Agri Leader

Winter forecast is: dry weather ahead

According to the National Weather Service, "Below normal rainfall is forecast from November through January which may promote drought and condition the environment for an active wildfire season through early 2014." Near normal temperatures are also predicted for November, December and January 2014. While the weather forecast has certainly been worse, such as the cold weather forecast leading to the record-setting cold snap of 2010, drought is also something that one has to make plans for. This is especially true if there is drought and then a sudden freeze, which can create a detrimental situation for plants. Sudden cold snaps can catch growers off guard and wreak havoc on a garden or orchard. "Healthy turgid plants will resist cold damage and disease better than dry and decimated plants," said David Austin, environmental horticulture agent, Highlands County, UF/IFAS extension. Keeping the plants moist takes some planning. One thing you don't want to do is to wait until the morning of a freeze to water, which can get you into trouble if your sprinklers ice in your yard and then shut off.
It's a much better idea to water the day before the freeze and take advantage of the sun heating up the soil. Wet soil holds a lot more heat than dry soil does and will be released during a cold night to reduce temperatures around your plants. "Mulch is a good way to maintain ground temperature and hold water in," said Austin, who explained that adding 2.5-3 inches of mulch over the top of the soil can decrease evaporation by as much as 70 percent. Along with mulch, one can incorporate plant covers, which can come in a variety of forms. Frost cloth or sheets designed to cover plants are used to capture the heat released at night from the soil. Other options are large plastic plant pots, garbage cans, and even large plastic bags. However, plastic doesn't work as well as other means. "The plants might burn where the plastic comes in contact with the leaves but it is better than not using anything, " said Austin. When securing the plant covers, one should not tie plant covers to the base of the plants, as it does not allow the heat released from the soil to be captured. "Make sure the covers come to the ground and are secured, as they will hold more heat and keep the temperatures around the plants higher," explained Austin. Lights can be added under the covers to create more heat for sensitive plants. "After a particularly bad freeze in the '90s, a gentleman from a Lake Placid saved his papaya tree with some halogen Christmas lights and a sheet," said Austin, who explained that it was probably one of the few papayas in the area to fruit in the spring. Micro-jet, or low volume irrigation, can also be run under a canopy of trees and shrubs to create heat either with or without the addition of covers. However, using water to protect your plants with most residential yard sprinkler systems is not a good idea. "They are not set up to protect plants and should be turned off the night of a freeze, "said Austin. One more process called "icing in," is a technique used by strawberry growers to protect their plants. This process requires high volumes of water and complete coverage, which most yard systems do not provide. The water must be left on until the ice melts. "Frost will begin to form at around 37 degrees, so I recommend not turning on any water that is being used to protect plants until the temperature drops to around 38 degrees," said Austin, who explained that the process requires vigilance and losing a little sleep but saves a lot of water. The water can be turned off as soon as temps rise above 34-36 degrees, the ice melts, or when the sun is up provided there is no ice. Some areas of the yard or gardens are naturally warmer than others and knowing this can assist with your plans. "Northern and western exposures are colder than southerly or eastern," said Austin, who explained that under trees and overhangs tend to be warmer also because heat escaping from the ground is reflected back down. Homes on the south side of lakes and other bodies of water tend to have warmer yards. Higher elevations and southern slopes can also be warmer. While the three-month forecast predicts a season of drought, and near normal temperatures, as anyone knows, Mother Nature has a mind of her own. Like they say, "Hope for the best and plan for the worst."