Metro-East News

Early blast of spring fever in metro-east could come with a price

Early warm weather brings anxiety for growers

Chris Eckert, president, Eckert's Inc., talks about the anxiety that goes along with an early warming trend for fruit and vegetable growers. A continuing stretch of warmer-than-usual weather has homeowners and growers worried their plants will blo
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Chris Eckert, president, Eckert's Inc., talks about the anxiety that goes along with an early warming trend for fruit and vegetable growers. A continuing stretch of warmer-than-usual weather has homeowners and growers worried their plants will blo

The birds are chirping, jackets are optional and some flowers are starting to bloom.

Pretty good deal for late February, right?

It certainly beats having to shovel snow, but there are some who hope the weather gets back to normal soon. Amateur green thumbs might not be so excited about this early bloom if the metro-east is hit with some really cold weather before spring decides to stick around for good.

But an early jump on growing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Elizabeth Wahle, horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Office in Collinsville.

“If (plants) bloom early, there is a higher risk of them being damaged in a frost event,” Wahle said. “But if that doesn’t happen, we just have an earlier season and it’s all good.”

But those plants that are starting to show themselves much earlier than normal are at the mercy of Mother Nature, according to one expert.

“There is not a lot you can do (about slowing the growth),” said Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s Orchard in Belleville. “You can try to cover them with blankets if we get a frost, but they’re going to be subject to some freeze damage.”

This year is going to be in the top 10 (warmest Februarys). We’re not sure where it will fall until the month is over.

Jayson Gosselin, meteorologist, National Weather Service

February 2017 will be one for the record books, according to Jayson Gosselin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in St. Louis. This February is trending toward being one of the warmest on record. Through Monday, the average temperature in St. Louis was 12 degrees warmer than normal.

“This year is going to be in the top 10 (warmest Februarys),” Gosselin said. “We’re not sure where it will fall until the month is over.”

The warm weather has come with a bit of a hitch, though. While it has been warm, it also has been unseasonably dry. Snow totals are well below normal. Only two-tenths of an inch of snow has fallen this month and just 1.4 inches for the season. Snow totals are 9.5 inches below normal, while precipitation totals overall are 2.8 inches below normal so far in 2017.

“As we transition into an early growing season, we’re going to be more concerned about the dryness,” said Gosselin, who is also a climate expert. “If we continue to be warm and dry going into March, that’s not good. The soils will dry out. We need more normal precipitation.”

The rain that moved through the area overnight Monday into Tuesday morning was the first measurable precipitation the area has seen in a while. As of Monday, St. Louis had registered just four-hundredths of an inch of rain in February.

Eckert said the lack of moisture isn’t a concern yet. He said there was enough moisture in the fall and the outlook for March and April looks good. He said the recent run of warm weather doesn’t help farmers too much other them being able to get out and doing some field work they might normally not be able to do at this time of year.

Weather like this creates a lot of anxiety for guys like me.

Chris Eckert, president, Eckert’s Orchards in Belleville

Eckert is among those who can’t fully get into the warm weather. If the hundreds of acres of apple and peach trees that his business grows bloom and a freeze comes along, he could lose all of that crop.

“Weather like this creates a lot of anxiety for guys like me,” Eckert said Monday before going out to check on peach trees and the company’s strawberry and blueberry crops. “It’s just like spring is here. The trees don’t know any different, so they’re coming back to life and buds are swelling up and getting ready to open up and bloom. That’s fine if it doesn’t get cold again. The challenge we have is as those buds open up and come out of dormancy, they get more sensitive to cold weather.”

Wahle said that if the area can avoid a hard freeze between now and April 15, the chances of a freeze start to greatly diminish. By the time May 1 rolls around, the chances of a freeze are all but gone, she said.

“Most of our fruits require a certain amount of chilling and we’ve met that,” Wahle said. “I’m starting to see some trees come out of dormancy, and I’ve seen some daffodils starting to poke up, too. If it stays mild, it gives us a great jump on things.”

Wahle remembers that a hard freeze in 2007 came after fruits had bloomed, that led to a large loss of the crop that year. Eckert said 2007 was the only time the orchard had lost both its peach and apple crop in the same year. The last time Eckert’s lost it peach crop was in 2014.

There are ways for growers and homeowners to make sure to keep their fruits safe, she said.

“People can use covers (for things that ground on the ground), pulling them on and off to protect the crop,” she said. “There is a lot more frost protection for things like strawberries, but tree fruit growers pretty much have to live with what Mother Nature gives them.”

Eckert said fruits like peaches and apples can be start to see damage when the temperature gets down to 28 degrees. If temperatures get below 24 degrees for a significant period of time, it could lead to a loss of the crop, he said. He isn’t too worried about his trees blooming. He said it would take around three weeks of this weather for those trees to come out of dormancy. With temperatures expected to be closer to normal next week, Eckert isn’t concerned about that early bloom for his peaches and apples.

At least for the short term, it doesn’t appear that the really cold weather is going to return any time soon. With highs expected to reach the 70s through Thursday, the average temperature is only going to go up. The high temperature has been above normal for 16 of the 20 days so far this month.

Gosselin said the long range forecast for March through May shows an equal chance for a normal amount of precipitation over the period. He said temperatures are expected to be slightly above normal during that time frame. An early spring doesn’t necessarily lead to a hot summer, he said.

“If you have a dry spring, then you tend to have a dry summer,” Gosselin said. “If you’re dry in the summer, it tends to be a little warmer. What you see in the winter doesn’t mean you’ll see the same thing in the spring. We’ve been really warm the last couple of months, but that doesn’t mean that trend will continue during the March through May period.”

Eckert says he’ll have his eye on the sky and on the temperature gauge, anxiously awaiting the chances of a frost to go away.

When does he quit worrying?

“November,” he said with a smile, “when the season is over.”

Don O’Brien: 618-239-2626, @DOBrienBND