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Late spring is cold comfort for farmers

Gardeners can relax. They have plenty of time to get out in the yard.

And growers, feel free to rejoice, or at least to exhale.

Unlike 2012, when March felt more like June, Buffalo’s winter settled in all the way to April this year. Home gardeners with cabin fever may be eager to start digging, but for farmers whose livelihood depends on the region having four distinct seasons, the long chill was a very good thing. In March, 23 of 30 days were at or below the average temperatures for the month.

“This is the way we want it,” said Bob Hall, 60, of Hall Apple Farm in Lockport. “Last year, we went straight [from winter] to summer, then we froze out in mid-April.”

Seven days of record high temperatures in March 2012 – with Buffalo’s warmest March day ever, 82 degrees on March 21 – resulted in a burst of blossoms in area orchards last year and a gorgeous early spring.

Then normal seasonal frosts in April – including a record low of 28 degrees on April 29 – nipped those future apples, peaches and cherries in the bud. Hall said he lost more than 95 percent of his apple crop.

“Anything is going to be better than last year,” he said. “We don’t ever want to see another year like that.”

Closer to the house, crocuses are in bloom and daffodils are poking up, while most forsythias have yet to make their sunny debut. Master garden coordinator Carol Ann Harlos of Cornell Cooperative Extension Erie County advises people to be patient – and, again, to recall the late frost that ruined ornamentals such as hydrangeas in 2012.

“Everyone is eager to get out – I am, too,” Harlos said. “We want to start raking and pulling the mulch off the beds.”

But she offers caution.

“That would be a very bad thing to do,” she said. “We need to wait another month.”

What gardeners can do is clean up winter debris and start some pruning – but not maples and birch trees, which “bleed,” or forsythia and lilacs, since they flower early, according to the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal.

“Once night temperatures are in the mid-50s, then you can plant your perennials,” said Jenn Weber, retail manager at Mike Weber Greenhouses in West Seneca.

Patience advised

Already inside the greenhouses one can find hanging baskets heavy with buds, poppies popping up, and a sea of flats filled with hundreds of types of perennials and annuals, plus 95 varieties of herbs enjoying the constant 60-degree warmth.

While cold-treated perennials are pretty hardy, Weber said, gardeners need to be patient with annuals.

“With vegetables, everyone is eager to plant by Mother’s Day,” she said, “but if you can wait until the first week of June, you’ll have much better luck.”

The extended cold weather could also be a boon for landscapers, now that the soil is thawing.

“This is a much nicer year for planting, because your plant isn’t going to be leafed out,” said Russell Gullo, owner of Russell’s Tree and Shrub Farm in East Amherst. The longer trees stay dormant, the easier it is to transplant them and give them a healthy start, he said.

“Landscapers are not getting the jump on the season that they would like to,” he said, but a late spring can extend the season.

The hot, dry weather of 2012 did reduce growth on his tree farm some, Gullo said, but overall “the crop looks really good.” What consumers might see, he said, is the ripple effect of the recession.

Many growers went out of business, especially those in areas hit harder by the housing bust. With the five-year delay between when a tree is planted and when it can be sold, that drop is just starting to hit the market now.

Plus, with the arrival of the emerald ash borer in New York State, customers will begin to see more disease-resistant elms and maple varieties.

Improved outlook

And on the farm, this year’s slightly colder than average March will mean a big difference for fruit growers, according to John Farfaglia, who is community educator and horticulturists at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Niagara County bureau.

“Looking at what the alternative was last year and all the bad things that followed,” he said, “I don’t think farmers could have handled another year like that.”

At Singer Farms in Appleton, where cherries, plums, peaches and pears are grown along with apples, Jim Bittner says things are looking great this year.

“Last year, the problem wasn’t the frost – frost in April is normal – but things had progressed too far,” he said. Our apricots were all in bloom.”

And they were wiped out.

Blossoms are most beautiful for growers when they come late in April or in early May.

“Right now, we can take 20 degrees, no problem,” Bittner said, because the trees have kept their buds tightly shut.

There is one lingering effect of last year’s devastating weather, though, Bittner said. Some fruit trees will “overcorrect.”

“With apples, after a year with no fruit, the next year they’ll way overproduce,” Bittner said. “You have to bring the crop size down, or else you’ll get ‘golf balls.’ Right now most growers are pruning like crazy.”

Looking forward to juicy peaches, fresh cherries and crisp Ginger Golds, Crispins and Cortlands this summer is one benefit of having to wear long johns on St. Patrick’s Day. And Farfaglia said there could be more good news for anyone with outdoor plants.

“The winter has been cold enough that a good number of insects and diseases should be dramatically reduced,” he said. That may include armyworms, voracious caterpillars that caused so much crop damage last year that the eight Western New York counties were among 14 in the state that were declared natural disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sweet success

At Fairbanks Maple in Forestville, Linda Fairbanks said they tapped their first trees in January and began boiling sap for maple syrup on Jan. 11.

“The sugar content [in the sap] was better this year, too,” Fairbanks said. “We started right out at 2 percent; usually it’s around 1.5 percent.”

Lloyd Musee, who runs Big Tree Maple in Lakewood with his son, David, also said this year’s syrup crop was excellent in quality and flavor.

“In 2012, the season ended abnormally early – March 15,” Musee said. “This year it looks like it’s going to continue on through this weekend at least.”