University City

April 4, 2013

A lesson in patience: Charlotte-area crops devastated by the great Easter Freeze of 2007

That March, seductively spring-like temperatures had misled some into planting as much as a month too early.

Easter was early this year, bringing memories of another early Easter that no University City gardener or Carolinas farmer will ever forget.

Easter traditionally represents the rebirth of hope and life after the cold, dreary days of winter. In 2007, to the delight of gardeners across the Carolinas, spring seemed to have arrived early. Temperatures were well above normal throughout March.

At Reedy Creek Park Community Garden, though Extension agents and old-timers urged caution, gardeners didn’t listen. It was too sunny and warm to sit idle, and they planted like crazy, setting out summer crops like tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplants in March, more than a month before the recommended date.

Palm Sunday 2007 – on April Fools Day a week before Easter – was balmy, with temperatures in the 80s. The community garden had never looked more beautiful.

Spring crops of sugar snap peas, lettuce and broccoli were impressive. Summer crops were amazing. Green beans were a foot tall, and a few tomatoes, squash and peppers even had fruits. Petunias and marigolds were beginning to bloom.

By Thursday, rumors began to spread of dire warnings that an massive arctic blast was headed straight toward Charlotte and the rest of the Eastern United States. As temperatures began to drop, a few gardeners put out row fabric or sheets to lend a measure of protection, but most couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take the warnings seriously.

Then The Polar Express smashed into the garden. Easter Sunday dawned on a scene guaranteed to break any gardener’s heart.

Those poster-perfect plots full of vegetables had become a sad, frost-blasted scene of devastation, filled with blackened leaves and wilted stems. Nothing was spared

The community garden captured in miniature the Easter Freeze’s catastrophic effect on farms in North Carolina and elsewhere. Such tree crops as apples, grapes and peaches fared worst, though vegetable crops and grains suffered, too. In North Carolina alone, agricultural losses exceeded $100 million.

A study in Bioscience found that the Easter Freeze of 2007 did indeed have connections to global warming, with serious implications for food production. In what seemed like a contradiction, scientists found that warming global weather patterns might lead to additional freeze damage in farms, gardens, landscapes and even natural ecosystems.

They concluded that “large temperature fluctuations during the crucial spring transitional period pose a real threat to terrestrial ecosystem structure and functioning.”

In other words, overall warming can lead to unpredictable instability, a pattern seen in superstorms such as Sandy. Warm conditions can cause plants to break dormancy early, leaving them vulnerable to unpredictable late freezes.

For Reedy Creek gardeners, lessons of Easter 2007 are frozen permanently in their memories. They now wait to put out tender plants until after Tax Day, April 15, no matter how seductively spring-like March may seem. They also have learned to use tricks such as row covers and watering just before a frost to help minimize damage.

Watering, done carefully, helps protect plants in an interesting way. As water freezes, it changes state from liquid to solid, a process that releases a tiny bit of heat into the plant. The layer of ice can protect leaves and flowers from damage.

Some gardeners also use Wall-o-Water, a cleverly designed teepee filled with water that does a surprisingly effective job of protecting tomatoes and other tender crops from the cold.

Reedy Creek Park Community Garden survived the Easter freeze. Gardeners replanted, and by July they were harvesting heirloom tomatoes, green beans and crispy cucumbers. The garden is going strong today.

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