The 22 greenhouses at Strawberry Hill Farms were bustling with business at the end of March with customers eager to plant new crops in their gardens. However, the recent cold snap has nipped the early rush in the bud.
“It was real busy on pretty days,” Joyce Sapp, one of the owners of Strawberry Hill Farms, said. “Now there’s just a few folks and most of them are from out of town.”
Above-average temperatures at the end of March created an ideal environment for plants to thrive in, but this week’s chill has gardeners taking steps to protect their plants’ livelihoods.
“The plants have been pushed along, so they are more well-advanced than what they should be, and it makes them more susceptible to damage,” Chris Starbuck, a horticulture specialist for the MU Extension, said.
While he thinks most plants will not sustain permanent injury, he said it is still too soon to tell.
“We will not know until after this cold spell passes what the damages will be,” he said.
While damage to leaves will be immediately noticeable on crops, evidence of damage to fruit trees, such as peaches and apples may not show up for months until the plants produce below average yields or misshapen fruit, Starbuck said.
Individual and commercial producers who are growing crops right now are varying in their methods of protecting their plants from the freezing temperatures.
All agreed that moving plants inside is the most effective method.
“We were able to get them all back in,” Sapp said, referring to the transport of their outside plants into their heated greenhouses.
But some do not have this luxury.
David Vance, manager of Total Environments Garden Center, said they were able to bring some of their plants back inside, but were forced to use sheets to cover other plants because they lack space inside the building.
“We have thousands of crops, so there’s not much we can do,” Vance said.
Plants that are already well-established in the ground are not moveable, but Starbuck said that tarps draped over the plants can keep small trees warm , adding that some people use shoplights or even Christmas lights to heat their trees.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of a degree or two,” Starbuck said. “Any little protection you can provide helps.”
Dan Kuebler , of Ashland, grows crops to sell at the Columbia Farmer’s Market. He is attempting to keep his tomatoes warm inside a small plastic growing tunnel and will also use a breathable polyester fabric to insulate the plants.
“I’ll probably be able to get an additional 10 degrees with both layers,” Kuebler said.
According to the National Weather Service in St. Louis, the average last date for temperatures to reach 32 degrees or lower in Columbia is April 10. Temperatures are expected to increase by the beginning of next week, but that does not mean producers are necessarily safe from frost.
Vance said he thinks a better approximation for the last frost is May 10.
“Usually you will get a late frost, but not usually a freeze,” Vance said.