Tree Care Before and During a Cold Snap

Feb 23, 2018

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Mild weather has caused almond trees in California to bloom early. But a sudden cold-snap had shrouded the state this week, putting commercial growers and residential landscapes at risk.

Temperatures dropped below freezing this week as a high-pressure system hovering over California broke down. This allowed a massive cold-front from Canada to flow into the state, with dramatic results. Drone footage taken by Sacramento Valley Water showed off the orchards of Northern California, specifically the almond orchards, facing down the sudden peril. The cold snap comes after weeks of warmer-than-usual temperatures left some Californians trading in their cold-weather clothes for sandals and shorts. Now, growers are scrambling to provide tree care to protect their investments

The chilling surprise may have put the agricultural industry on notice. However, residential gardeners have much to fear from these weather events. The shift in weather over the weekend was sudden enough to easily blindside anyone, leaving little time to prepare any form of protection for plants and trees.

Particularly vulnerable to a cold snap are citrus trees. Orange and lemon trees are popular backyard fruit trees, but can suffer greatly during a freeze. The fruit they bear is also particularly vulnerable to adverse weather, and your crop, big or small, can be ruined by a cold snap.

There is some good news. While the weather remains out of our control, there are some emergency measure available to you, and some basic tree care throughout the year can give your trees a better chance to survive. You may lose some flowering in your back yard or on your tree, and your fruit could be ruined. However, you might also be able to save your plants and trees for another season!

Preparation is key when dealing with a cold snap!

If the trees and gardens in our backyards are treated like an investment, then it makes sense to be prepared to protect it. Climate is one of the toughest things to defend against, especially sudden changes in temperature. If you wait until you hear about incoming freezes, or until after the freeze has taken hold, you might be too late.

To that end, preparation should always be seriously considered if you’re interested in preserving your landscape. Do research on the plants you have on your property, and learn if they need special protection. Buy the materials you need to provide protection as necessary.

Trees that are well maintained on a regular basis will have a better chance against a cold snap. This is true of saplings and long-established trees alike.

Basic tree care performed regularly strengthens trees against the freeze.

  • Mulch – Maintaining a layer of mulch around a tree is one way to help it year-round. A layer of mulch can protect the roots of a tree during extreme cold. When soil thaws after a deep freeze, roots can be pushed to the surface, exposing them to pests, disease, and weather in the future. Mulch can protect against this.
  • Fertilize the soil at the right time – Keeping your soil properly fertilized will help a tree in the long run. However, it’s important to keep in mind when you’re fertilizing the soil. Doing so at the tail-end of Summer can leave your trees tender going into the colder months. When a cold snap does hit, tender trees can suffer major damage from splitting bark.
  • Deep watering – Regularly watering a tree is vital, particularly in California when the rain doesn’t always deliver. However, you might be surprised to learn that it can help to water a tree before a cold snap. Moist soil radiates warmth more than dry soil. If you hear about the weather turning harsh a few days in advance, deeply watering the tree is one of your best options. After an overnight cold snap, the sun can warm moist soil more effectively. This is particularly valuable to citrus trees, and commercial growers use this to preserve their fields.

When temperatures drop overnight, this orange could be frozen solid within hours.

Picking fruit early may be the only way to save it.

If you know a cold front is passing through and bringing freezing temps with it, then the fruit on your trees is in danger. If you think of oranges and lemons as small containers filled with water, it’s obvious what will happen when they are exposed to extreme cold. You can lose an entire tree’s worth of fruit in hours in sustained cold snap. It’s best to pick what you can as early as you can before the cold ruins your harvest.

Wraps and covers around a tree offer an additional layer of protection for younger and smaller trees.

Younger trees are generally more vulnerable to the cold than older, well established trees. A cold snap can cause serious bark splitting as the temperatures shift between night and day. When combined with the heat radiating from the soil after deep watering, a good burlap wrap or cover can further protect saplings and young trees.

Focus on preserving the trees you have so they can survive to bloom again!

Before California’s dip into freezing weather, it had been warm enough to get some trees blooming early. That early bloom has the almond industry concerned: a freeze can kill the early blooms, and without the blooms you lose almonds. The citrus industry shares similar concerns. While citrus trees can ‘harden’ themselves to the cold over time, they can lose this defense when the weather turns mild. When the weather turns harsh in the space of days after weeks of pleasant temperatures, these citrus trees can suddenly be in mortal danger.

The situation in your backyard may not be as financially critical. However, while some trees can survive a cold snap like this with few problems, others can easily succumb without action taken to save them.

And of course, there is the rest of your landscape to keep in mind. A cold-snap can devastate a backyard landscape, sometimes even with the best preparations. Researching your plants and trees before the weather becomes a danger, and providing adequate care throughout the year can help is critical to staying prepared for when the weather turns icy. You may not be able to save everything, but you can preserve some plants and trees for the next season.

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