Eager spring planters learn a harsh lesson

Many rush to save plants in cold snap

April 10, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

The stems on the daffodils are frozen. The magnolias have gone back into the greenhouse. Farmers are covering their peas and cabbages, while winery and orchard owners are praying the mercury doesn't dip further.

April is often the cruelest month for those who work the soil, and this spring has been especially brutal, with yesterday's low of 26 degrees at BWI Marshall Airport setting a record. The cold has forced farmers and gardeners to scramble to protect their crops. Many said yesterday that their precautions have worked so far - though they still could lose everything if the cold nights continue.

"We're very much on the edge of our seat," said Rob Deford, president of Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County.

At Phil Freedman's organic farm outside of Frederick, workers have been covering the dill, fennel, cabbage and peas. They ran deep-drip irrigation through the night last weekend to keep plants wet so they wouldn't freeze over. On Saturday night, Freedman worried his pipes might freeze.

But as he surveyed the crops yesterday, Freedman said he felt lucky. The 30 or so families that pick up vegetables at his Adamstown farm each week probably won't notice anything is missing.

"As far as I can tell, I haven't really lost much," he said. "I might have lost the peas."

Last year at this time, Eastern Shore farmers were getting ready to plant corn. This year, those plans are on hold until the Shore gets a string of five or six dry days in the mid-50s.

"I don't know a soul who's out planting corn right now," said Tim Bishop, a Queen Anne's County grain farmer who also works as a seed sales representative. "Wet and cold don't go together for corn seed any more than they do for people."

Roger L. Richardson, Maryland's secretary of agriculture, said the state's farmers and greenhouse operators are doing well overall because most spring planting hasn't happened yet - though some nurseries that supply garden stores have had to hold onto plants because customers aren't ready to buy.

"The biggest thing the weather is doing is slowing down the work. There are things people want to do, but the ground is too hard. And fertilizer won't flow in the cold," Richardson said. "I don't think it will affect us later in the year."

But Russ Brinsfield, who farms in Dorchester County, said there will be problems if he can't get the corn in soon.

Brinsfield said he needs to plant his 100 acres of corn so he can harvest the crop by July. Once the corn is harvested, Brinsfield plants soybeans. If the corn harvest is delayed, he said, he and other farmers may not get to plant their soybeans this year.

"If that happens," he said, "that will have a huge economic impact."

According to the National Weather Service, yesterday's temperature of 26 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was a record low - the previous record of 28 degrees was set in 1917. It was so chilly yesterday afternoon at Camden Yards, where Opening Day was in full swing, that fans were huddled under parkas and winter hats.

Normal temperatures for this time of year hover between 40 and 62 degrees, said Nikole Listemaa, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

The cause of the cold is a jetstream that has dipped far south, allowing cold Canadian air to settle over the Mid-Atlantic - just in time to disrupt spring plantings.

"All the trees are starting to bloom," Listemaa said. "So we issued warnings so that farmers can take precautions for the cold."

Despite repeat warnings from nursery experts to wait on spring plantings, many gardeners are in their beds during the first week in April, planting marigolds, magnolias and petunias. This time of year, procrastination pays off, local garden shop owners say.

"People tend to jump the gun a little bit. Last weekend was so warm, they fell into this false sense of security and wanted to plant things that are not safe yet. Our weather is such that you always have a chance of this," said Tim Hamilton, director of marketing for Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville.

Carrie Engel, greenhouse manager of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, agreed that warm temperatures in early April tricked people into thinking that spring had arrived.

"People were asking us where the tomatoes and the geraniums were. They were ready to roll. We had to slow them down," she said. "If you live in Fells Point, you can plant in the middle to late April. The water will keep things warmer. Cockeysville? You have to wait until Mother's Day."

For Susie Reichart, owner of River Run Farm in Glencoe, the cold snap couldn't have come at a worse time. Her house is a stop on the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage Tour, which starts April 21 in Charles County and continues through May 19 in Anne Arundel County. She has to be ready on May 12, the start of the Baltimore County weekend.

"It has been miserable. The stems on the daffodils are frozen and they are just bending in half," she said.

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