Frost takes a bite at local orchard

Dan Whitcomb with one of the apple trees in his orchard the morning of April 11 after a hard 20-degree frost hours earlier.

It was too early to tell on Tuesday last week what damage the frost that morning had done to the apple and plum trees or the blueberries on Dan Whitcomb’s berry and orchard farm just north of Princeton city limits.

But he knew what the 20 degree F. temperature that morning could do to buds that opened far enough or had flowered. He talked about the hard frost that morning as he took a visitor around his J.Q. Fruit Farm and Orchard. His first stop was at a fully-blossomed Toka plum tree. That tree blossoms a lot earlier than other plum trees there and serves as a pollinator, Whitcomb said. He explained that bees visit the Toka’s blooms and spread their pollen later at other plum trees.

The many rows of tall blueberry plants had not yet budded out at Whitcomb’s fruit and orchard operation, so he was not worried about that morning’s frost hurting them. He had a different kind of worry, however, that alluded to the tumultuous weather pattern since last fall.

Stopping at a Haralson apple tree, Whitcomb explained that because the budding was not yet far along, the Haralson was likely not injured by that morning’s frost.

Whitcomb was less sure how the buds fared on his Sweet 16 apple trees as they were further along. In a week or so he could maybe tell, he said. He also wondered about how his Zestar apple trees would do.

Sometimes frost will kill some apple buds but not all, and again, it depends on how far along the bud development is, he said, noting that any temperature below 28 degrees can damage pink buds or blooms. Budding and blooming started 30 days earlier than normal this spring at J.Q. Fruit Farm and Orchard. Because of that he didn’t finish pruning all his apple trees because pruning will damage fruit trees that have emerged from winter dormancy.

The next morning, April 12, another hard frost visited the area, the low temperature at close to 24 degrees.

Whitcomb lost a lot of applies in the spring of 2010 when a 20-degree frost hit on May 9. The blossoms were far enough along then to result in a large number killed, he said.

As Whitcomb moved on to one of his Honeycrisp apple tree the morning of April 11, he said it was another tree not hurt by the frost because it hadn’t leafed out yet.

It’s also still about a month away before local berry and apple growers can rest in regard to frost. Whitcomb said he won’t commit to any profile of what his harvest will be until after May 20. This date is still considered the point of becoming frost-free, he explained. Until then, he added, “we could lose everything.”