This year’s unusually warm weather has brought some concerns to local farmers and horticulturalists on whether the summer-like start to spring will affect the commonwealth’s abundance of spring flowers and crops.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that Churchill Downs horticulture director Matt Bizzell said the warm winter means the track’s tulips will bloom about two weeks too early for the first Saturday in May, meaning derby goers won’t see the 6,000 to 12,000 tulips typically blooming at the track during Derby Week.
Over at the Kentucky State University Research and Demonstration Farm, Dr. Kirk Pomper has noticed a similar pattern.
“I’ve been here 14 years, and this is, I think, the earliest flowering I can remember,” said Pomper, KSU’s principal investigator of horticulture. “We’re probably three weeks ahead of normal.”
The farm’s peach trees, which typically bloom later in the spring, have been in full bloom “four or five days now,” Pomper said.
Pomper’s pawpaws are also in full bloom, something he said he isn’t used to seeing until toward the end of April.
While the blooming farm makes for a pretty picture, people like Pomper know all too well what those trees will look like if temperatures drop.
“We often get these cold periods where you get spring frost,” Pomper said. “If we’re in bloom when these frosts hit, it’s going to be quite damaging.”
Pomper said the flowers are more susceptible to freeze damage than the fruit, which tends to be more cold hardy. If a frost hits while the trees are in bloom, it’s likely that fruit won’t develop.
For those who grow fruit at home, Pomper said they may be able to prevent frost damage by throwing a blanket over their buds. But for commercial growers, horticulturists are saying there’s really not much they can do, something that concerns the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Adam Watson.
“If those flower buds are damaged … then we’ll have an impact on the size of crop that Kentucky producers can make,” said Watson, who oversees horticulture.
“Fruit trees are typically just at the mercy of the weather … it’s one of those things where if you have climate-like effects from weather like this, it’s not anything that can be addressed easily.”
But frost damage might not be something Watson and others will have to address, according to the National Weather Service.
“Looking at the 6-10 day forecast and the 8-14 day forecast, both give us about a 60-70 percent chance of warmer than normal temperatures for the state of Kentucky,” meteorologist John Denman told The State Journal.
“In general, it is expected to cool off, but it’ll remain warmer than normal.”
While Denman cautioned that these are only predictions, not facts, he said there is a greater chance that the warmer temperatures will stick around.
“There’s a better chance of it being warmer than normal than it being colder than normal,” Denman said.
That means plants are likely to continue blooming early, which is good news for Land Branch Manager Garth Vinson, who oversees the Capitol’s landscaping.
“For us, this has been a benefit,” he said outside the Governor’s Mansion Thursday, as crews trimmed the juniper bushes behind him.
“To have everything early this year, it gives us a few extra days … to get all of our spring planting in and everything watered and settled in so it looks a little more full come Derby Day.”
Vinson said typically crews will scramble to pull out the tulips, which usually start to wilt about a week before Derby Day, so they can replant for Derby Week.
But since the Capitol tulips have sprung up a few weeks early, Vinson said the crews should have an easier time getting everything ready for the first week in May, when the Capitol receives a surge of visitors passing through for the derby.
Some local vegetable farmers, like Jessie Bessinger, are also taking the warmer spring in stride. She said she’s taken advantage of the warmer temperatures to get a head start on planting her spring vegetables.
“It’s really fun to be starting early,” Bessinger said, smiling, hands dirty from working in the garden all Thursday afternoon. “I was buying seeds in the store the other day and I had to write down the date, and I was shocked it was March still.”
Bessinger recently added some okra seeds to the garden, something she said she usually doesn’t plant until later in the spring.
That’s because okra is more susceptible to frost damage, but Bessinger said she was willing to take the risk.
“I can always plant them again,” she shrugged.