Extent of freeze damage becoming evident in Pasco, Hernando

The color brown, in all of its somber shades, dominates the landscapes of homes in Hernando and Pasco counties.

Blueberry patches and commercial vegetable fields are not faring much better. It's all compliments of Mother Nature's chilly hand, which swept over the region for nearly a week in late January and for several days this month. Early morning temperatures reached into the high teens several nights in some places.

Unsightly dead palm fronds clack above tawny lawns everywhere. Hibiscus bushes that normally burst with trumpet-like fuchsia blooms are humbled. Limp in their demise are split leaf philodendron, ti, bananas, crotons and other herbaceous plants.

Last year, there were three freezes on the North Suncoast. "This year we had 14 nights of this crap," Hernando blueberry grower Larry Davis grumbled on Tuesday. "And it's not over yet.''

Indeed, weather forecasts for the coming days on the North Suncoast show overnight temperatures expected to be in the 30s to 40s through Monday, with a predicted low in the high 20s early Saturday morning.

"We tend to forget how cold it can get here," noted extension urban horticulture agent Jim Moll. "Good grief, we're not in South Florida, and some of these (plants) need tropical conditions."

The U.S. and Florida departments of agriculture are making assessments of crop losses to determine if aid is needed.

Pygmy date palms are not likely to survive unless they were not only well covered, but also augmented with heat from a light bulb, he said. "Young queen palms are iffy. Older ones, it's hard to say."

Before cutting down or removing palms, Moll advises waiting to see if any new growth appears out of the tree's center. "If it turns brown shortly, the tree is dead. If it remains green, that's a good sign."

"Jacaranda trees won't make it," Moll said.

Knowing that those armed with saws, clippers and snips are eager to use them, Moll observed, "Guys won't like this . . . (but) don't prune woody plants till March."

"If you have brown leaves (on hibiscus), it probably froze to the ground. But all that ugly foliage may radiate heat off the ground and help new growth," he explained.

If bougainvillea, which typically blooms prolifically in winter, was in bloom, it will have frozen out, Moll said.

"Staghorn, the most popular fern, and tree ferns may not make it."

Not all is gone forever. Bananas, ti and split leaf philodendron will come back from the root, he predicted.

"Avocado, it's beyond me how they survived," Moll added.

Under or surrounding it all, St. Augustine grass has turned a dirty color. "It will remain brown until we get longer days of warmer weather," the specialist forecast.

Floritam, the most popular cultivar, is cold hardy to the mid 20s, but tissue can freeze at lower temperatures. "People could lose part or all. I know I'll be getting lots of calls in a couple of months," Moll said.

Blueberries

Davis has been growing berries nine years. He calculates he lost 20 percent of his crop that recently set fruit on 40,000 bushes along Powell Road, south of Brooksville. Last year, his cull rate stood at 10 percent.

Yes, the Davises poured on irrigation through the freezing hours. Larry's wife, Ruth, noted a strong wind one overnight that blew spray from north to south, leaving the north part of the plot without protection. "So, we had most damage in the north," she said.

The tiny berries will fall off. Maybe the remaining berries, with less competition, will grow larger, Ruth Davis said, "but they might have scarring."

The state's blueberry loss amounts to 20 to 50 percent, according to the Florida Blueberry Association. Georgia's crop was hit to the tune of 50 percent.

Based on the supply-demand axiom, the price of harvested berries should go up. "But the way this economy is, we don't know," said Larry Davis.

He's already lost more: $3,000 for diesel fuel to operate the irrigation system on freezing nights, and all the in-the-root-zone fertilizer washed away in 18 hours. Still to come, he said: possible stem blight and other fungus-based diseases that could flourish with the onslaught of so much water.

Vegetables

While the Davises continued their weather watch, Joann Beasley, who owns and operates a truck farm east of Brooksville off Mondon Hill Road, had already cleared away decimated beet and Swiss chard seedlings.

"They won't come back," said Beasley, who took over the farm from her father in 1998. Florida sweet onions will show some brown spots, she fears.

Beasley Farm has no technology to ward off frost. "My rows are 350 long," she said, so covers are pretty much an impossibility. And she drains the irrigation system so it won't freeze.

Beasley's winter-hardy crops of collards, turnips, romaine, older beets and older Swiss chard, planted from September through November, appear to have weathered the worst, Beasley said.

"I did not have any spring crops planted," a decision based on her growing vegetables since she was a youngster helping her dad. "It's not really safe to do spring planting at least until the beginning of March," she advised.

Beasley crops nine acres on the home farm and leases up to 12 acres more for spring and summer bearing vegetables.

Citrus

Dooryard citrus trees younger than five years of age may have succumbed. Older citrus will drop leaves and possibly some fruit.

"It's not as bad as it looks," Moll said. "We may not see the full extent of damage until it warms up in the spring and the tree starts to grow again."

If citrus holds on to its brown leaves or branches split or new growth appears from the rootstock below the graft, they're goners. "Don't try to nurse it back. Buy a $20 new tree," Moll urged.

Limes, the most tender of the citrus, seldom survive the extent of freezes that descended here this year.

"We had some leaf damage," observed Philip Bruce whose grove of 20 acres along Powell Road is populated by some 2,500 trees that produce oranges for processing into juice concentrate.

"It's hard to determine how bad it is. The leaves are just starting to fall. I think we might have got through it all right," said Bruce, who leases his trees to a Dade City producer. Bruce keeps his hand in the business, a practiced eye on his trees and attention to the irrigation system.

"We picked all the concentrate oranges in December," he reported, "the first time in the last four years we've picked that early. If they hadn't been picked, the oranges would have frozen. When frozen, they start to dehydrate and in two weeks they become mush."

Bruce cares for a special two acres set aside for family use and enjoyment. "If you can name a type of fruit, it's back there," said the grower. "Limes and lemons can't stand the cold at all," he noted, adding the frost hurt the lime trees very much.

But Bruce is hardly complaining. He's been around long enough to see nature do much worse.

Like the devastating winters of 1983 and 1989. That's when citrus trees froze to the ground, driving many growers out of business and turning massive groves into housing developments.

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

Extent of freeze damage becoming evident in Pasco, Hernando 02/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 9:06am]

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