On the Weather, Math, and How to Avoid Developing an Ulcer

Welcome to “Warm Winter #2” (the implied #1 herein referred to being last winter, 2016).

Here at NSO, we’re starting to get a bunch of questions about tree health due to the weather being so warm. So, here goes some info – dive in as little or as much as you’d like to! (Note: a post-snow update is at the bottom of this post!)

On the Weather: This winter season started out normally enough. Although – have you noticed – we’re in a drought! No real snow and very little rainfall. Completely weird. Then by early February things were starting to warm up as well…quite a bit. So what the heck happened to winter, and what does that mean for fruit trees?

On Math: Exactly when trees come out of dormancy after winter all comes down to math. Well, ok – weather really – but you can think about it in mathematical terms. Trees go dormant over a period of time in fall in early winter, typically hitting their maximum dormancy in about mid-January. Dependng on the type of fruit, they need a certain number of “chilling hours” before they can come out of dormancy properly. And that’s when the math comes in. 

If you’re really a math (or fruit or gardening) nerd, you are welcome to learn more about cold hardiness of fruit trees here, and about ‘growing degree days’ (and that math!) here and here

For those of you with limited time or who’d rather read Cliffs Notes, basically trees will start budding out and move along towards blooming faster the warmer it is. A day at this time of year in the mid-70s is like 12 or more days in the low 50s as far as blossom development goes. It’s like the trees are downing several cans of Red Bull rather than decaffeinated tea. The warm weather gets them raring to go! Fortunately, if you take their Red Bull away, they’ll calm down a bit. So a chilier week like we’re having now slows the progress-to-bloom back down again. But it doesn’t take the trees back to the starting point. Rather, it just has them going ’round the block in the hot rod a time or two untill their next stop for a can of Red Bull.

As blossom time actually arrives, there’s (sorry to tell you this) MORE MATH. This time it’s about the stage of bloom and the minimum temperature on the particular crop and terms like ‘calyx green’, ‘tight cluster’, and the super-scary ‘90% kill’. I wrote about all of that fun stuff during last year’s warm winter/early spring adventure. At the time, we still weren’t sure what the crop losses would be. As it turned out – we lost a number of plum varieties, and the peach crop was cut in half. Didn’t notice that on the peaches, though, did you?? That’s because a 50% loss actually HELPED us out, believe it or not! Peaches have to be fruit-thinned, and the frost did some of that labor intensive work for us. Sweet!

How to Avoid Developing an Ulcer (or a stress headache or heart attack): Back in the early years of NSO, Farmer Ike and I would worry ourselves sick about such things as frost and hail. Like, literally sick. Hail (THE four-letter word for a fruit farmer!) comes fairly frequently, and evidently now super-early spring weather and the threat of frost kill does as well. 

Anyway, at some point maybe around 2005 or so, we decided that we HAD to stop stressing so much over things we had absolutely no control over, or we’d end up in a very bad state both physically and emotionally. Basically, it came down to – we must CALM DOWN OR QUIT FARMING. Yes, in all caps!

It is hard to have Mother Nature as a boss sometimes. She can be really awesome, but she can also be the most fickle and angry-out-of-the-blue boss ever.

Does that mean we don’t worry? Well, no. It’s hard not to. I, for one, literally try to avoid looking at the swelling buds on peach trees when they’re doing their thing too early. Kind of the ostrich-like approach, I guess. If I can’t see it, maybe it’s not happening?

But in the end, we cannot change what is going to happen. What we must change is how we approach worry (which my hero, Mr. Spock, would say is a counterproductive emotion), and how we react to whatever is handed to us by Mother Nature.

Certainly, avoiding the ulcer is a wee bit easier now that our son is out of college and independent. It’s certainly easier also knowing our customers and CSA members as we do. This community of NSO-produce eaters all rejoice together when crops are plentiful and delicious, and provide support and understanding when there are absolutely no Rosy Gage plums to be had, for example, or when every piece of fruit has a hail nick in it.

This year? Well, we’ll have to wait and see, and try our darndest not to worry in the process. We’re kind of figuring the plums will get hit again, but this year I’d certainly be happy if we had to work harder to do that laborious hand-thinning on the peaches. We’ll just have to wait and see!

Update, March 21: Happy spring! Between writing the above post and now, we underwent a deep freeze and a lovely storm full of snow and ice. How does that impact things, you might wonder? 

Well, it’s still early to tell, but I think we’re ok. Getting cold weather again helped slow down the rush to bloom, and we are thankful for that. Ike has been doing scouting missions to determine bud health, and so far so good enough, which we’re happy for, as the Carolinas and other areas have already lost 80% or more of their peach and blueberry crops for this year. 

It looks like Wednesday night will be mighty cold again, but hopefully after that, we’ll be on smooth sailing to spring and some pretty scenes like this one!

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