Snow and cold not a problem for strawberries -- and bugs

News-DemocratFebruary 10, 2014 

At least the recent spate of wintry weather is good for strawberries.

If there is any upside at all to the extended snow and cold, it is that the snow acts as a blanket to some plants, including strawberries.

"The snow helps things that are low to the ground," says Elizabeth Wahle of the University of Illinois Extension office.

But Wahle said the extension office is concerned about blackberries and peaches in this area.

"What we usually see are the crops that we want to keep are the ones that are the most sensitive," she said.

Plant insulation might be one of the few upsides to this year's colder-than-normal temperatures and snow. Corn farmers might look forward to possibly fewer corn rootworms this summer; however, homeowners won't see any real reduction in household pests.

Weeds -- plants most homeowners may want to die off -- are "well-adapted" to the area's conditions, and are likely to re-emerge in the spring, she said.

For homeowners with a peach tree or blackberry plant, Wahle recommended putting some kind of shelter over the plant, but admitted there just isn't any easy way.

Any plant rated as hardy in this part of the country is going to be fine, Wahle said. For others, it's hit or miss.

"It's the nature of plants; you just accept that you don't get a crop every year."

Wahle said that a hard frost after plant buds or flowers start to emerge is more detrimental to the plant, and more likely than February's cold to prevent production of flowers, berries or nuts this year.

Is the cold detrimental to insects? Not necessarily.

"The two-word answer is, 'It's complicated'," said Richard Levine, program manager at the Entomological Society of America.

Think of it this way, he said: Alaska and Minnesota are known for extrememly cold winters, and also for mosquitoes.

"Even if cold does come and knock out 50 percent of the population, these things lay a lot of eggs," Levine said. Insect populations can bounce back pretty quickly, even if more than half are wiped out."

Michael E. Gray, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, said crop pests handle extreme cold in two ways: They migrate southward or they hibernate, usually underground. Either way, most are protected.

Gray said the corn rootworm, a big threat to corn production, lays eggs 4 to 8 inches deep in the soil, or even deeper. The cold might kill some corn rootworm eggs that are more shallow, but those laid deeper are probably safe.

That said, Gray "would anticipate some egg mortality."

Temperatures recently have not been normal, according to Mark Britt of the National Weather Service. Typically, early to mid February has highs in the low- to mid-40s; and lows in the mid-20s. Friday's high was 20 degrees, and single-digit lows returned Monday.

By the end of February, the normal high is 50 degrees, he said.

The cold is coming straight here directly from the North Pole, Britt said, between a high-pressure area in the West and a "deep trough" in the East. Those two things combine to make a path for the cold dry air to blast "across the pole, into Canada and across the United States."

"We need spring to occur," Britt said, or a breakdown of the current weather pattern to a "flat" pattern that allows air flow from west to east.

The bright spot for Wahle is apple trees: "We have an apple crop so far," she said.

So far, that is, because Wahle is concerned that once spring comes, the plants will bloom and then be hit with a killing frost.

"I'm not trying to borrow trouble," she said, "but we're only halfway through winter."

Or, 39 days until the first day of spring, to be exact.

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