Mar 15, 2017
Freezing temperatures threaten Alabama strawberry, peach crops

The threat of freezing temperatures in Alabama quickly shifted strawberry growers from production mode into protection mode.

Producers of both fruits are making preparations to protect their crops from frost and freezing temperatures.

Alabama Cooperative Extension System Commercial Horticulturist Elina Coneva specializes in commercial fruit crops production. Coneva said growers throughout the state are implementing protective measures that best serve their operations.

“Warm weather this winter has brought on early blooms and fruits in some areas,” Coneva said. “It is a critical time for strawberry growers with blooms and small strawberries on the plant. It is also a critical time for peach growers who may already have trees putting on fruit.”

Extension commercial horticulture agent Doug Chapman said all commercial strawberry growers are putting out row covers in preparation for the temperature drop.

“Most growers use one layer of row covering, but some Alabama producers are adopting a practice used further north – covering strawberries with two layers of covering. Using two covers allows growers to protect blossoms and fruit, and to capture ground heat and keep it in the plant canopy at night.”

Growers who use two covers peel the top layer back during the day to allow for better light penetration and gas respiration for the strawberry plant. The top cover will be returned at night.

Gary Gray, an Extension commercial horticulture agent based in Birmingham, said fruit, vegetable and nursery growers are actively protecting tender crops, in preparation for the winter weather headed to Alabama.

“Strawberry growers use both floating row covers or frost blankets as well as overhead irrigation which freezes over the fruit and plants to keep the plants at 32 degrees as long as new ice is forming continually as water is applied,” Gray said. “This prevents fruit from reaching the critical 30 degree point at which fruit freezes.”

Although peach producers were concerned about the lack of chill hours coming into the growing season, Coneva said freezing temperatures like ones expected this week are not helpful in any aspect.

Peach growers do not have the same options for protection strawberry growers have.

Chapman, who is based at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center, said damage to peach crops will likely depend on the stage of plant growth as temperatures drop.

“Some peaches are at the ‘petal fall’ stage, or have small peaches,” Chapman said. “Peach trees that are just blooming will likely be fine. Peaches that are further along are more sensitive to temperature changes.”

Gray said some peach growers will use large windmill like “wind machines” or fly helicopters over orchards to blow warm air hovering above the orchard back down. This will help prevent blossoms and fruit from freezing.

Coneva said protective measures often depend on the operation size.

“Some growers use wind machines or helicopters,” Coneva said. “But small fires throughout the peach orchard or orchard heaters may be helpful and most economical for some growers.”

Coneva said securing row covers on strawberry plants and making plans to protect peach orchards is essential for fruit growers at this time.

Chapman said each year brings different weather related issues for fruit growers in Alabama.

“Every fruit grower is going to experience a weather related event each year,” Chapman said. “It is something all growers deal with and expect. Fruit growers are good at learning from past experiences and rolling with the punches.”

For more information about strawberries, peaches and other fruit production, visit www.aces.edu. Contact a local Extension office with questions related to fruit production.

— Katie Nichols, Auburn University

Source: Alabama Cooperative Extension System





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