Maine is having one of the most unseasonably warm Novembers on record. Although people are enjoying the summerlike weather, it could not come at a worst time for some of the state’s perennial food crops that have been thrown into end-of-the-season confusion.
Gardeners and homesteaders are reporting seeing blossoms, plants sprouting and buds opening on fruit trees or plants that should be well into dormancy for the winter.
Two of Maine’s most valuable fruit crops — apples and blueberries — are among those affected by unusual high temperatures. Together they represented more than $100 million in sales in 2021, which means anytime weather conditions interfere with their growth, it’s cause for concern for small gardeners, market farmers and large growers.
“We are seeing some buds starting to break out,” said David Handley, professor at University of Maine’s fruit and vegetable research center at Highmoor Farm. “Pretty much anything that is left out now that has not gone into dormancy will probably not go dormant and you may start to see some regrowth.”
To successfully overwinter and survive the cold, trees like apples and plants like blueberries adapt to freezing temperatures and short days by going into dormancy — sort of a botanical hibernation. It’s triggered by a drop in the temperatures, changes in the sun’s angle and a decrease of sunlight.
While fruiting plants around the state show signs of delayed dormancy, experts say they should survive the winter.
Growers who have already planted their fall garlic have reported it starting to sprout above ground. Unfortunately, according to Handley, there is nothing they can do about it at this point.
“That’s why we tell people to bury their garlic really, really deep,” he said. “Hopefully some of their cloves will survive the winter.
Maine has seen a string of 70-degrees fahrenheit and above days that started last week. Warmer than normal conditions are forecast for the next several days and that, according to Handley, can prevent buds from entering dormancy.
That will translate into some plant die-off in crops like blueberries that growers will notice next spring, Handley said, adding it should have minimal impact on the overall crop.
The time to worry about perennials is not now but late winter, Handley said.
“What tends to happen in March is we get a warm spell and the plants come out of dormancy because they think spring is here,” he said “Then we get back down to below freezing and those plants are no longer in dormancy and can be damaged.”
It’s hard to say if Maine will continue to see these increasingly warmer fall months with climate change, but there is concern it will affect the normal growing season here.
“This whole year has been unusual,” Handley said. “I’ve been at this for 40 years, and I am still waiting for a ‘normal’ year.’”