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Growers see little damage from freeze

Monday night brought no sleep for JG Ranch owner George Casey. Instead of being nestled in a nice warm bed, the Brooksville blueberry farmer spent the night in a familiar wintertime role: monitoring the thermometer.

About midnight, with the temperature plummeting toward the freezing mark, Casey turned on his sprinklers, sending a spray of water to form an ice cocoon he hoped would protect the delicate blossoms on the 17,000 plants. By dawn, the worst was over.

"It got down to about 20 degrees by 4 a.m., but judging by the amount of ice we laid down, it looks like we got through okay," Casey said. "But it was a very long night."

Casey said that though it would take three to five days to determine the extent of any damage to the plants, early indications were that his livelihood had survived nature's deep freeze.

"When I checked in the morning, the ice was nice and clear, not milky," said Casey. "That usually means that the ice layer was solid enough to do the job."

Local citrus growers believed they also fared well in the freeze.

"My best indicator has always been our lemon trees because they blossom earlier than oranges and grapefruit," said Boyett Grove owner Kathy Oleson. "When I checked this morning, I didn't see anything that would indicate any terrific damage."

The National Weather Service observation station at the Hernando County Airport recorded about eight hours of subfreezing temperatures, with a low reading of 23 degrees about 6 a.m. Tuesday. However, temperatures had rebounded into the mid 50s by noon.

The cold weather made Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, grateful for the addition of a new heating unit in the shelter's dog kennel.

"It was nice for a change not having to worry about how cold it got at night," Schoch said. "The dogs had plenty of nice comfy blankets and pillows to stay warm in."

Though spring is a little more than four weeks away, Jim Moll, urban horticultural agent for the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service, cautioned that subfreezing temperatures could return in the next few weeks. He advised homeowners to take a wait-and-see approach before pruning freeze-damaged plants.

"If it's a woody type plant, I'd let it go until after the freeze threat lessens," Moll said, adding that any growth from pruning could be damaged by extreme cold, inviting disease.

As for freeze-damaged herbaceous tropical plants such as coleus, elephant ears and begonias, Moll suggested cutting the plant to fresh tissue and avoiding fertilizer application or heavy watering until the weather warms.