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Fall weather forces many trees into 'early spring'

By Aaron L. Lancaster
University of Georgia

Across central and north Georgia this fall, trees and shrubs, including cherry, peach, plum, apricot and nectarine trees, are blooming prematurely.

The chilly weather in early fall, which warmed up again in October, created a false sensation of spring to the plants.

"Every so often this weather phenomenon appears, disrupting the natural cycle of trees and shrubs," says Paul Thomas, a horticulture professor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The bad news is that the present blooms are the actual spring blooms. That means the beautiful displays of blooms next spring will be substantially reduced. Triggered to flower at the end of summer growth, the blossoms open now won't reopen in 2004.

But...

The good news, Thomas says, is that the buds that remain closed should harden as normal, remain dormant during the winter and open next spring. Or, at least, they will if the weather doesn't throw any more sudden temperature fluctuations at them.

Early blooms can damage plants, making them susceptible to disease during the rainy times typical of late winter. Swollen buds (on the brink of bloom) will be damaged by sudden frosts. The risk of freezes damaging unopened and unswollen buds, though, is minimal. If weather stays dry and cools off as it normally does, the flower buds will dry and prepare for winter as usual.

Lend a hand

To some degree, gardeners can help plants become acclimated to winter. Always reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer you apply after mid-July. Stop applying it by late summer. Plants should enter autumn as healthy as possible, but not growing fast.

The drying out of plant tissues, especially with evergreens, is a common form of winter injury. Keep the soil well-watered where evergreens are growing in mid to late autumn, before the soil freezes.

If the soil is dry, sandy or under the overhang of a roof, water in midwinter, too, when the temperature is above freezing.

Mulch ado

A ring of mulch 2 to 3 inches deep on top of the roots is the best protection for landscape plants. Mulch maintains a more even temperature while retaining moisture in the soil. Bark nuggets, compost, peat moss, pine straw, hay and shredded leaves work well as organic mulches.

Unhardened ("green") trees have very little protection from sudden freezes. Professional peach growers use a detailed regimen of applying water on fruit and foliage, but these practices aren't recommended for homeowners.

"We'll have to see what Mother Nature sends our way this winter to determine next year's blooms," Thomas said.

(Aaron Lancaster is a Bibb County Extension agent with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Aaron Lancaster is a Bibb County Extension agent with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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