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Strawberries strong enough to withstand cold

By Sharon Dowdy
University of Georgia

Georgia’s strawberry crop wasn’t damaged much by the recent cold snap and snowfall that hit the state’s midsection. Strawberry blooms can withstand cold temperatures because of plant genetics and farmer action.

“The plants are making new flowers right now and will continue to do so until late spring,” said Gerard Krewer, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension horticulturist. “They aren’t like peaches and blueberries where the flower buds are all formed in the fall.”

Protected by ice

The recent snowfall didn’t hurt the flowers. To protect strawberry plants from cold weather, farmers cover them with an ice-water mixture, creating an ice blanket of sorts, he said. Ice forms at 32 degrees, but strawberry blossoms don’t freeze until 28 degrees.

“The overhead irrigation coats the plants with ice and if you keep the sprinklers running, the ice freezes and releases heat to protect the blossoms,” Krewer said.

The method worked for Ron Hayes. The certified public accountant grows two acres of pick-your-own strawberries in Canon, Ga. “I only had a few blooms, and the snow just formed a blanket on them,” he said.

Even if a cold snap did wipe out all the early flowers, strawberry plants continue to produce more side branches and more flowers, Krewer said. Georgia plants, which typically come in the fall from Northern states and Canada, already have a few flowers in the mother crowns when they arrive.

Growers all across Georgia

There are roughly 65 strawberry producers in Georgia, totaling about 300 acres in production. Unlike blueberries, which are grown extensively in the southeast and south-central parts of the state, strawberry production is spread over the state.

Most growers sell berries through pick-your-own operations or local sales.

“It’s more profitable for our growers to focus on producing fresh vine-ripe strawberries,” said Krewer. “Our growers don’t need to compete with the 800-pound gorilla otherwise known as California.”

Like tomatoes, vine-ripe is best

When it comes to taste, Krewer likens strawberries to tomatoes and peaches.

“They will turn red if picked on the green side, but a vine-ripe strawberry is a superior product,” he said. "When you’re in the field, push back the plant’s leaves and you’ll find succulent berries tucked under the canopy."

Growers in the Savannah area are already harvesting berries. Growers in north Georgia, like Hayes, will harvest in mid-April or early May and finish in June.

A trip to a u-pick farm is a great family outing, Hayes said.

“It’s a good little adventure to bring your kids out to,” he said. “Whether they are four years old or 12 years old, they love it.”

For a list of pick-your-own strawberry farms, see the Southern Region Small Fruit Consortium Web site at www.smallfruits.org/Strawberries/Marketing.htm. Or, go the Georgia Strawberry Growers Web site at www.gastrawberries.org.

(Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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