The fear of a killing frost sent worried fruit growers into their fields with thermometers overnight as winter's last gasp threatened parts of northern and Western Maryland.
Garden-store owners hauled vulnerable plants into their greenhouses for the second night in a row, and homeowners brought in or covered potted plants against record temperatures as low as the mid-20s in parts of Western Maryland.
In Baltimore, where residents have turned the heat on again or tossed the extra blanket back on the bed, the mercury was expected to reach the 30s. That would smash a 57-year-old record of 45 degrees.
"We are concerned," said Allan Baugher, manager of Baugher's Orchard in Westminster. "Normally when you get to the middle of May you figure you're finished with frost problem. I thought we were ready for good sailing."
Baugher put a helicopter and pilot on standby for the first time yesterday. If temperatures got low enough to threaten his tomato plants overnight, he planned to send the chopper up -- at $800 an hour -- to hover over the fields. The helicopter blades would keep the air stirred, preventing the coldest air from settling over the crops.
He also placed wind machines in his peach and apple orchards, and was ready to spray water on 15 acres of strawberries. The ice holds the plants at 32 degrees, even if the air around them gets colder.
"Our livelihood counts on it," he said. With dozens of full-time and seasonal employees, "it's not just a one-family loss if we lose it."
The National Weather Service yesterday issued a hard freeze warning, with lows of 25 to 30 degrees overnight for Allegany and Washington counties. Frost warnings, with lows near 30, were issued for Frederick, Carroll, Harford, Howard, Cecil, and northern Baltimore counties.
Forecaster Amet Figueroa at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, attributed the weather to "a very vigorous, very strong high pressure system that had a bit of time to gather its strength over north-central Canada."
Bolstered by a southward shift in high-altitude "jet stream" winds, the high pressure system "came down full bore, without anything to retard it," Figueroa said.
Highs today were expected to approach 70, however, and overnight lows were likely to moderate. "I think this will be the coldest we will experience," he said.
The weather service's six- to 10-day outlook calls for "much below normal" temperatures to continue through May 23 in the mid-Atlantic states as far south as Virginia.
The latest dates in Baltimore for record low readings in the 30s are May 12, 1907, downtown, and May 28, 1961, at the airport.
In Garrett County, Oakland residents shrugged off a "heavy trace" of snow that fell Sunday morning, two weeks short of the May 27 record for late snow there, according to Bea Crosco, a weather observer in Oakland.
In Baltimore yesterday morning, the low reached 36 degrees at BWI, tying a 1963 record. It was 45 in downtown Baltimore, 5 degrees more than the record set in 1895.
The record lows for this date are 45 degrees in downtown Baltimore, set in 1939, and 39 degrees at the airport, set in 1951.
"It looks like [this] morning's city low could be threatened," Figueroa said. At the airport, he said, "I think we'll at least match [yesterday's] low of 36, and we could possibly get a couple of degrees lower than that."
Fruit trees already have blossomed and been fertilized across the state, but the young fruit is still green and vulnerable. Strawberries are just blossoming.
The red line on fruit growers' thermometers is 28 degrees, said Rick Heflebower, regional extension fruit specialist at the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research and Education Center in Washington County.
"At 30 we might have a little damage," he said. "But if we go to 28, or below that, there will be substantial damage."
Frost damage can vary. Higher elevations, wind and cloud cover can offer some protection from the cold. The overnight forecast, however, was for clear skies and light winds across the state.
Tom Burns, winemaker and vineyard manager at Boordy Vineyards in northeastern Baltimore County, said the coldest air hugs the ground, and is unlikely to reach the green shoots on his vines, which are trellised 48 inches above the ground.
"I'm hoping, since we're close enough to the bay, that gives us a little cushion," he said. But he expressed concern for vineyards farther west, away from the Chesapeake Bay's relative warmth, where the forecast was more ominous.
"That could be disastrous," he said.
So far, fruit growers have had a good spring. Although daytime highs have been cool, the nighttime lows have been moderate, and owners have been looking forward to a good crop.
Nurseries were trying yesterday to keep ahead of the cold.
At Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, spokeswoman Jan Gannon said hardy plants, like petunias and snapdragons would weather the cold. But thousands of impatiens and other bedding plants would have to be hauled indoors, and back out in the morning.
"It takes a lot of people and a lot of work," she said.
Nursery trees and shrubs were to be placed under sprinklers overnight, and other vulnerable plants would be covered.
Pub Date: 5/14/96