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Botanical Health Care, Keith M. Tulk
Botanical Services, INC
Plant Health Care for Landscapes
Insect & Disease Controls
Pruning, Pesticide Application, Fertilizations
Tree, Shrub, Perennial, Lawn Care

On the subject of the warm winter and the effect on landscape plants:

“The preponderance of evidence indicates that there will be an overall increase in the number of outbreaks of a wider variety of insects and pathogens. Integrated Pest Management will be the overall best strategy to engage the multitude of incidents that are expected.

“How will the warm winter weather affect my landscape plants and lawn?”
“What will the effect of the warm winter and spring weather have on my garden?”
“How will the warmer than normal winter affect lawn & garden insects?”
“How will the warm winter weather affect tree & shrub diseases?”

The answer is, “It depends.”

First we have to mentally organize what biological elements we are talking about. There are several categories that we need to consider. They include trees & shrubs (evergreen or deciduous), roses and semi-woody (pithy) plants or perennials, lawns and turf grass, weeds (annual and perennial), pathogens such as fungal diseases insect pests, pollinators and predatory (beneficial) insects and annuals or perennial crops. So the best way to think about how the warm winter of 2011-12 will affect our gardens is that it is setting a different stage than we are accustomed to; a different set of circumstances with different possibilities that will be played out in the coming weeks.

But in general:

• The most noticeable difference will be the earlier than normal bud swell and the rapid emergence of fleshly plant tissue (vegetative growth) during March and April. This delicate tissue will be very susceptible to spring frosts for several more weeks (it is not uncommon to experience frost well into May in northern Illinois). If frost occurs, most damage will be aesthetic and plants will recover but often require extra attention to pruning. Frost damaged plants may have to wait a year to see another significant flowering event.
• Early spring temperatures followed by late frosts can mean problems for perennial crops that depend on insect pollination. Frost is known to kill or “push back” pollinating insects and burn flower parts required for fruit production.
• Since there was no significant freeze we don’t have to wait very long for a thawing period in order to dig and move mulch (usually my mulch pile is a chunk of ice until nearly May), and because we will not have a significant snow melt, a warm spring could bring moisture stress and even sunburn to many emerging perennials if temperatures rise too quickly.
• A prolonged spring will certainly increase the incidence of springtime diseases such as apple scab, rusts, black spot, needle casts and many others, because the conditions that encourage the transmission of these diseases may be extended. Additionally, the plant tissues will have been in a susceptible growth state for a longer period of time. Expect to treat susceptible plants at a higher frequency (spray schedule) to keep them healthy and your property clean and tidy through the season.
• Perhaps the most significant concern with a warm winter will be in regard to insect pests. In order to predict how a warm winter will affect insects depends greatly on how a particular insect normally spends the winter. Lack of winter snow could mean that surface or shallow ground-inhabiting insects did not have sufficient insulating cover so minimal frost could have killed many. Insects that burrow deeper into the soil, such as Japanese Beetles will have likely survived in higher numbers if the frost line was shallow, as it was.
• Some researchers suggest that temperature is the factor that greatly overwhelms all others in regard to insect mortality. Insects are cold –blooded and so their temperature is relative to the surrounding environment. Flowering on the other hand is far less affected by temperature and is generally more dependent on sun exposure or photoperiod (length of daytime relative to nighttime). Insect emergences have traditionally been associated with a particular flowering period of certain perennials. Insect emergence can also be predicted through a scientific method known as Degree Day Calculation. We do not have a lot of data available with predicting insect development with an especially warm winter, so the uncertainty of insect survival over the winter can make predicting pest populations very difficult.
• Warm winter combined with an early or warm spring can be a bad scenario in regard to the imminent threat of Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). Warm temperatures can result in an early emergence of the insect. This could mean that Ash trees that have not yet been treated with insecticide may not get treated in time to effectively control this very serious pest. Most available insecticides require thorough distribution into the tree by pressure or translocation of an actively growing plant. EAB is still a regional problem and scouting for local evidence of this insect is a crucial step when considering treatment. Reapplications will be necessary.
• Many weeds that are normally considered annuals in our gardens potentially will have survived the winter, especially in protected areas. Additionally, over time, consistently warm winters can allow southern weed species to migrate into northern areas. Weed germination depends on soil temperature and moisture. As days lengthen the soil warms to deeper levels and weeds seeds can germinate.
• In regard to lawns, the warm winter and little snow cover can be beneficial. Although some highly exposed turf areas could be burned by desiccating surface frosts and winter wind, some of the spring turf diseases may be suppressed because the lawn is not saturated with melt-water for extended time.

“Is it possible that we won’t have any frosts after March?” “Sure, although unlikely.”

“Is it possible to have a short, warm spring with summerlike temperatures that could actually help suppress the incidence of disease on perennials?” “Sure, but only time will tell.”

So the best answer to the question: “How will a warm winter affect my landscape plants?” The answer is, “It depends.”

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