Real Estate: Has the warm winter played tricks on your plants?

02/11/2012 7:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | River and Roots community garden founders Amy Davidson (left) does some weeding as Laurie Nigro and her daughter Rita, 7, harvest some spinach for a dinner salad as tempertures climbed to the low 60's last week..

Have your plants begun to bud? Is the kale in your vegetable garden already ready to harvest?

This winter’s unusually warm weather has caused plants, fruits and vegetables to bloom and grow faster than normal. Some will be just fine, experts assure. But some might be in danger.

Flower roots that are deep underground will likely be protected from aboveground temperatures, said Tamson Weh, a turf and land management specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Suffolk County.

“People panic when they see their bulbs are up,” she said. “If we have a cold snap and the tips get nipped and turn a little yellow, not to worry. The bulbs will be just fine.”

Front lawns, however, may take a bit of a beating. Ms. Weh said warmer winters like this one tend to cause dollar spot, a disease that turns tiny pockets of grass a shade of brown. In addition to discoloration, dollar spotting causes front lawns to be blanketed in the mornings with a white layer reminiscent of a spider web.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Rita Nigro, 7, pulled a bunch of carrots out of the garden bed last week.

Caroline Kiang, an extension educator in community horticulture at Cornell, said it’s probably too early to tell how plants will be affected by the season’s higher-than-average temperatures. Horticulturists can better predict how plants will fare when the end of winter nears, she said.

Her concern now, Ms. Kiang said, is for fruit crops. Flowers of fruits like apples and peaches that have already started to blossom could be killed if temperatures take a drastic dip.

“If the temperatures start to drop to normal temperatures for February here, those flowers might get killed and that would influence the yield of the fruit crops,” Ms. Kiang said, adding that vegetables don’t face much of a threat.

Laurie Nigro and Amy Davidson, founders of downtown Riverhead’s River and Roots Community Garden, were picking spinach, kale, posemary, thyme and parsley there last week under a sunny sky on a 62-degree day.

“The spinach should be dead, wilted and frozen,” Ms. Nigro said, kneeling over bountiful beds of the leafy greens. “But I’m going to pick some and bring it home tonight.”

Plants, fruits and vegetables alike could face challenges posed by the increased presence of pests who otherwise would be killed in the dead of winter. Pests likely to be most rampant are aphids, ticks and squash vine borers, she said, letting out a groan.

“Squash vine borers are the worst,” she said. “You think your plant’s growing and it’s fine and beautiful, and then, all of a sudden, it dies and you don’t know why. Then you see that the bug tore through the vine and killed it.”

To prevent catastrophes in case temperatures nosedive, Ms. Weh suggests residents give their gardens a quick sprinkle now, so they’ll have moisture. Otherwise, water already in the ground could freeze and be unable to reach plants.

She also said residents should seed bare areas of their lawns and be sure not to drive on the turf when the temperature is below freezing, as it could cause shearing.

Above all else, she said, gardeners shouldn’t adopt a false sense of security amid these sunny, February days. Gardeners shouldn’t, for example, be tempted to pull any protective mulch covers from their gardens. And they should be wary of pruning. Pruning can initiate new growth, which could easily die if it gets cold again.

“Chances are we’ll get another cold spell or two,” Ms. Weh said.

sbrix@timesreview.com

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