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Fruits Awakened by Heat Wave May Suffer From Quick Freeze

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JOHNSTON COUNTY — Many people have been spoiled by the lengthy heat wave. It's about to end, and no one will feel the chill quite like local fruit farmers. The next couple of days will be crucial to the growing season.

Different crops handle the cold in different ways. Peaches should be fine in the cold. Strawberries could suffer.

It will be a long weekend for fruit growers like Keith Hill. A cold snap is about to hit strawberry plants that are blooming a full month ahead of schedule. The fledgling fruits have been lulled out of their sleep prematurely by a five week heat wave.

"That's about what Florida would like to see, not North Carolina," said Hill.

Peaches in this part of the state are a different story. While the cold weather could do serious damage in South Carolina and Georgia, it could be a good thing for trees this far north.

The freeze should keep tiny buds from opening too soon, at least for now.

"Most of them require from 300 to 850 'chilling hours' before they will bloom. If you don't, there will just be a vegetative growth on the tree, and you won't have any blooms," Hill explained.

By far, strawberries are the most vulnerable. A plant produces only so much, and farmers hope they will have plenty left when the market opens in April.

Growers know they will lose a few berries. It is just too early in the season to try to save them.

"Today is Feb. 12. If it was March 12, I would start frost protecting, but I think we are one month ahead of ourselves, so I'm not going to try to save these flowers that are here now," said Hill.

Farmers can spray their strawberry fields to protect them. That usually happens in March. Growers say it is just too early to do that this time.

Many flowers are also in bloom in the Triangle. They may not fare as well as the fruit crop.

You should bring your plants inside. If you cannot do that, try using burlap sheets to keep the frost off.

You can also use 6 to 7 inches of pine straw. Some of the later blooming varieties like tulip magnolias are blooming now when they should not even be out until April.

There's not much you can do for the blooms that cannot be covered or brought inside.

"The cold is definitely going to hurt the plants that are up now, the star magnolias, the tulip magnolias, your daffodils, anything that's up. With the duration of the freezing weather we're going to have, we are going to have the damage," explained horticulturist Gil Decker.

While the freeze may hurt the spring blossoms on the magnolias, Decker says it should not do any long-term damage to the trees.

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Brian Bowman, Reporter
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