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Winter snap forces Portage growers to gamble

By Mike SeverRecord-Courier staff writer Published: March 14, 1998 12:00 AM

Now orchard owners and farmers have to wait to see what effect the arctic blast will have on their cash crops.

"If you're in the orchard business, you don't need to play the lottery. You get all the gambling you can take," Charles Beckwith, of Beckwith Orchards in Franklin Township, said Friday. Beckwith was taking a "wait-and-see" approach to his peaches and apples.

At least two-thirds of Ohio's fruit crop is in the northern part of the state, where the blooms are usually not as far advanced at this point and better protected by the buds as in the south, where farmers are anticipating heavier damage.

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"At this point, it looks like we're coming through it," he said. Beckwith said he doesn't use heaters to ward off the chill among his trees.

"I've done that in the past and I came to the conclusion that the only thing it did was make me feel better," he said.

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Kevin O'Reilly at the Portage office of the Ohio State University Extension Service said peaches, which are the earliest budding crop, are the only potential problem.

"Most of our orchards in Portage do have some peach trees," which are sensitive to cold. "It's quite possible that they may have some damage," he said.

Beckwith said it will be a day or two before any damage is evident. But temperatures haven't been terribly low for long.

"We had a similar situation last year," he said, "and we had a very fine peach crop and one of the best apple crops we've had."

"The days you really fear are hopefully behind us," Beckwith said. "Zero (temperature) weather, bright sunshine and wind _ that's the killer on peach buds."

Other trees are expected to fare better.

"Buds have opened on maple trees and some others, but if they freeze off, the trees will have to grow some new buds," O'Reilly said.

Dr. Bal Rao, a technical adviser at the Davey Institute in Kent, said barked trees or plants transplanted last year may show signs of distress this spring.

"It all depends on how long these low temperatures stay with us," he said.

If homeowners winterized their plants by watering deeply and mulching, and protecting plants from drying, prevailing winds, they should get through winter's last gasp without too much damage, he said.

As far as landscape plants go, Rao said most problems will be on evergreen or semi-evergreens exposed to drying winds.

"Right now, I don't think we can do too much. If anything, I would worry about what to do in spring." He advised homeowners to do corrective pruning to remove winter damage, lightly fertilize, mulch and water.

And be on the lookout for more insect pest activity next season.

This winter's mild temperatures will mean more insects _ beneficial and not _ will have made it through the winter.

"I'm expecting a good, buggy year," said Doug Caldwell, a landscape entomologist with the Davey Institute. "I think there might be more of the good guys and the bad guys" because of the mild weather.

Caldwell said the snow that accompanied the chill may have saved some of the bulbs that were growing early because of the warmer weather.

"Crocus live a rough life," he said. Crocus and early daffodils may look pretty bad.

Local experts are saying the cash orchard crops may be saved because the buds were still closed enough.

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