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Queens Chronicle

Spring has sprung, but plants may suffer

Gardeners, meteorologists fear late frost on fruit blossoms, more bugs

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Posted: Thursday, March 1, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 12:40 pm, Thu Mar 8, 2012.

Colorful crocuses are dotting the landscape alongside snowdrops, and in some sunny spots, daffodils are in full bloom. Spring is here, almost a month ahead of schedule.

Although most people are not complaining about the mild winter and early signs of spring, Mother Nature always extracts her due, and scientists say there will be a price to pay later this year. Insect infestations and potential crop failures are two of the possibilities suggested by experts.

Meteorologists say the lack of snow and cold temperatures this winter are due to La Nina, a weather condition over the Pacific Ocean that powers a strong jet stream. “We are in a pattern now where the ocean is cold and it causes the jet stream to change position and go further north to Alaska and Europe,” said Mark Wysocki, the top climatologist for New York State.

The National Weather Service says the November to January period was the sixth warmest in recorded U.S. history. And in November and December, the pattern got stuck, which kept storms away from the Northeast and temperatures higher, Wysocki said.

Since there is more sunlight in March, the climatologist, who is stationed in Ithaca, believes any snow that might come will melt quickly. Although spring doesn’t officially arrive until March 20, Wysocki said winter has really left already.

Historically, it’s impossible to predict what spring will bring, he noted. “Looking at records with winters like this one, springs are all over the place,” Wysocki said, adding it could be rainy, dry, cold or have normal temperatures.

What he is concerned about is a possible cold spell that could damage fruit trees if they bud early and the blossoms are killed during a frost. Then the plants won’t bear fruit.

Also watchful is Kennon Kay, director of agriculture at the Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park. “I’m worried about all trees,” Kay said. “Tender magnolia blossoms and other buds, I fear, are in for a zap.”

Although the working farm museum does not have many fruit trees, she is concerned about its vineyards, which have been growing grapes for its own wine label. “That could be an issue if a frost knocks off buds,” Kay said.

There’ll be no early sowing of vegetable seeds at the farm either. “I still cannot wrap my head around a snowless winter, so I am still bracing for some wild March weather,” the agriculture director said.

Experts say gardens need a chance to rest and winter’s cold usually provides it. But that is not the case this year and Kay finds it concerning.

“Crocuses are in full bloom on the farm right now. Daffodils are not far behind,” she said. “Though their color cheers me up, their early appearance makes me so anxious. The spring buzz is buzzing all too soon.”

Patty Kleinberg, deputy director of the Queens Botanical Garden in Flushing, is also a trained meteorologist who understands the effects of the jet stream. “This is the earliest I’ve ever seen crocuses in the 18 years I’ve been here,” Kleinberg said. “It could be a problem with plants blooming too early.”

The spring bulbs are two to four weeks ahead of schedule.

Kleinberg is particularly concerned about the weather’s impact on insects. “The freezing cycle does suppress a lot of insects and since that didn’t happen, expect to see more mosquitoes and garden pests,” Kleinberg said. “We dodged the bullet this winter, but there’s a price to pay for it.”

Wysocki agrees with Kleinberg’s assessment, adding that gardeners can expect more bugs, fungi, mold and a bad allergy season because of the lack of frost killing off the pests and allergens.

But as he pointed out, the predictions are just that, increasing the potential for the problems cited. “With weather there are no guarantees,” Wysocki added. “If La Nina strengthens, it may linger into spring with cooler air.”

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