SNOW, HAIL, WIND & WATER: We call that winter in BC!

Tom Baumann

It seems like just yesterday that I commented on the 2016-2017 winter—a tough one that didn’t want to quit. The winter of 2017-2018 turned out to be quite similar. Maybe the bears are smarter than us after all—they just go and hibernate. Preferably, I’d like to go somewhere warm and dry for the winter. If I could only take all the perennial plants with me (wishful thinking). Maybe I’ll make a mai tai while I put my thoughts down on paper.

This past winter had a nice slow slide to cooler temperatures in October (although we had a day of 20°C in Abbotsford) and November (again a few days of around 12°C and rain that saturated everything) until the first cold outbreak in December with relatively decent temperatures, but windy. In mid-December a survey of the berry fields showed no or very little damage to flowers on our main varieties throughout the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley.

Toward the end of December, just like winter before, we got snow and cold temperatures for the new year. Then throughout January there was little change and the snow lingered. In February, mid-Valley temperatures warmed to near 15°C and the buds of plants started to swell, heralding an early spring. None of this warned of Old Man Winter’s return, and we got hit with very cold temperatures and strong easterly outflow winds once more; we desperately waited for this to end, and end it did with a bang and another foot of snow. But what was really wild were the two days of disastrous freezing rain. Chilliwack received mostly snow, Abbotsford westward mostly freezing rain, and by the ocean just rain. That’s when I got a lot of phone calls regarding our crops.

We all saw the pictures in the papers and on-line and video clips on the news: trees fallen, powerlines down, roads impassable, as the warm air tried to push out the entrenched cold air. Driving was next to impossible in the Fraser Valley and it was not safe to be outside—branches were falling everywhere. In Chilliwack we coped quite well with relatively little damage, although some big trees came down. Abbotsford was an entirely different story with major problems for days and long periods of power outage.

Everyone reported berry plants collapsing under the weight of the ice, and indeed I observed some damage where plants had not been pruned. However, plants that had been pruned were mostly able to carry the load of the ice and faired relatively well.

Once pruning was all done, plants didn’t look that bad anymore, so here’s hoping that the storm didn’t do major damage in some fields. The most common question posed to me was whether to knock the ice out of the trees and bushes etc. My first reaction was, don’t even be outside with all that debris falling, but then I began to wonder what I should do with my own plants around the yard. I came to the conclusion that if I went out to knock ice off, I’d break every branch in sight as they were under extreme tension. So I left them, and the ice then melted so quickly that where branches were bent all the way to the ground, buried under snow and ice, they sprang up readily once the ice was off. The plants are designed for this. Cottonwoods and other brittle trees shed lots of branches, which no doubt will grow back rapidly in 2018. At the University of the Fraser Valley, large fir and cottonwood branches had broken and needed clearing.

One of the saving graces was that we had had several major wind storms before the ice storm, which cleared much of the rotten wood out of trees and bushes already so only the strong remained.

So, was it a complete disaster? Sure, many people were inconvenienced for days, cars were destroyed, houses hit and damaged; but, from a plant perspective, the damage from the storms was recoverable.

Then we had the great meltdown and it got warm . . . too warm. As plants had long fulfilled their cold requirements over winter, buds started swelling quite rapidly when we hit as much as 13°C in Abbotsford. The grass began growing and I prepared the lawnmower for action—just in case.

Behind the scenes, researchers and extension agents up and down the North American coast were pondering whether this was the beginning of an early season, and then it started getting really cold again. Luckily, only a few plants were already showing green and those probably got a bit of damage; however, the majority of buds were well-behaved and stopped expanding, protecting the sensitive flowers and leaves under the protection of the brown bracts covered with wax.

So, very likely this cold snap also didn’t do much harm. The most worrisome were the strong winds from the east when it was so cold. With buds advancing growth, they could have dried out the inside, which can cause damage, later showing as brown. At writing, we may observe some cane damage in raspberry as temperatures start climbing. Further samples of blueberries in March didn’t show significant losses of flowers either as expected; so we are still looking fine on that aspect. However, some varieties, especially Bluecrop, look like they have significantly too many vegetative buds and not enough flower buds. As we all know, plants can make up quite a lot of loss by using their resources for larger fruit, for example. And, in raspberries specifically, secondary buds can grow out and make up for losses of the primary buds, but will it be enough?

The wild weather of spring is now upon us and spring frosts and sustained rains are likely more devastating—if and when they occur. So, we will no doubt see some damage, but it won’t be clear how much until we are past flowering. All these vagaries of nature make us leery of what next season will bring. As always, we farmers wait until we see the real evidence in the fields. Until that time, we have to ignore what’s going on (or we could move to a tropical climate, but they may potentially have as many devastating issues). We can never escape nature, but we can do our best to recover from the effects— and we always do!

Tom Baumann

Tom-Baumann-2Tom Baumann has spent most of his agriculture career as a horticulturist specializing in berries. His company, Expert Agriculture Team Ltd., provides many services to others including advice, trouble shooting and aids in claim situations. Tom also teaches full time at UFV Chilliwack as an Associate Professor in the Agriculture Department.
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