Originally created 02/12/99

Cold front threatens early buds



ALBANY, Ga. -- Freezing weather in February usually wouldn't be a problem to crops and plants, but five weeks of springlike warmth in the South have fooled everything from azaleas to peaches into budding early.

"Normally this type of cold weather in February is something we would revel in and not worry about," said Fort Valley peach grower Al Pearson, chairman of the Georgia Peach Commission. "The peaches would still be in a deep state of rest. They could certainly stand what's coming this weekend."

The front bearing down on the Southeast was expected to bring showers today, followed by icy conditions this weekend. Temperatures Saturday should dip into the teens in the mountains of north Georgia, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, and they'll range from the 20s to the 30s elsewhere, said Von Woods, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Temperatures Sunday morning should be slightly higher, but still below freezing.

Temperatures in major agricultural areas are expected to remain above 25 degrees -- sparing farmers from crop losses. Home gardeners, however, will have to protect their sensitive ornamentals and flowers, such as the day lilies that have already begun growing tender sprouts.

With a week of temperatures in the mid-70s, many azaleas in south Georgia are on the verge of blooming. If the buds aren't covered -- using a sheet, plastic or pine straw -- the colorful flowers will never appear, said Debbie Finney, manager of Bennett's Garden Center in Albany. Geraniums, marigolds, tulips and daffodils are also threatened.

"If you have buds that are large enough to see the color of the flower, cover those plants," she said.

Most crops should survive, as long as temperatures don't drop into the low 20s or teens. In Fort Valley and Byron, both located in the heart of Georgia's peach belt, the low temperature is expected to be around 25 degrees.

"That is right on the cusp," said Kathryn Taylor, a peach specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "At 25, they could lose about 10 percent of the buds, but that's nothing to be concerned about."

A late freeze last year wiped out nearly half of Georgia's peach crop, which is normally valued at between $30 million and $35 million.

The cold weather, as long as it doesn't get too cold, may actually be good for some peaches, which need several hundred "chill hours" -- periods below 45 degrees -- each year. This winter, chill hours are at their lowest since 1974, when the crop was nearly wiped out by warm weather.

Dale Linvill, an agricultural meteorologist with the Clemson University Extension Service, said South Carolina peach growers need some cold.

"A lot of guys are going to be genuflecting because we need cold weather," he said.

The $50 million Vidalia onion crop should be fine, with a low of 27 expected Saturday in that city.

Alma, which bills itself as the "Blueberry Capital of the World," should also have a low of 27.

"Our general crop should be pretty safe," said Scott NeSmith, a University of Georgia blueberry specialist in Griffin. "My fear is that we've got three or four more weeks of touch-and-go weather. We're at the edge of being vulnerable to freeze damage right now."