Cold snap brings reality check for early apples, plants

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TURNER — Apple and cranberry grower Harry Ricker of Ricker Hill Orchards spent three nights this week in his cranberry bogs, running a sprinkler and trying to save his berries from freezing temperatures.

On Route 4 in Auburn, Rick Gammon of Gammon Landscaping and Nurseries has been rolling out frost blankets from dusk to midnight, trying to save as many plants as possible.

Overnight temperatures have dipped to as low as 20 degrees this week, killing scores of Ricker’s apples that were in full bloom and wreaking havoc with Gammon’s plants and trees.

“The stuff right at the top of the hill seems to be fine, but down in the frost valleys and up on the side hills, we’ve got anything from pretty-much-wiped-out to partial crop loss,” Ricker said Thursday as he planted apple trees.

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“I’m just shocked at the damage,” Gammon said. “I’ve never seen it this bad before in 30 years. I have some Elizabeth magnolias that are just black, and I fear the frost went into the stems.

“It seems to me that what God put on the Earth didn’t get damaged, and all the things that humans have played with and hybridized got damaged, so I think the Lord had a hand in this,” Gammon said.

He said he left a lot of his stock that is native to Maine uncovered and it came through unscathed, whereas a lot of his exotics, which were hybridized, were damaged.

Native shade trees weathered the frost just fine, Gammon said. But exotics such as ginkgo “got blasted.”

“I have some autumn purple ash and all the buds on that got fried, and buds on my purple smoke bush were all blasted,” Gammon said. “And my yews, all the new growth was damaged, and all of our azaleas — the oranges, the yellows, and the pinks — and my (hybrid) rhododendrons, which are the hardiest of all, their new growth got damaged.”

Roger Roberge of Provencher’s Landscaping in Lewiston likened the frost to a reality check from Mother Nature.

“We had some hydrangeas that were leafing out pretty nicely, and then the frost got the leaves,” Roberge said. “And then there’s a few trees that got hit by the frost. Basically, the buds and leaves got burnt. It doesn’t kill the plant, it just sets it back a little.”

“The plants that got nailed probably aren’t salable at this point, but give them three to four weeks and they should probably spring right back and be ready by then,” he said.

Because of unseasonable warmth in March and April, all three said their crops were leafing and blooming this month as they usually would in June.

They knew a killing frost — typical for May — was coming, so they did what they could to save what they could, and hoped for the best.

What Ricker didn’t figure on was the wind.

“Usually, if you have a cold frost time, it’s got to be calm and clear,” he said.

“Usually, it’s only the valleys where we’d have all the trouble, because cold air slides down into the frost valleys, but it was windy enough that it blew some of that cold air in the valleys up on the side hills, which is unusual,” he said.

Side-hill apples sustained 25-50 percent damage, Ricker said, and apples in the valleys sustained 100 percent damage. Unlike the fruit, leaves and blossoms, the trees themselves were unaffected.

“I’ve talked to people in New Hampshire and Vermont and eastern New York, and it’s a very similar situation, so we’re not alone in the misery,” Ricker said.

Gammon said he talked to a broker in the Saco area who said the freeze went down into the Connecticut Valley. “Some nurseries in Connecticut can’t ship because their stock is frozen, and a wholesaler in Gray that I know, he says 60 percent of his stock was frostbit,” Gammon said.

Ricker said that because his apple crop is spread across three counties, he’ll have plenty of good-quality apples for customers this year from trees atop hills that were untouched by frost.

Ricker and Gammon said this year’s growing season has been highly unusual.

“It’s the earliest we’ve ever had green tissue — by the first of April — and the earliest we’ve ever had bloom,” Ricker said.

In his father’s 60 years of memory, he said, “We’ve never had a bloom this early, and when you bloom early, the trees get to a development that’s susceptible to the cold earlier … And a lot of the people who went and planted their gardens early, they’ve got a good idea of what we’re going through.”

Gammon said he was harvesting plants at his nursery as early as the end of February, because the ground was barely frozen. Previously, his earliest harvest was March 26.

“We harvested our lilacs and forced them for a show, and never, never in my wildest dreams did I think we could harvest in February in Maine, but as this climate changes, nothing is where it’s supposed to be anymore,” Gammon said.

tkarkos@sunjournal.com

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