Bizarre weather in Buffalo area– What should gardeners do?

daffodils in Amherst NY
Daffodils in Amherst. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.

We’ve had record-setting high temperatures in the Buffalo area. There have been long strings of warm–even hot–days. All of our spring plants are two to four weeks ahead of schedule. It felt as if summer weather was here to stay.

But it’s still only March, and we knew the warm weather wouldn’t continue. In an article last week, we warned you that we would still get frost, and that happened last night. It probably won’t be our last frost this season, either.

So how do gardeners cope with this bizarre spring weather? John Farfaglia, extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County, offered some tips. (Go here to find the site for the Cornell Cooperative Extension in your county.)

plum tree in Amherst NY
Plum tree at home of David J. Comtois in Amherst, NY. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.

We’re going to start with some some things you can’t do.

If you have magnolias or trees in the cherry family, they are flowering two or three weeks early, Farfaglia said, and they will be affected by frost. Unfortunately, there really isn’t anything you can do about it. Don’t worry too much, though. The damage will be to the flowers only; you won’t lose the whole plant.

Above left is a photo of plum blossoms taken in the yard of David J. Comtois in Eggertsville. He hopes he gets a good crop of yellow plums this year.

A gardener told me you could protect your plants by spraying them with water before a frost. Farfaglia said that farmers do use that technique, but they spray the plants throughout the night, and it may not help a great deal.

“I wouldn’t discourage people from doing this, but I wouldn’t want them to get their hopes up,” he said.

Speaking of the farmers, Farfaglia said initial reports indicate that Monday night’s frost didn’t do as much damage to the fruit industry along the lake as had been feared.

Another thing you shouldn’t do in your garden: Don’t plant tender annuals and vegetables now. We’re talking about those plants that we traditionally wait until the middle of May or Memorial Day weekend to plant.

“Our advice is to still go with the traditional planting time,” Farfaglia said.

Now that we have that out of the way, here are some things you can do.

vinca groundcover in Amherst NY
Vinca ground cover in Amherst. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.

Cover tender plants if you expect a frost

If you have plants that you’re worried about, you can cover them with a blanket or old sheet to protect them from a frost, Farfaglia said.

The idea is to trap the heat in the soil and slow down the heat loss during the night. You need to cover the plants in late afternoon while the soil is still warm. You don’t have to wrap the plant tightly; just drape the cloth over the plant. Plastic doesn’t work as well as cloth, he said.

This will add just a few degrees of protection, but that may be all you need. If the temperature gets down into the mid-20s Fahrenheit, covering your plants could help. However, Farfaglia said that if the temperature gets down to 20 or into the teens, covering your plants won’t make a difference.

Don’t worry about spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils. The blossoms look delicate, but they can withstand the cold.

Most perennials, such as the vinca pictured above, can tolerate the cold, too, he said. They may show minor damage, but you won’t lose the plant.

Plant cold weather vegetables now

We have told you about cold hardy or frost tolerant annuals. Did you know there are vegetables you can plant right now, too?

These vegetables tolerate cold nights and light frost, and actually benefit from this cool growing cycle, Farfaglia said.

“This is one of those years when the ground can be worked early,” he said. “I guess that’s the silver lining for this weather.”

Cold weather vegetables include:

  • Peas
  • Spinach
  • Onions
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Lettuce
forsythia in Buffalo NY area
Forsythia in Amherst. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.

Protect your lawn from crabgrass

Lawns are coming to life earlier and people are already mowing their lawns. If you’re concerned about crabgrass, now is the time to take preventive measures.

There is a very narrow window of time to apply these preventive products, he said, which prevent crabgrass seed from germinating.

“We tell people to do it when the forsythia is blooming– and the forsythia is blooming,” he said.

If you don’t apply the products at the right time, don’t waste your money buying the product because they won’t work, he said.

Water your garden

A couple weeks ago I noticed that the tips of some of my iris leaves had turned brown. It looked like the iris plants were too dry. In the middle of March, that garden is usually under snow, or the water is puddled up. This year, the bed was completely dry.

Yet the idea of watering my garden in the middle of March seemed so absurd that I decided I must have misdiagnosed the problem.

Fargaglia says I probably got it right.

iris with brown leaves March 2012 Amherst NY
Iris damaged by lack of rain in Amherst. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.

We had temperatures in the 70s and even 80s, strong sun and no rain, he pointed out. Plus, we had high winds, which may have damaged the sprouts.

Perhaps April will bring its proverbial showers. But if we don’t get one or two good rains per week, Farfaglia suggests getting out in your garden with the hose.

If you’re starting a lawn, it’s critical to keep it watered well, he added.

Plant trees and shrubs in April

April is the ideal time to plant trees and shrubs, including berry bushes and fruit trees, but often the soil is too wet. This year, just about everybody in Western New York should have workable soil, he said.

With trees and shrubs, the mistake people usually make is waiting too long to plant, so get them in soon.

Leave a comment and tell us how this bizarre weather is affecting your garden. Do you have photos of plants that have appeared in your garden much earlier this year? Email the photo to me at connie@buffaloniagaragardening.com and I’ll post it on our Upcoming Events page. Please tell me where you live and include some information about what we see in the photo.

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7 Comments on “Bizarre weather in Buffalo area– What should gardeners do?

  1. John is always a great source of reliable and knowledgeable information. There will be blossoms affected and like he said, the plants will be fine. But, hopefully we get good rainfall this Spring.

  2. I have a question – not certain if this is exactly the right forum to ask in, but we have been re-zoned to 6, so I’m guessing that spring frosts are common to zone 6 as well? I’m having difficulty believing we actually are a zone higher now. There’s a tree I want to plant (hardy to 6) but I’m afraid to trust…… don’t want to make an expensive mistake. If anyone has any information/input please let me know – thanks!

  3. Donna, we’re supposed to get rain tonight and I hope we get it regularly because I’m not faithful at watering.

  4. Anne,
    That is a great question.

    Oh yeah, spring frosts are common to Zone 6. Normally, we don’t have a problem when we get frosts at this time of year because that’s what is supposed to happen at this time of year. Wild swings in temperature are common. We may get warm days, but then we get cold nights. Some plants such as crocuses, hyacinths and daffodils respond by sprouting, while other plants hang back and wait for better weather.

    This year was unusual because we had so many warm days and nights in a row that many plants thought it was time for them to sprout and bloom. When the frost came back, some plants got nipped.

    Now let’s talk about the USDA Hardiness Zones. The zones are based on the average annual minimum winter temperature for that area. I’m in Zone 6a, so the things I want to survive the winter should be able to withstand -10 to -5 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The zones have been changed to reflect the changing climate. First the climate changed, then the zone changed.

    So should you buy the expensive tree? Well, make sure the zone they’re talking about is the USDA Hardiness Zone. There is more than one classification system. If they’re using a different classification system, make sure you know what zone you’re in within that system. Also, double-check with the seller that the tree is really hardy for where you live.

    Another tip: If you do buy the tree, make sure you plant it right. I have killed trees by planting them wrong.

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