Temperature swings take toll on local trees

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A case of temperature whiplash is back in southern Colorado this week. Our latest front moved through the state, bringing us noticeable temperature swings that cut our daytime highs in half in a single day.

It was a similar story in October. Not only did we come close to breaking snowfall records in Colorado Springs and Pueblo on the 28th, we had even more extreme temperature changes. Colorado Springs actually broke a record on the 29th, recording the coldest max temperature. The daytime high was 20 degrees, breaking the 1991 record of 24.

Fall-like temps in the 70s and 80s plummeted to freezing during our October cold fronts. We aren’t the only ones affected by these weather changes, local plants are starting to suffer from the temperature swings. Neighbors and farmers along the Front Range say they’re seeing major tree damage and loss since early October.

“Another example of extreme temperature changes was just back in April of this year, when the weather was doing its normal ‘April Front Range thing,’ and a deep freeze hit. One serious effect of that temperature change was dead Ash trees all over the Front Range,” said Eric Moroski, Weisburg Landscape Maintenance. “We also had the late May snow that was pretty devastating to the urban canopy. Mother Nature can certainly prune, but she is pretty bad at it.”

The most visible effects have been seen on young trees, particularly evergreens, that were planted within the last two to three years. Some newly planted pines in Colorado Springs show browning needles, in some cases turning completely brown

Colorado landscape professionals say don’t give up yet if you’re having problems with your trees. Their best advice to homeowners is simply be patient and continue to care for them. Levi Heidrich, of Colorado Tree Farm Nursery, recommends watering in the winter when temperatures are above freezing. He also says to try to mitigate damage by misting the pine needles when the ground is frozen.

“Freeze damage is very similar to drought damage,” explained Heidrich. “Ideally, it’s best to hydrate trees prior to frost damage. We also immediately started watering our trees following the event by misting the needles. Watering the ground is still okay as long the ground is not frozen yet. Once the ground freezes up, misting the needles is best. This is especially critical on young trees planted within the last 2-3 years.”

Experts at Colorado State University explained that when water freezes, it releases some heat and can add some protection and therefore can help lessen the damage. They point out that the damage is not likely due to the quality of the plants or how they were planted or maintained. Extreme temperature changes and early freezes are unexpected events that can affect young plants and trees when they are most vulnerable.

Landscape professionals say, established trees that just have browning at the tips of leaves may still have buds that are viable, and they will leaf out in spring. In the same way, evergreens with brown needles may still have healthy buds that contain spring growth. Experts won’t know the long-term effects from these early October cold snaps until spring.

A similar deep freeze in 2014, which followed a very warm fall, had devastating effects on stone fruit trees and shrubs. Trees were not ready for such a temperature swing that early in the season.

After that weather event, the following spring showed some plants bouncing back from damage while others were a loss. The freeze damage looks very similar to drought damage. Some trees that turned entirely brown were still able to push out all new needles in the spring.

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