Bracing for the chill

Hunt Whaley covers palms Wednesday at Whaley's Trees in Gainesville to help protect them from freezing overnight.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 11:12 p.m.

Alachua County extension agent Wendy Wilber is urging residents with citrus trees to start picking their fruit before a predicted deep freeze hits Saturday morning.

National Weather Service forecasters believe Saturday morning's low temperature may hit 20 degrees, an arctic blast that could damage the fruit still dangling on the trees.

"I would say they need to start picking their fruit by Friday afternoon," said Wilber, adding that residents may want to cover their smaller trees with a frost-proof blanket as well.

Depending on how long the temperature stays below 28 degrees will determine whether the citrus trees themselves will be damaged or killed.

Damage begins after six hours below 28 degrees.

Wilber said she believes that Tuesday's rainfall, which topped an inch throughout the area, could help keep plants safe Friday morning.

That's because the rain that soaks in will radiate warm air about 18 inches above the ground, thus keeping smaller plants several degrees warmer than the actual temperature.

Friday morning's low in Gainesville is predicted to hit 26 degrees. In fact, according to the weather Web site AccuWeather, there may only be freezing temperatures for about eight hours on Friday.

Wilber said that most plants not native to this area of Florida are in jeopardy. However, those who planted native plants should be OK. "Regular North Florida plants will be fine," she said.

Officials said the extent of damage done will depend on how cold it actually gets and for how long. The good news is that there have been several consecutive days of chilly weather.

That shuts down the plants' growth and lessens the impact of the freeze, Marion County extension agent David Holmes said.

Also, the National Weather Service says there's a chance temperatures many not get as cold as originally expected.

Originally, the high pressure that's pulling arctic cold into the South was positioned over Florida. Now, it seems to be moving slightly northward to the Carolinas.

"That could bring an offshore flow," said National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Hess, adding that means warmer air off the Atlantic may stream over the state and cause predicted lows to rise a little.

Bob Stamps, a professor of horticulture at the University of Florida's Apopka campus, known as the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center, said residents need to use a common-sense approach.

He said residents wanting to protect plants should cover them with a frost-proof blanket, which helps keep in the warmth and keeps frost from killing tender growth.

Stamps agreed that the rainfall may be a blessing. "That will help," he said.

Cathy Weaver, owner of the Turkey Road Nursery in Belleview, is concerned about new growth on many of her plants. She explained the cold November put some plants into a temporary dormancy before December featured above-average warmth that fooled plants into thinking spring had arrived.

"It's been so warm that the plants have a lot of new growth," Weaver said. "I think the plants are going to suffer."

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