False Spring Concerns – Again

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

Some plums, and apricots have started to bloom four weeks ahead of normal. Other fruits such as strawberries may be blooming ahead of schedule in plasticulture systems. These fruit crops are at great risk of losses due to freeze events. Other fruits such as pears, cherries, and blueberries may also flower early and be at risk.

Crops coming into bloom will be exposed to the potential of freezing temperatures throughout the rest of March and April.

Plum with high percentage of open flowers.

Pluot in full flower.

Normally, the average date of the last frost in Delaware is somewhere between April 20-25. We still have seven weeks of worry ahead for our fruiting crops.

For all these fruit crops the most susceptible stage of injury is when flowers have just opened. Open blooms are damaged at 32-34 °F. Closed buds have higher cold tolerance as do small fruit. For most fruits, critical temperature for losses after fruits have formed is 28-30 °F.

Frost and freeze protection methods vary with fruits and the type of freeze expected. Advective freezes occur with freezing temperatures and high winds. This is the most difficult to protect against. For strawberries, two layers of floating row covers may be the most effective strategy for advective freezes. Double covers have been shown to be more effective than single heavy covers in this case. Irrigation along with double covers can provide even more protection if done properly.

Radiation (or radiant) freezes occur on cold, still nights. In this case cold air is near the ground and warmer air is above. Wind machines and helicopters have been successfully used to stir the air and raise the temperatures in orchards in this case. Row covers in strawberries will protect against radiation freezes too. Other options are over the top sprinklers, ground sprinklers, and heaters.

Over the top sprinkling is commonly used for frost protection but it has to be done properly. How this works is that as clear ice forms on plants heat is released. For frost protection, overhead sprinkler systems are designed to deliver 0.1 to 0.2 acre-inches of water per hour. This method can be used for radiant freeze or frost protection when wind speeds are low and temperatures 24 °F or above. The key is to keep ice formation occurring through the night and continue through melt in the morning. Remember that initially, until ice starts forming, there will actually be evaporative cooling of the plant. The latent heat of fusion (water freezing) will release heat (approximately 144 BTUs/lb of water), whereas evaporative cooling will absorb heat from the plant (absorbing approximately 1,044 BTUs/lb of water) and lower plant temperatures. Therefore, irrigation must start well above critical temperatures. Also, the volume of water needed must to be matched with the expected temperature drop and wind speed. In addition, uniformity of water application is critical. This is difficult to do in high wind situations. In orchards, under-tree sprinklers can also be used to release heat.

Heaters that are placed throughout an orchard will add heat. Large numbers of small heaters are preferred (40 per acre). This is accomplished with fuel oil fired heaters, gas/propane heaters, or burn barrels using wood (check with regulatory agencies before using open burning in barrels). Heaters are much more efficient and less are required if they are used in conjunction with wind machines.

Frost protection fans above an orchard or vineyard mix the warmer air above the inversion layer with the colder air at ground level to protect against radiation frosts. These large fans can be permanently installed and will cover as much as 10 acres. Another type of fan is placed at ground level and pushes the cold air upward, again achieving mixing. Portable fans are also available.