s a good three and a half weeks early,” Wood said Saturday, while he and Rappahannock Schools’ Farm-to-Table coordinator Jen Rattigan pruned apple trees at the high school.  “And there’s a vulnerable time – as you know – when the apple fruiting part is vulnerable to freeze, and it’s kind of a critical time, but once it gets past that critical time, they will survive a freeze. So the whole thing is really a guessing game . . .

“It seems to me that there’s two angles to the whole phenomenon,” Wood said. “One is the long-term effects – which are largely unpredictable and unknown, and will involve whole shifts in ranges of species and things – and the other is the short-term; you know, is this just a weather fluke this year? In other words, it’s a question of climate versus weather. And if it’s just this year, the short-term effects depend largely not only on the warm winter and the warm spell we’re having now, but also what happens before summer. In other words, we could get some cold weather – which would be entirely normal for this time of year – and the plants could suffer.”

A week earlier, resident naturalist Bruce Jones had an update on the early-spring developments at his native plant sanctuary down Long Mountain Road in Washington:

“Things are comin’ up much too fast,” Jones said. “Plants that normally don’t come up for two or three, four weeks are already up and blooming – and that’s way out of sequence. And I don’t know if we’re going to have any major, ‘winter’ left – I think we’re past that, because we’re getting close to April 1. But I don’t know what it’s gonna do to the plant world. Things usually work on pretty regular cycles, you know? They come up within four to five days of each other; now we’re three and a half weeks up.”