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In cold snap, Hernando County growers focus on protecting plants

Humans hardly need be told to cover up during a cold spell, but if plants and animals could speak, they might chatter, "Cover me."

A cold winter snap in Florida is common, but below-freezing temperatures so early in the season and so long enduring — this one began Saturday and is forecast through Sunday — are unusual, say meteorologists and local weather watchers.

As Hernando County shuddered through another frigid day Tuesday, so far the impact on the neediest residents, especially the homeless, has not been major. Social service providers — including Jericho Road Ministries, the Salvation Army and the county emergency management department — reported no one had contacted them for assistance so far.

The need to stay warm extends to the four-legged residents as well.

"We do not recommend leaving animals outside," said Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast. "They're not used to this weather."

Dogs at the society's shelter are kept indoors when the temperature reaches 40 degrees. Felines at the shelter's cat cottage are free to go inside or outside at their choice. All pets, Schoch said, definitely need overnight protection during a cold spell.

It has been a mixed bag for local growers of cash crops.

Blueberries, the county's major commercial berry crop, have mostly escaped damage. "It's not a problem now as they're dormant," said Daniel Ebbecke, who raises blueberries and blackberries at a Masaryktown farm. "In three to four weeks when the buds are on, it's going to be a problem."

Concurred George Casey, who grows small fruits along Wiscon Road southwest of Brooksville, "The blueberries are fine. The buds are not open. The first of February, then we'll do freeze protection."

But freeze watch and cold retardant measures are under way for a half-acre of strawberries whose first-year planting and care are the project of son Jeff Casey.

Few strawberries are grown commercially in Hernando County.

The Caseys are raising two plots under comparative methods: one with traditional water sprinkling that ices the plants and draws cold from the air, and one under fiberglass cloth row covers, believed to be a first in Hernando County.

"The water is doing its job," George Casey said. The sprinklers have been in play overnights since Sunday. The row covers have been in place 24 hours a day since then.

County Extension director Stacy Strickland, monitoring the cover project, performed temperature checks Monday morning. He reported 17 degrees on the cover's exterior, 32 degrees on the sheltered leaf surface and 36 degrees on the fruit. "That's shocking to me," Strickland said, "the difference in that space of 1 inch."

The Caseys rolled back the covers at midmorning Monday. "You need to get the covers off to give (the plants) some sunlight," Strickland explained. "Things don't grow without sunlight." But the covers were returned midafternoon.

Covers aren't practical for citrus unless the trees are small. Ebbecke employs floating fabrics over some immature trees. "With larger (trees) we can put sprinklers under them and heat from the water rises under the (leaf) canopy," he said.

In Spring Lake, caretaker of two small commercial groves Louis Neuhoffer relies on micro-sprinkler systems beneath the trees. One emitter per tree, from 1 foot to 3 feet above ground level, sprays water which freezes, releasing heat. The systems are manually turned on when the air temperature dips to 35 degrees.

"They're doing their job," Neuhoffer said. "We've had some ice in fruit on the outside of the tree; most of it is not significant," he added.

Savvy vegetable growers plan and plant with attention to seasonal temperatures, and so far they have encountered little frost damage.

Joann Beasley of Beasley Farm east of Brooksville said, "We've fared really well. We do have cold weather plants out there: cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, radishes. They are cold hardy." Her location recorded a low Sunday night of 31 degrees, which nipped some young spinach plants, she said.

Nurseries aren't taking chances.

"Most of our tropicals are covered," said Mike Sittig, owner of Save On Nursery & Landscaping west of Brooksville. Most susceptible to cold are such non-natives as queen and pygmy date palms along with Hawaiian ti plants, he noted. "Using a frost blanket," he pointed out, "is only good down so many degrees, if tucked in close to the ground, down to the mid-20s."

Tucking is critical for saving tender botanicals in the home landscape, agrees John Korycki, director of the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods program in Hernando. "Make sure the cover extends to the ground," he advises. "The cover traps heat coming from the ground."

Avoid plastic covers, which conduct the cold, Korycki added. And try to keep any covers off foliage, perhaps by staking, he suggested.

As for lawns, many have been hit with frost and knocked into dormancy. In such a state, let them be; don't water, fertilize or apply pesticides, the specialist said.

All plants, shrubs and trees will suffer some damage if temperatures remain below freezing for a duration of six to eight hours, Korycki said. "Another thing that affects damage is the weather leading up to a cold event," he said. "A sudden cold snap preceded by warm weather is a shock; plants don't have time to adapt." So, plants have had an advantage heading into more cold nights, he pointed out. "It's been cool."

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

In cold snap, Hernando County growers focus on protecting plants 01/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 7:46pm]

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