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Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois

Illinois Fruit Crops Wiped Out by Cold

Posted by Ron Wolford -

Our recent cold spell in Chicagoland caused damage to emerging flower buds of some bulbs and shrubs, a minor inconvenience compared to the devastation suffered by fruit growers in southern Illinois.

The following report is by Elizabeth Wahle, Extension Educator-Commercial Fruits and Vegetables from the Illinois Fruit and Vegetable News:

In southern and southwestern Illinois ... Not since 1955 have both the peach and apple crop been destroyed by a freeze in southern Illinois, but that's what has occurred in 2007. Apples were at full bloom and peaches were at petal fall to early shuck split when temperatures dropped below freezing early Thursday morning, April 5. Calhoun County reported 24 degrees F, whereas other areas in the region hovered just below freezing. Friday morning was similar, but as evening came on temperatures dropped dangerously low--some reports as low as 14 degrees F in the far southern region. Temperatures never rose above freezing on Saturday. Heavy frost was on the ground both Sunday and Monday morning, and not until Monday evening did the region stay above freezing overnight.

As of this writing, there is not a commercial crop of peaches, apples, or blueberries in southern Illinois. I was able to find patches of live buds in both apple and peaches, but nothing significant. Time will tell if any of them will set. I hope I'm made a liar.

Peach buds that appear to be alive have a texture or consistency similar to what I will call a Q-tip -- somewhat dry and springy. Strawberries that were covered (matted row and plasticulture) survived but are showing varying degrees of injury. Most of the injury is to blooms that were in the upper portion of the plant, especially if they made contact with covers or ice. This will impact fruit size considerably because the biggest berries come from the first flowers. Brambles are showing significant injury, but again, time will tell to what degree. If predictions are based on mine and Chris Doll's Back 40, there won't be a significant bramble crop this year.

Regardless of whether there is fruit or not, early spring sprays are critical for control of orange rust in brambles if this disease was present in your planting in previous years (except red raspberries, which seem to be resistant). Rogue out anything with orange pustules and apply a protectant on symptomless plants -- see pages 35-36 in the small fruit spray guide for spray recommendations and timing. Navaho blackberry seems to be particularly susceptible, so it should be monitored closely.

All primary growth on grapes has been frozen. After primary buds are killed on grapes, growers should expect to see secondary and tertiary buds break over the next several weeks, depending on variety. Although the secondary buds generally will produce fruit, the crop is expected to be significantly reduced. Hold off on pruning until you see what the new growth looks like.

For a broader picture of the state, almost everyone is suffering some level of damage to their fruit crop. The corridor running from Peoria down to Champaign seems to be the best case scenario in the state. As of this writing the northern counties were still reporting an apple crop with some damage--but they are experiencing a snow storm that may result in some additional remarks later. Because grapes in northern Illinois have not significantly broken bud yet, they still appear to have their primary growth.

The wheat crop in southern Illinois is also showing varying levels of damage. Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences, wrote that there is real concern in southern Illinois about whether the crop will grow out of the injury done by freezing temperatures. In some cases, such as those fields giving off a silage-like smell and with darkened leaf tissue, the crop is basically dead, though some tissue at the base of the plant is still alive. Some of this living tissue is likely to be small tillers that had stopped developing at the base of the plant. These might start to grow as the competition from the larger stems decreases, but they would be starting very late, and so would be flowering and trying to fill grain very late into the season. This makes it unlikely that late tillers will produce high yields, and harvest will certainly be late. In fields that were in Feekes growth stage 8 (flag leaf emergence) or 9 (flag leaf completely out, or early boot), the growing point (developing head) was 6 or more inches above the soil surface. Many plants this size may not have had the majority of their leaf area killed by the freeze, but stems may have frozen below the growing point, and many such plants have "flopped", ending up nearly flat on the ground due to weakened stem tissue. Dead stem tissue beneath the head means that the head is basically cut off from nutrients and water. Such plants may show green color for some time, but there's little chance that they will recover to produce good yields. Plants less advanced at the time of the freeze show a range of symptoms, from minor leaf burn (death of leaf tissue) on the upper leaves and leaf margins, to considerable loss of leaf area. Loss of leaf area is seldom a positive thing, but if the plants were only starting to joint (grow upright), only a third or so of their total (eventual) leaf area was exposed, so they should recover their green color as new leaves emerge and expand. Loss of lower leaves might have little effect on yield. The important factor in these fields is that the growing point was nearer to the ground and better protected from the low temperatures.

Nurseries with container or in-ground stock took a hit on anything not protected. There was quite a rush to either wrap plants or haul them indoors for protection during the freeze. Many of the larger nurseries with stock in high tunnels still had covers on, and came through the freeze a bit better.

Nationwide, the entire eastern United States fruit crop has been hit and hit hard in some areas -- particularly the corridor running from Missouri over to the coast and down to Alabama. Additionally, I have asked several long time residents to the area if they have ever seen the landscape so withered and scorched like this before, and so far the answer is no. Chris Doll just returned from South Carolina, and he reported the landscape is even more wilted as you get closer to the Carolinas. Food for wildlife may become an issue with the amount of damage to the woodland trees.

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