Freeze threatens crops

Published 7:11 pm Saturday, April 4, 2009

Forecasts that call for temperatures at or below freezing early next week have local peach growers nervous.

The National Weather Service predicts a low temperature of 33 Monday night and 29 Tuesday night, cold enough to damage peach crops.

“Temperatures, when they get down below 29, there’s going to be some damage,” said Bobby Boozer, horticulturalist with the Chilton Research and Extension Center. “As long as we don’t go lower than 28, I would say we’d be looking at 10-25 percent damage, which would still leave a significant portion of the crop.

“I feel fairly optimistic that we can make it through OK, but it has certainly got folks a little anxious.”

Boozer said most peach trees have a leaf canopy large enough to help keep heat from escaping from the soil, which will make the trees more able to overcome a cold night or two.

Tara Golden, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said a low of 29 would probably mean temperatures would be below freezing for four or five hours.

“Mainly, this will be from midnight up until sunrise,” Golden said. “This is several days out, so we’ll be watching to see if anything changes.”

NWS releases forecast packages each day at 4 a.m. and again at 4 p.m.

Many recreational growers adhere to the traditional practice of waiting until Good Friday to plant, but they will want to wait at least a few more days this year.

Growers have possibly used Good Friday as a benchmark to avoid a “blackberry winter,” or one last freeze in late March or even early April common after the weather has turned warm.

“The colder the soil, the slower plants germinate before growing,” Boozer said. “And plants on the ground are more susceptible to diseases. Getting a plant up quickly is advantageous to crop potential.”

Soil temperature doesn’t vary as much as air temperature, so only several days of cold would affect plants’ growth rate. If that happens, though, Boozer advised growers to wait at least a couple of days after the cold to plant.

Those that jumped the gun and have already planted aren’t hopeless.

“You have to modify the environment around the plant, even if it’s just placing a large Styrofoam cup over the plant,” Boozer said.