LIMA — The return of freezing temperatures, icy streets and light snowfall may not be comfortable, but it’s been comforting. All feels right with the world when winter is brisk and cold. It gets confusing when temps are in the mid 50s to low 60s, as they were in November and December. This autumn, the United States recorded its warmest autumn on record, with every state running warmer than normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Humans, it seems, aren’t the only species that has been confused.
“I’ve seen flowers like pansies and violets coming up,” said Gretchen Staley, who oversees the Children’s Garden on West Market Street and coordinates Allen County’s Master Gardener volunteer program. “I’ve also had more people surprised at the appearance of perennial weeds, like dandelions.”
Dandelions? In January? This cannot be good.
“I would not be surprised, if it gets into the 40s again, people will have to mow their grass,” said Tim DeHaven, owner of DeHaven Home & Garden Showplace in Lima. “This winter has been crazy!”
But local gardening experts and arborists are advising gardeners not to worry, that plants that are emerging now will still make a hearty, healthy go of it during their expected blooming times later this spring.
Fewer flowers, but plants will be fine
There’s a caveat, though. You may have less of a show come springtime.
“Buds have developed on some forsythia or on weeping cherry trees, and rhodedendrons have put out some blooms,” reports James Chatfield, a landscaping and plant pathology specialist with The Ohio State University Extension Office. With the deepening cold, he said, “they’ll lose those buds and put out [fewer] flowers in the spring.”
If the flowering plant is a fruit tree, that means a lower yield come fall. The loss of a bud means the loss of an apple, peach or cherry cluster.
But Staley said there’s no way to make sweeping generalizations about a fruit tree’s potential crop loss because there are so many variables at play, including how long of a warm spell is needed before a tree begins to bud.
“There’s a wide variation in fruit species, like apples,” she said. “The variety matters. Nature provides plants an internal thermometer that says how many days of a certain temperature is necessary to set their buds. That can be 30 days of dormancy or 100 days.”
Rapid changes more of a concern
Chatfield said the bigger concern for trees and bushes is if a mild spell is broken by a sudden drop in temperature.
“What happens is, when it’s warm, water starts to move out of the cells,” he said. “With extreme shifts, like from 48 degrees to 10 below zero, that water freezes in those intercellular places and the plant’s vascular system gets damaged. Then you get plant dieback.”
Such an extreme drop hasn’t been this winter’s story so far. Chatfield said he’s actually pleased by the way the current cold has crept up on us.
“The transition we’ve had in the last two weeks since Christmas is what plants need,” he said. “It gradually got cold. We started getting into the 20s and 30s at night, and eventually into the teens. It didn’t happen all of a sudden.”
Boon for farmers, landscapers
While the mild winter may have created some unease in gardeners who are watching their early spring flowers start to emerge, it’s put farmers in a comfortable position for the 2016 growing season.
Because of the long, warm, dry fall, “farmers were able to put down more applications for weed control, spread fertilizer and do more tillage than usual,” said Mark Badertscher, an ag educator at OSU’s extension office in Hardin County. “That will give them a head start for tillage in the spring.”
He said the mild winter also has helped the current winter wheat crop get established after a slow start.
“When planted, it was pretty dry and the wheat didn’t emerge properly,” said Badertscher. “By having this warmer weather late into the winter it enabled the wheat to emerge after we got the rain, and the wheat to catch up.”
It’s also meant a very busy season for landscapers like DeHaven.
“We worked all through December,” he said. “We finished up a job yesterday, planting. The ground is not frozen yet, it’s just a little crusty on top.”
What about bugs?
If the mild winter isn’t hurting plants directly, will it hurt them indirectly, by failing to kill off pests in great enough numbers?
Horticultural experts disagree.
“We could see a lot more bugs and viruses this spring if we don’t have a nice, extended deep freeze,” said Staley. “It depends on the pest and how deep it needs to be.”
One pest she believed was affected by last year’s harsh winter was Harmonia axyridis, the Asian lady beetle, an orange-and black-spotted beetle that overwinters inside people’s homes.
“A lot of people may not have realized they saw fewer of them after the last couple of really cold winters,” she said. “But those ones that hung on will have a little more chance to rebound their populations with a lighter winter.”
Laurie Laird, owner and operator of New Leaf Landscape and Garden Center in Ada, said stories like this can vary from garden to garden.
“I’ve had people tell me they had a really bad infestation of those beetles and others who say they didn’t see any,” she said. “The weather doesn’t affect insects as much as it does people.”
Plant pathology expert James Chatfield said he doesn’t think the current weather pattern will effect pests or plant pathogens “one way or another.”
“I don’t foresee the conditions we’ve had are going to produce or increase the survival of, say, rose black spot and corn diseases and that kind of thing,” he said.
But he noted that there’s still a lot of winter left to go, and longer weather trends could change his forecast.
“The story is ongoing as to what winter is going to show,” he said.