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After cold spell, Hernando County growers hope damage is minimal

Icicles hang from an orange tree in a grove off Spring Lake Highway, where the low temperature fell to 16 degrees Monday.


Icicles hang from an orange tree in a grove off Spring Lake Highway, where the low temperature fell to 16 degrees Monday.

Hernando County took one big sigh of relief Thursday afternoon as the mercury edged up above 70 for the first time this year. And on Thursday night, for the first time since Jan. 3, the overnight low was above freezing.

With the return to normalcy, growers and homeowners began to assess their damage. But in most cases, while there was cautious optimism, the word was: "Wait and see."

George and Joan Casey said they won't know for several more days if aerial irrigation and row covers saved the strawberry blossoms and plants on their farm southwest of Brooksville. Berries in various stages of development, some even ripened, succumbed at least in part.

Citrus growers at Boyett's Grove in Spring Lake expected to return to harvesting chores this weekend. Co-owner Kathy Oleson anticipated spotty picking.

Trees at higher elevations on the rolling ridge appear to have weathered the onslaught, she said. But some fruit on trees planted at lower elevations likely suffered frost or freeze damage, turning their flesh mushy.

Various types of citrus differ in their cold hardiness and stage of development at this time of year, Oleson said.

"Every tree is different," she said.

The extent of fruit loss, she said, won't be known for several weeks as pickers move through the groves.

A few groves in Hernando County reported damage to smaller citrus trees, said Stacy Strickland, director of the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service.

"With warmer weather this weekend, damage is going to be more evident," Strickland said.

Vegetables at Beasley Farm east of Brooksville appeared to have fared fairly well, Joann Beas­ley said.

"I'm cutting broccoli and collards right now, believe it or not," Beasley said. "They're okay. They're mostly cold hardy."

Other greens — mustard, chard and spinach — are "wait and see," she said.

"Mustard is the most iffy. I don't think they'll come back. Cabbage is wait and see."

Spinach will pose a labor-intensive harvest, Beasley said, since outer leaves burned by frost will require painstaking removal.

In the meantime, local shrimpers continue to wait for gulf waters to warm up.

Some 50 or more shrimp boats that trawl out of Hernando Beach have been cleated to the docks since the week before Christmas, when the local water temperature dropped below 57 degrees. Early this week, the temperature was recorded at 41 degrees.

"When the water gets down to 57 degrees, the shrimp just bury up," said Danny Shipp, a shrimper for 14 years.

The crustaceans burrow into the sand and can't been seen or caught.

When the shrimp venture up to feed in cold water, they are susceptible to tail rot and death, said Charity Rodriguez, wife of shrimping captain Harley Rodriguez.

"Shrimp are very smart," she said. "When it gets cold, they run to warmer water. Usually in the winter, we go to Tampa Bay or Miami, and we can't even do that."

Tampa Bay waters generally run 8 degrees warmer than off Hernando Beach, Shipp said. He was hoping this weekend to leave the local dock for the first time in nearly a month and head south.

Many homeowners will likely get out of the house this weekend and begin to assess the damage in their yards. John Korycki, coordinator of the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program in Hernando, said homeowners can look, but they should not do anything yet.

"Pruning will prompt new growth, and that will freeze the next time," Korycki said.

Also, he said, a bit of life may be left in the core of a plant that now appears dead, so it may recover.

"Wait and see," he said.

"Probably a lot of plants got lost," Korycki acknowledged. But in what he calls micro-climates in the landscape — such as in a courtyard or next to a south wall — survival is more likely.

Record cold causes propane sales to soar

Sherwood Forest Nursery in Spring Hill said replacement plants, when the time comes, should be in good supply. Growers constantly monitor weather and are well prepared to protect their young specimens from a freeze, said Edwin Ganea, a technician at the nursery for 20 years.

Of the stock at Sherwood Forest, Ganea said: "Actually, we really haven't had any real damage at all. We took measures way ahead of time, brought some plants in, used frost blankets, double wrapped, watered before the cold hit and then left them dry."

The big loss, he said, was in sales.

Customers? "None," he said.

That was not the case at Amerigas, a propane outlet in Brooksville.

Calls for home-heating propane over the past couple of weeks jumped from a usual 300 to between 600 and 700, the business reported. Not unexpectedly, the price rose from about $4 a gallon to between $4.50 and $5. The company sold out of space heaters.

Charlie's Plumbing in Brooksville was also swamped with business, as homeowners called about broken pipes due to freezing.

The call list last weekend ran to 15 pages, office manager Karen Kuolak said.

Service technician Chris Ramsey said, "We even used construction guys to fix broken lines."

Calls have tapered off dramatically with the temperature finally approaching seasonal norms, Kuolak said.

How cold has it been?

Meteorologist Logan Johnson with the National Weather Service in Ruskin said the average temperature recorded at the Hernando County Airport for the first 13 days of January was 38.4.

During the coldest January on record — in 1970 — the average was about 3 degrees higher.

"This is very unusual," Johnson said.

Staff writer Jean Hayes contributed to this story. Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]

A long cold spell

Jan. 1 Jan. 2 Jan. 3 Jan. 4 Jan. 5 Jan. 6 Jan. 7 Jan. 8 Jan. 9 Jan. 10 Jan. 11 Jan. 12 Jan. 13 Jan. 14
High 66 59 46 48 46 48 60 58 39 41 49 57 60 71
Low 45 35 33 26 23 23 19 29 17 17 14 18 22 29

Source: National Weather Service, Ruskin. All readings recorded at the Hernando County Airport, south of Brooksville

After cold spell, Hernando County growers hope damage is minimal 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 2:41pm]
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