YOUR WEATHER PHOTOS
A freeze warning brought out the frost cloths at the Naples Botanical Garden on Tuesday.
It's the first time they've been pulled out of storage this winter.
Crews draped 1,000 to 2,000 square feet of the white cloths on the most vulnerable plants at the 170-acre garden off Bayshore Drive in East Naples, as the National Weather Service in Miami issued a freeze warning for all of Collier County, with temperatures expected to plummet into the upper 20s and lower 30s overnight and early Wednesday morning.
"We're not expecting too drastic of a frost — definitely not a freeze," said a hopeful Brian Galligan, director of horticulture for the Naples Botanical Garden, on Tuesday afternoon.
The freeze warning out of Miami also covered the inland areas of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, as well as most of Monroe County.
Lee, Glades and Hendry counties were forecasted to get even chillier, with a hard freeze warning in effect until Wednesday morning.
In some parts of Florida, temperatures were expected to drop into the upper teens on Tuesday night. While frigid, temperatures were not expected to break the all-time January records.
"This is certainly going to be an event. Certainly, I would expect it to be one of the bigger events for this winter season," said Brad Diehl, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Miami, on Tuesday.
In December 2010, temperatures in parts of Southwest Florida dipped into the mid-to-low 20s.
Over the past two years, the Naples Botanical Garden has seen damage from freezes, along with other local growers, who suffered crops losses in the tens of millions across Southwest Florida.
With a severe freeze it's not unusual for the region's vegetable growers alone to have $250 million in losses," said Gene McAvoy, a multi-county vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAS.
"We were really hoping that we would be spared this year," he said.
Last winter, the Botanical Garden's crews put out as much as 30,000 square feet of the frost cloths on the coldest nights to protect trees and plants, but Galligan wasn't expecting temperatures to get as low overnight Tuesday as they did a little over a year ago.
The garden has a database of past damage from freezes, which helps staff pinpoint the plants they need to protect the most and to be more efficient about coverage. "It's the big tropical plants that we are worried about the most," Galligan said as he walked the garden's grounds on Tuesday afternoon.
To visitors, the garden didn't look much different, with most of it left uncovered. There are some plants that still show damage from two years ago, however, Galligan said.
Some of the garden's more tender plants and trees include the Burle Marx philodendron, its chocolate and jackfruit trees and some of its rarer palms, including the betel-nut.
"The true tropicals don't like the temperatures in the 40s," Galligan said.
Some of the garden's exotic water lilies were moved to heated ponds to protect them.
Galligan is concerned that the garden's plants and trees could see more damage from this week's cold snap because it was so warm leading up to this week's Arctic blast.
"The plants basically forgot it was winter, just like all of us did, until this happened," Galligan said.
Across Southwest Florida, other growers are just as concerned about the sudden drop in temperatures. Vegetable plants and fruit trees that haven't yet gone dormant will be in for a shock. That includes citrus.
"The trees think it's spring, since we have not had any cool weather and they are not acclimated to the cool temperatures. We have a lot of tender flush on the young trees as well as the older trees that is very susceptible to any frost damage," said Mike Murphy, CEO of Cooperative Producers Inc., a large citrus grower with groves in Hendry, Lee and Collier counties.
A private consultant was projecting seven or eight hours of at or below freezing temperatures on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning at Murphy's groves. Generally, citrus can handle freezing temperatures as long as it doesn't stay at 28 degrees or below for more than four hours.
Cooperative Producers began preparing for the freeze on Monday, raising the water levels in its groves and turning on its microjet sprinklers to get the ground warm and wet, in hopes of avoiding any major damage. However, due to water restrictions, growers can only protect 25 percent of their groves, Murphy said.
He said he's actually more worried about what's to come. While the weather was expected to be a bit warmer tonight and Thursday morning, it looks like it won't be as windy. That means a greater chance of damage caused by frost.
"There's not a whole lot we can do," Murphy said. "We have done pretty much everything we can at this point."
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden