Cover up or come inside to survive

Published January 30, 2007

Zoo animals slept in sweatshirts. Farmers were up early today checking thermometers. Tropical fish nestled indoors.

Yes, it's cold outside.

A blast of arctic air brought one of the coldest nights in nearly a year, and Tampa Bay area growers and other weather-dependent businesses spent Monday preparing for it.

Forecasters said early morning temperatures would get close to the mid-20s in outlying areas but hover in the 30s in St. Petersburg and Tampa. The region spent the night under a freeze warning. A hard freeze was likely in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, the National Weather Service said.

Strawberry growers in eastern Hillsborough County were monitoring their crops early today.

Billy Simmons, a Plant City strawberry farmer, has a special alarm clock that measures the temperature in his fields. At 35 degrees, an alarm wakes Simmons, letting him know it's time to get to work.

Watering strawberries during a freeze forms an ice barrier that protects the plants from further damage.

Simmons said he wasn't overly concerned Monday because the weather reports didn't call for a hard freeze or heavy winds. High winds prevent the ice barrier from forming correctly on plants.

Gary Parke, who runs Parke Family HydroFarms in Dover, put a frost cloth over his stacks of hydroponically grown berries. The cloth keeps the temperature 8 to 12 degrees warmer than the outside.

Most growers said dealing with the freeze is just part of their job.

"If you farm, you worry. You're always worrying," said Plant City strawberry grower Carl Grooms.

Farmers weren't the only ones ready for a cold night.

At Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, some animals huddled inside heated buildings Monday and slept in clothes. The zoo's primates got sweatshirts and T-shirts to ward off the cold.

For the species that don't dress up, there was extra hay, straw or blankets, zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said.

At Save On Nursery and Landscape in Brooksville, workers spent much of Monday bundling tender plants and shrubs to protect them against the frost. A warm winter has produced premature growth in some plants, particularly the tropical varieties, salesman Chris Keister said.

"A lot of them are acting like it's spring already," Keister said. "Any plants with new growth are going to be extremely susceptible to frost damage."

In Citrus County, temperatures were expected to bottom out in the mid 20s. At Anson Nursery, owner Scott Steffer and his crew made sure all plants were well watered to prevent them from drying out and covered them with heavy cloth.

At EkkWill Water Life Resources in Gibsonton, low temperatures meant tropical fish would be too stressed for harvesting later in the week, owner Tim Hennessy said. He spent Monday harvesting and bringing inside extra fish.

Neither Progress Energy nor Tampa Electric was concerned about meeting customers' demands.

The cold spell is expected to taper off by Thursday, when high temperatures will hit the mid 70s and lows will be in the low 60s.

Times staff writer Logan Neill contributed to this report. Helen Anne Travis can be reached at 813 661-2439 or htravis@sptimes.com