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Larry Bennich is growing some of his tomato plants in wheat straw. But wheat straw has become scarce due to a poor crop last year and increased demand from landscapers trying to protect plants from freezing.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Larry Bennich is growing some of his tomato plants in wheat straw. But wheat straw has become scarce due to a poor crop last year and increased demand from landscapers trying to protect plants from freezing.

Changing the landscape
Freeze damaged plants, created run on wheat straw

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

The harsh freeze that ruined most of the fruit trees and some other agricultural products three weeks ago has changed the vegetative landscape in other noticeable ways.

Crepe myrtles and some hardwoods such as oak trees have sported black tops on their leafy crowns. In addition, the threat of the freeze sent people out in droves to buy already limited supplies of wheat straw to protect their plants, depleting every bale in the area.

Good news for crepe myrtles

The good news for homeowners worried their crepe myrtles are going to die or at least fail to bloom this summer is that the plants should rebound without much, if any, assistance.

“What we are advising homeowners to do is to wait,” said Charles Andrews, Alabama Cooperative Extension instruction agent for seven North Alabama counties.

He advises waiting until the new growth comes in and then cutting back the dead parts to the new growth.

“If they’ll get new growth, they’ll get flowers on them,” he said.

The same is true for the trees showing dead, black leaves at the top, said Blake Addison, timber manager assistant at Bankhead National Forest. Homeowners don’t need to prune trees and there’s no reason to expect the trees will experience long-term health problems, he said.

“These trees will put out more buds and green back up,” Addison said.

Temperatures plunged into the low 20s Easter weekend, and North Alabama experienced three straight nights where low temps were at freezing or below.

The forecast of the heavy frost prompted a rush on wheat straw at local feed stores. Both Morgan County Co-op stores in Decatur and Hartselle sold out as did Valley Feed and Greenleaf Nursery on Beltline Road Southwest.

Store managers said customers wanted to protect landscaping around their homes as well as insulate doghouses.

Ricky Riggs, co-op store manager in Decatur, said the drought from last year already meant a limited supply of wheat straw, as well as Bermuda hay, so it’s no wonder stores sold out recently.

Bermuda hay is so rare, he added, he has received calls from Mobile farmers looking for it as a supplemental livestock feed.

Demand by landscapers

Riggs also attributed the lack of wheat straw to increased demand from landscapers who use the straw to protect the soil of newly seeded lawns as well as the growing number of home gardeners who use the bales as “soil” for tomatoes and other vegetables.

“We usually have enough to carry over into spring, said Raymonda Foote, sales clerk at Valley Feed. “But it will probably be a month before we get any more.”

Ron Sparks, Alabama commissioner of agriculture and industries, said though the freeze helped deplete wheat straw stores, it might also help replenish them.

The hard freeze killed about 65 percent of the state’s wheat crop. If tests show the wheat doesn’t have a high nitrogen content, it can be used for cattle feed. Otherwise, all it’s good for is wheat straw, he said.

“It’s nowhere near the market that the wheat was going to bring before the freeze,” Sparks said, “but at least it is another opportunity, if they don’t use it as cattle feed.”

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