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Dropping temps send gardeners scrambling

Freezing temperatures have gardeners and farmers scurrying to cover flowers and plants. / Photo by Brandon Payne

Freezing temperatures have gardeners and farmers scurrying to cover flowers and plants. / Photo by Brandon Payne

An unusually strong mid-April cold snap had area gardeners dealing with tarps, sheets and empty flower pots to cover cold-sensitive plants again this morning as area nurseries and vegetable farmers took precautions ahead of the busy Easter weekend.

Freeze warnings issued by the National Weather Service on Tuesday and Wednesday got their attention.

Workers at Roxbury Farm & Garden Center in Fredericksburg were covering their outside stock Wednesday night, just in case, said Scott Blake, who works in the center’s greenhouse off Lafayette Boulevard.

Wednesday morning, when the temperature hovered around freezing, “We had a little minor damage on some grapes. Everything else looks OK,” he said.

The low was 29 degrees in Fredericksburg, according to the University of Mary Washington weather station. Some temperatures in the high 20s were also reported in spots west of the city.

As a precaution, a shipment of variegated daphne—a small flowering shrub—that came in Tuesday from North Carolina, had been covered, Blake said.

Gardeners’ cold-tolerant plants, such as broccoli, cabbage and peas, were probably OK, he said.

But, “anyone who jumped the gun” on tomatoes, squash and the like, had to cover them or lose them.

“The overnight clear skies and light wind are ideal conditions for frost,” Blake said.

In April, “we always have a warm spell, followed by a cold blast. Almost every year it does this. It fools people,” he said.

Joey Embrey, a salesman at Stafford Nursery & Sheds on Truslow Road in Stafford County, said there was no problem there because the cold-sensitive annual bedding plants hadn’t yet arrived.

That delivery was delayed a little “as a precaution because we had such a long winter.”

Embrey said some customers have called to ask when it’s safe to plant. He said the rule of thumb there is April 16, though gardening season east of the Blue Ridge traditionally begins April 15.

The date of the last freeze varies by location. It’s later farther to the west, earlier to the east, according to the University of Virginia Climatology Office.

The office lists the dates for a couple of dozen areas around the state. For example, Ashland, north of Richmond, will see a frost one year out of 10 on or after April 28. In Warrenton, that date is May 17. Fredericksburg would fall somewhere in between.

“We had some ice here; little mud puddles iced over,” Emmett Snead, who farms in western Caroline County, said Wednesday.

Asparagus shoots that popped up Tuesday were harvested that day, he said, because of the freeze warning.

The cold weather will probably delay the harvest for a couple days, he said.

“We’re hoping to have some for Easter, but you never know.”

He expects there should be plenty by the first week of May when his community supported agriculture season begins. Customers pay to get produce shares throughout the growing season. Asparagus is among the most popular items.

Snead, along with many area farmers, don’t have much in the way of greens—kale, collards, spinach—to offer this spring. Multiple blasts of arctic air froze it in the fields. Those crops tend to fare well during normal winters.

Snead said this week’s cold forced him to turn on heaters in his greenhouse to keep tomato seedlings alive.

Fruit growers in Rappahannock County, and along the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, are not in harm’s way because trees are not yet in bloom.

Dan Hofmann, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Sterling, said this week’s cold is the latest infusion of arctic air from Canada.

There were a few near-record cold temperatures in the region.

“This is very unusual and intense,” Hofmann said. For example, it was 30 degrees at Dulles International Airport Wednesday morning. The record was 28 degrees, set in 1981.

“We’ve been using the words ‘exceptionally cold air mass’ for this time of year,” Hofmann said. “It’s basically right up there, at least in the top three” coldest nights for the dates.

He said the low this morning was expected to be in the low 30s.

And for next week?

“Nothing quite as cold as this.”

Reporter Donnie Johnston contributed to this story.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431