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How to Prune a Freeze-Damaged Citrus Tree

Eureka lemon tree in patio container

I’m slowly getting better at gardening. Partly, it has to do with simplifying. Instead of trying to grow everything, I’ve been concentrating on what I love most. More than anything else, I seem to love little trees, especially my citrus trees. I haven’t gone so far as to name them, but I relate to each one as an individual. I check up on them every day and talk to them more than you might think is normal. That tree above is my pride, a Eureka lemon that I brought back from near death when I inherited it.

This winter, we had a lot of frosts and freezes. That meant covering the citrus trees in the evening and uncovering them in the morning. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I have a whole system for it — each of the seven trees has its own labeled cover — but still it got damned tedious. So I can’t judge my beloved neighbor, who’s had plenty to deal with of late, for letting winter get a grip on her big lemon tree this year. Her hen, Isabella, appears to have some thoughts about it, however . . .

Frost damaged Eureka lemon tree

My neighbor Joanne is one of the main reasons this blog amounts to anything at all. She provides me with the best chicken and duck eggs, fresh cut flowers, and beautiful fruits of many kinds — apples, yellow and white peaches, sometimes persimmons. (Never mind that she chases me away from the raspberries with a broom.) She is also the keeper of my best bird friend, Louis Goose. Several generations of Joanne’s family have lived in the big white house down the street, and I almost always come home from my visits inspired to share something about what I’ve seen or learned there. I was truly happy when she took me up on my offer to help out her bedraggled tree.

It turns out that my pruning shears match Louis . . .

How to Prune a Frost- or Freeze-Damaged Citrus Tree

In case you have a tree that needs help, too, here are the basics of pruning and protecting frost- or freeze-damaged citrus:

1. Don’t prune the tree too early. Wait until all danger of frost has passed and new growth starts to appear on the tree. This way you can see the true extent of the damage and cut away only what has died. Also, pruning too early can encourage tender new growth while it’s still too cold to be safe. Late spring is a good time to prune. (Don’t wait too long, either. Pruning citrus in the fall is usually a bad idea; it can encourage new growth just as the cold season comes on, setting up the very cycle of damage you want to avoid.)

2. Disinfect your pruning tools. Sometimes I forget this step and, lucky me, I’ve never had a problem. But it’s safest to disinfect your tools between pruning jobs. A lot of sources recommend using bleach for this job, but I’m convinced by this paper from a Washington state extension professor who says bleach is not the way. I use rubbing alcohol, which is permitted under national organic standards. Clean off any dirt from the pruners, soak them in the alcohol for a full minute, then dry them well with a soft cloth.

3. Cut back damaged limbs into living wood. Before you make a cut, look for new growth on the branch and consider the overall shape of the tree. Then try to make the cut at a crotch, just above a strong new sprout. Make the cut straight across. If you’re cutting a twig or branch back to its base, don’t leave a stump. Finally, prune only as much as you must. (I was tempted to do a much bigger job on Joanne’s tree, taking out crossed or rubbing branches and lifting it up off the ground a bit, but I resisted. Better to let the tree rest and save the less urgent pruning for next year.)

4. If you trim large branches or limbs that face the sun, consider whitewashing them. I’ve never had to do this, because my trees are small. Even the biggest branches I pruned on Joanne’s tree were less than 1″ across. Still, I should say that all the good sources I read stressed the importance of protecting larger cut branches from sunburn by promptly painting them with a 1:1 solution of white interior latex paint and water.

5. Evaluate whether the tree has reduced needs for water and fertilizer. A freeze damaged tree may need less water than a healthy tree of the same size. Water moderately until the tree has returned to its full size and strength. (Joanne and I had a little discussion about this. She’s been giving her tree more water than usual and it seems to be helping. But only a small percentage of the growth on her tree was actually damaged, and we’ve had a long and unusual spell of dryness and heat. Extra water made sense. You have to feel it out.) The same goes for fertilizer. If you’ve lost many branches and twigs, reduce the amount of fertilizer. Make more frequent, light applications rather than giving the tree a single, heavy dose.

Thats’ it!

Eureka Lemon Tree

In a post about Louis Goose from way back in 2008 (called My Other Boyfriend), I mentioned that Joanne and Louis were going to have to move away. I dreaded that thought five years ago and, now that the “For Sale” sign has finally gone up in front of the house, well, I suppose I’ve had some time to get used to the idea but I still don’t like it one bit. I’m not yet sure where they’re headed, but I’m already planning to visit!

Hollyhock Cookbook Giveaway Winner!

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Hollyhock Garden to Table cookbook giveaway. The winner is Ruth Baldwin, lucky number 49.

Hollyhock Giveaway Winner | Hitchhiking to Heaven

Besides diving into this great cookbook, my favorite part of the giveaway was getting to read everyone’s comments about spring. Ruth is celebrating abundance, and now she has a new cookbook to add to that. Congratulations!

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1 Comment

  • Reply Prune Your Fruit Trees, People! « Hitchhiking to Heaven June 27, 2013 at 7:54 am

    […] I have a nearly compulsive desire to pick up loppers and shears to shape my trees — and other people’s, too, it seems. Plus, I have to do it. We don’t have much suitable space for fruit trees […]

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