Northeast to freeze tonight

Above: Pea seedlings at WP HQ under a blanket of straw. Temperatures in New Kingston, on the eastern edge of Delaware County, are predicted to drop into the teens tonight. Photo by Lissa Harris.

March came in like a lamb, and it's going out like a lion. Tonight, temperatures will plunge over a wide swath of the Northeast, threatening all the new buds and shoots that have taken advantage of this spring's freakishly warm weather to pop out early.

Now is the time to cover tender plants with protective mulch, and protect any fruit trees and vines that have already begun to bud. GardeningKnowHow.com has some tips on protecting plants in a cold snap. Neat trick: Wrap a tree or shrub with a string of incandescent (not LED) Christmas tree lights, and plug it in overnight.

The AP reports that tonight's forecast has New York State farmers very worried:

Wayne County orchard owner Stephanie Craft tells the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that she and her husband Gary won't be able to sleep Monday night. The temperature is expected to drop to about 23 degrees.

The Times-Tribune in Scranton, PA reports that this year's warm, early spring is one for the record books:

"I'm pretty sure this will be the earliest bloom, going back at least to the early 1900s," said Ian Merwin, Ph.D., a horticulturist who specializes in tree fruit at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "We are definitely in a very risky situation right now for the fruit crop in the whole Northeast."

But if fruit trees can pull through the cold snap -- in some cases, with help from portable propane-fueled outdoor heaters -- growers will be reaping an incredible early harvest:

[Dallas, PA farmer Paul] Brace said he may be picking Honey Crisp apples in mid-July, about six weeks ahead of their typical emergence in early September.

"We are so early, we are going to be before market," he said. "It's so abnormal, you can't even fathom this."