Some flowers at the Teaching Gardens at Farmingdale State College...

Some flowers at the Teaching Gardens at Farmingdale State College have already started to bloom. Credit: John Roca

This winter's mild weather may be welcome for some, but it has Long Island farmers, vintners and gardeners questioning how their crops and plants will fare come this spring.

For example, will buds and flowers — plus the pollinating bees they need — both appear around a month early? Or will their timing — and thus propagation — be a mismatch, with bees then favoring later blooms but skimping early ones? And, if there is a late cold snap, how much might that damage early-blooming plants?

Winter 2023, oddly clement and mostly snowless, has benefited farmers with winter crops such as horseradish because the ground never froze, forcing them to halt. But it has created uncertainty for others, as those same factors may cut yields of various fruits and vegetables, as well as magnolias.

"It’s still too early to tell and I think the true results will be measured once we get a little bit more into April, May and June," said Robert Carpenter, administrative director for the Long Island Farm Bureau in Calverton.

 WHAT TO KNOW

  • This winter's mild weather has been positive for some farmers, but created uncertainty for others.
  • Farmers with crops like horseradish have been able to harvest all winter, because the ground never froze.
  • But some farmers, vintners and gardeners could be impacted this spring, either due to incomplete pollination or early-blooming plants damaged by a cold snap.

Added Alice Wise, a viticulturist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Riverhead, "We are keeping our fingers crossed that we escaped the worst of winter and will be watching vines closely in April and May as the buds swell and budbreak occurs."

Spring concerns

As spring approaches, bees begin hunting for pollen and nectar. But, the Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Rearing Laboratory in New Jersey explained via email, "If plants bloom earlier than normal because of extended warm temperatures, and then temperatures drop to below freezing for an extended time, they will lose their blooms sooner than normal, resulting in pollinators foraging on other crops or trees, resulting in an incomplete pollination of the crop."

Among the crops at risk are grapes.

Many grapevines themselves are hermaphrodites and can pollinate themselves. But the vines need plants — often put beneath them on trellises or around them to ensure necessary minerals don't leach out in heavy rains — that do require pollination. And the bees, just by buzzing around the vines, help loosen their pollen, which studies show can boost fertility.

Another concern is how ahead-of-season plants will fare in any hard spring frost.

"When they break dormancy early, the new growth is very sensitive and fragile," said Jonathan Lehrer, associate professor and chair of Farmingdale State College's Department of Urban Horticulture and Design.

Already flowering at the college's Teaching Gardens are snowdrops, daffodils, an apricot tree and witch hazel — all about three weeks to one month ahead.

"If we should get sort of the inevitable cold snap, where temps drop down below 20 degrees, you will see different degrees of damage," he said.

Vines, however, are fairly hardy. In the last five decades, there were only "a handful of winter injury episodes" caused by swiftly falling temperatures, Wise said.

A cold spell in early February may only have inflicted "minimal" damage to buds, Wise said.

"Fortunately, this happened in the middle of winter and the drop in temperature was more gradual … I have not seen or heard of any split trunks," Wise said.

Vincent Simeone, director of the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, said: “The other concern is — and people aren’t thinking about this, really — because of this unseasonably warm winter, there hasn’t been any snow cover. People don’t necessarily like snow, because it’s slippery, but snow is good for plants.”

The lack of snow has deprived plants of insulation, so roots might rot.

"The degradation of the roots over time leads to increased soil respiration and contributes to climate change," Melissa Finley, the New York Botanical Gardens' Thain Curator of Woody Plants, said by email.

Good winter for some farmers

On the flip side, some Long Island farms have outperformed.

"As far as vegetable and field crop farms, they have been harvesting product all through the winter. This is an unusual winter for them," said Carpenter, of the farm bureau. "You have some winter crops like horseradish that can be dug year-round if the ground has not frozen yet."

He noted nurseries also might be digging up trees for sale before spring gardening fever.

The mild winter also has smiled on vintners and farm stands, which did not lose customers to unplowed roads.

A Riverhead raw milk dairy farm, Ty Llwyd, has sold out every day, said Elizabeth Wines, whose son runs the family farm, which started in 1870. Referring to customers, she said: "There's not been bad weather to keep them away."

Native plants have an advantage

For now, some of Long Island's original plants have the edge over newcomers. 

"Native plants tend to be more conservative and wait a few days or weeks longer before they become active in spring," Finley of the New York Botanical Gardens said. 

Lilacs and magnolias, southern foreigners to the Island, may feel spring is arriving right on time.

"Oaks for example are induced to open in spring by changes in light, while lilacs are induced by changes in temperature," Finley said. "Other plants fall somewhere in the middle of that range, where they respond to a measure of both."

Extreme temperatures imperil broad leaf plants, including some evergreens, rhododendron, hollies, and camellias, but shrubs and trees that shed their leaves may escape that "winter burn," said Vincent Simeone, director of the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay.

Farmers and gardeners hoping to protect their plants are advised to run sprinklers on fruit trees during cold nights. 

"The constant wetting and freezing of the water on the surface of the branches and buds actually requires a small amount of energy, which raises the temperature of the tree parts just enough," Finley said.

Eleni Roselli, marketing director for Hick's Nurseries in Westbury, recommended hosing any land flooded in a coastal storm with fresh water to dilute the salt.

"Adding gypsum [a sulfate used in fertilizer] to the soil is another old trick," she said.

Long Island shares at least one characteristic with the garden-loving United Kingdom, which benefits from the Gulf Stream, she noted. 

"Often, seaside plants don’t need to be quite as temperature-hardy as inland plantings, because the ocean has a moderating effect," she said.

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