In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
January, 2007
Regional Report

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January's unusually mild start meant "shorts" no snow shoveling for Diane Doelp in Philadelphia's Wissahickon Valley Park.

Waiting Out the Weird Weather

Early January's 73-degree weather sent me back to the "summer fun" drawer. Temps subsequently dropped, hovering around the 40s to 50s during the day to 30s at night -- a pattern expected for the Northeast through January 22. The National Weather Service predicts "warmer than normal conditions over most of the northern two-thirds of the nation" for January, February, and March.

El Nino's at it again. If I get the gist of it, higher surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean along the Equator are causing warmer weather and more moisture in the northeastern U.S. (and many points and countries south). What does that mean for our trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs?

"I'm still planting! It's kinda nuts," says Julianne Schieffer, Pennsylvania State University Extension urban forester. "I'm going with the flow; I just bought a 'Stella d'Oro' lily on sale." Her daffodils have poked up 7 inches in a sheltered, shady spot in northern Montgomery Country, 4 miles from the Berks County border.

On the plus side, newly planted trees and shrubs benefit from warm temps and rain, Julianne explains. "Their roots are still growing; they're still getting established. Trees and many shrubs can still photosynthesize through [the green layer of] their bark. They can put the rain and mild temperatures to good use right now.... If it's going to be mild, we need rain. If it's going to be cold, we need less rain."

In Wissahickon Valley Park, Diane Doelp of Erdenheim, Pennsylvania, hoped for the best. "I so look forward to my spring-blooming dogwoods and magnolias!" What if they bloom too early and freeze?

"Most woody plants have evolved to deal with unseasonably warm weather by requiring a certain number of days of chilling before the buds break," explains Cornell University's Nina Bassuk of the Urban Horticulture Institute. "This insures that buds won't break at the first warm spell and subsequently be killed by later frost." Moving plants from their native habitats changes the equation. And some plants that require less chilling than others will break bud.

"In most cases, the first buds to break will be flower buds," Bassuk adds. "Should this happen, those buds will be lost for the next growing season. If the weather cools down, probably little will change and the long-term health of the trees will be unaffected."

"My roses are pushing," says Mary Concklin, horticulture educator for Penn State Extension, Montgomery County. If warm weather continues and they bloom, they'll freeze. "Roses will rebloom later," she consoles. But spring-blooming flowers and bulbs that pop too early could freeze; if so, they won't rebloom this season.

Protect Plants Before a Freeze
While there's nothing we can do for perennials, grapes, bulbs, and shrubs during a warm spell, Mary says, we can prepare for the inevitable cold snap. When freezing temperatures threaten, cover vulnerable plants with burlap, evergreen boughs, mulch, or synthetic plant covers (not plastic!). Be sure to remove the protection when the mercury rises!


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