What’s the Outlook After a Rough Winter?

Spring planting of new stock was delayed for many growers by cold, wet temperatures in March.
Photos by Sally Colby.

Growers don’t have to look much further than the orchard for a reminder that this past winter was unusual. Many orchards fared well and have few or no signs of winter damage. Other orchards have extreme damage, or damage limited to certain blocks or species, or even varieties. If nothing else, the winter of 2013-2014 is proof that tree survival and viability for the coming season is dependent not only on the region, but also on the climate and microclimate within that region.

Dr. Jim Schupp, Penn State Fruit Research & Extension Center, reported his findings with growers in the fruit belt of Adams County, Pennsylvania. “The situation with cherries is bleak,” he said. “I don’t see any prospects for a commercial sour or sweet cherry crop. For peaches, I’m cautiously optimistic, and this should be a good year. Some [peach] flower buds were damaged in the January freeze, but when we examined buds in the subsequent freeze that occurred in early March, and the most recent one in April, I didn’t see significant additional damage.”

Schupp said growers will have to evaluate fruit set over the coming weeks and make sure that what they’re seeing are peaches and not nubbins. “If we get through shuck split and they continue to grow, I’m not at all surprised if most growers have to hand-thin,” he said.

Assessments throughout the region reveal that most apples seem to have survived well. “Apple damage occurred mostly in that mid-April cold,” noted Schupp. “One day it was 80 degrees [Fahrenheit], and two days later the temperature dropped to the 20s. That didn’t do apple buds any favors. We’re finding some damage to apple buds, but I am cautiously optimistic that most areas will have a good crop. Sometimes the damage is worse in higher elevations, but not always.”

Growers should examine the entire tree to determine damage. Spur leaves that were damaged during blossoming may not be able to support developing fruit.

This year’s apple damage seems to be related to variety. Schupp listed Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Ginger Gold and Mutsu as the most likely to show signs of damage, but added that in many cases there was no rhyme or reason to which varieties were damaged. “Sometimes it’s the king flower and the oldest lateral flower that are damaged, but sometimes the king is alive and everything around it is dead,” he said. “The good news is that there are five chances to win at every spur, and in every case I’ve seen in Adams County there was at least one viable flower. In a lot of cases, flower buds made it to tight cluster, then fell apart. Other flowers seemed to develop normally but without a pistil. But just about every spur has at least one good flower.”

Schupp encouraged growers to assess all parts of the tree to determine damage. “When you’re looking at blossom and petal fall this year, look at spur leaves. Spur leaves were coming out at the same time as blossoms, and all of those organs were exposed to severe temperatures in mid-April. There are a lot of little curly, crinkled spur leaves that are severely hampered in their ability to feed the developing fruits,” he explained. “We know that when those developing fruits get to 10, 12, 13, 14 millimeters in diameter, they are almost entirely dependent on the spurs. So if you have a situation where the spur leaves’ ability to feed the developing fruit directly above it is hampered, it won’t take a whole lot of thinning. If you already have carbon stress going on, be careful with chemical thinners.”

As is the case every year, the first and most important step in adjusting the crop is to accurately estimate the crop load. “This year, of all years, it’s the best advice I can give you,” said Schupp. “Your ability to see what’s setting versus how many you actually need on that tree will be a critical component to your program this year. In other words, if we have 150 percent of a crop setting on a tree versus the 400 percent that usually sets on that tree, it may require more finesse than in other years.”

The second critical step is to remember that growing fruit is setting fruit. “If you are measuring fruit – and this is a good year to measure – get out and measure every day or two. Look at the largest fruits on the tree, measure them, and measure again in two days,” he advised. “Get a good feel about how much growth you’re getting each day. They should be cooking along at 1 millimeter per day.”

The first and most important step in adjusting the crop is to accurately estimate the crop load.

Mario Sazo, Cornell University Lake Ontario Fruit Program, said that in general, growers were extremely concerned about the low temperatures, but added that in many cases the concern has turned to optimism. In blocks that had cold damage, early cultivars were more affected than late cultivars. “Peach growers with a lot of experience told me that they were surprised at the amount of bloom they have,” said Sazo. “New York growers have been pruning peaches, and [they] are pruning aggressively. We have a very good crop. The worst-case scenario would be some growers will have 40 to 50 percent crop.”

Sazo noted that although most growers are optimistic about the peach crop, there was heavy damage at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, where there was an 80 percent or greater loss in peaches.

Most New York cherries are faring well, with a strong 40 to 50 percent crop. “Regina was blooming very strong,” noted Sazo.

Although many growers have not been able to fully evaluate damage to pears, it appears that Bosc has had some winter damage. “We reached peak bloom in Bosc, and growers are telling me that the bloom is very weak,” said Sazo. “I don’t know what kind of damage we have yet. Bartlett seems less affected.”

At this point, the apple crop looks good. “We were very concerned, but they’re coming back very strong,” he said. “Even the sensitive cultivars that aren’t very stable in rebloom, like Honeycrisp, had strong bloom.” Sazo added that it’s too early to determine fruit set, but noted that bee activity has been strong.

According to Sazo, the biggest challenge for growers will likely be replanting, because of the cold, wet spring conditions that were not favorable for young trees. “The growers are overwhelmed,” said Sazo. “We have been very late with planting; the soil is cold and wet, and we got a lot of rain. We couldn’t plant in March. Then we had apple trees blooming and fire blight pressure, and it’s a huge stress to be planting and applying fire blight and scab sprays.”

The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.