Protecting Trees From Frost with Christmas Lights

How to Use Christmas Tree Lights to Protect Trees from Freezing and Frosts

I want to say it’s going to get crazy cold here, but I know that’s going to make a bunch of people either laugh or get irritated. Oh well. This is California. When temps drop into the 30s, it’s all over the news.

Go ahead, laugh.

Go ahead, laugh.

Also, this weather app estimates temps for some part of Fairfax that’s warmer than our house. When it says 36° or below, I know we’ll get frost. Last year, we had so many frosts and freezes that I got all tuckered out from dancing with giant covers for eight different trees — seven citrus and a baby apricot. Put them on at night, take them off in the morning, put them on at night, take them off in the morning, repeatedly obsessing about whether or not it’s going to get cold enough that I have to drag my butt outside in the dark to put them on at night, take them off in the morning.

Every year I read about protecting trees by stringing them with Christmas lights and I think, I want to try that, but then I’m too lazy to make it happen. This year, I decided that one burst of focused energy would be better than all those gyrations with the covers, and it’s on. I went out and bought seven boxes of outdoor-rated C7 lights. To give off enough heat, they have to be old-school, energy inefficient C7 or C9 lights, not LED lights. I strung them in all of my vulnerable trees, being sure to concentrate the bulbs around the trunk and in the lower branches. That way, the trunk is protected and the rest of the tree will catch the rising heat.

To protect the plugs from rain, I cut up plastic bags and used electrical tape to secure the plastic around each exposed plug and socket. (Not that we’re getting any rain, but that’s mostly a another story. The relevant part here is that, if it hasn’t been raining, remember to water plants deeply if a frost or freeze is expected. It’s one of the best things to do to keep them safe.)

There’s some risk to this experiment. A few of the citrus trees got confused by our unusually warm fall and went into furious bloom. I’m ready to accept that many of those blossoms won’t become fruit. Overall, I figure there may be some damage to the trees, but not death. And if we go into a prolonged period of hard freeze — say, a week or more — I’ll bring out the covers.

The other thing I’ll need to watch is our electricity bill. If it skyrockets, this will be a single season event.

Meanwhile, it’s very cheerful!

Using Christmas Tree Lights to Protect Citrus Trees from Frosts and Freezing

P.S. The other garden-related task I completed this week is reconditioning three pairs of sad and rusty pruning shears and snips. (That was another thing I’d put off for a long time. Now that it’s done, I’m very pleased and proud.) I followed these instructions from Weekend Gardener, which I found to be clear and easy.

Honey-Sweetened Apricot Jam

Honey Sweetened Apricot Jam | Hitchhiking to Heaven

The other day I spent hours working on an apricot thing that turned out terribly. It happens to everyone with a recipe blog: You get what you think is a great idea — in this case it was sugar-free vanilla apricot butter made in a slow cooker — and you launch into your preparations with tremendous enthusiasm, all the while writing the blog post in your head, describing how it felt to make it and how great it turned out. Then you get to the finished product and you’re like, wow, this really sucks.

A number of things went wrong with my slow-cooker butter; mostly it just cooked too long. The fruit darkened and caramelized in a an ugly, bitter way. I tried to rescue it at the end with some honey, but it was way too late. It was a sad end to five pounds of beautiful Blenheim apricots, for sure. And I felt pretty silly about the time I’d wasted describing it to you in my head.

Chopped Apricots | Hitchhiking to Heaven

No, I didn’t cook them in this tiny pot. They’re just hanging out there after weighing.

That same day, however, my friend Gina had brought me two big boxes of apricots from a backyard tree. I don’t know what kind they were. The good kind. But they were starting to collapse on themselves, so I got right to breaking them down, cutting away bruised parts and setting aside clean halves to make another batch of Marisa’s Honeyed Apricots. (I have a case of those now, which I’ll use during the coming year to make jams like this Honey-Sweetened Apricot Blueberry Jam.)

Because I ran out of regular pint jars in the middle of all that, I had some fruit and honey syrup left over. So, after taking all day to make something godawful, I dropped those leftovers in a pot and made something perfect in twenty minutes. This is crazy easy to prepare and it’s one of those things worth eating straight from the jar.

Apricot Jam with Honey Sugar Free

Honey-Sweetened Apricot Jam

Makes about two cups

1 1/4 pounds pitted, quartered apricots (weight after pitting)
1/2 cup filtered water
1/4 cup wildflower honey
1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Combine the water and honey in a medium saucepot and bring to a simmer to make syrup. Add the apricots and lemon juice and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently to prevent sticking or scorching. (Turn down the heat if necessary.) The jam is ready when it starts to mound up and your spoon leaves a clear track across the bottom of the pot. As mentioned, mine took about 20 minutes. It’s a tiny batch, so just jar it and store it in the fridge. Without sugar, it probably won’t last for more than a couple of weeks, but I don’t know for sure because mine was eaten up within a few days.

First Blush | Hitchhiking to Heaven

Here’s the first apricot picked from my own tree. It took three years! She says, “So what? Aren’t I worth it?”

Yes, indeed.

Prune Your Fruit Trees, People!

Broken Santa Rosa Plum Limb | Hitchhiking to Heaven A majestic Santa Rosa plum tree cracked and dropped a huge limb in my neighborhood last week, spilling so much unripe fruit over the fence and onto the ground. It was painful to see.

We might not often think of them this way, but fruit trees are like domestic animals; to be well, they need regular care from us, their people. Conscientious pruning keeps trees to a manageable size and puts fruit within our reach for both thinning and eating. That usually makes for healthier trees and happier gardeners.

Plum Fall | Hitchiking to Heaven

The very idea of pruning fruit trees used to make me nervous. It reminds me of how some people feel about canning. Some folks are afraid they’ll accidentally kill someone with the wrong canning recipe or method, like I’ve been afraid I could kill a precious tree with one bad cut. The truth is, canning is easy and safe if you follow simple directions — and fruit-tree expert Ann Ralph says the same is true in the pruner’s profession:

“Pruning is one of the most necessary, neglected, forgiving, misunderstood, and rewarding aspects of fruit tree care. In a very real way, the hand of the pruner creates the fruit tree. Managing fruit trees is far less complicated than we have been led to believe.”

This is good news, because as much as I’ve been intimidated by pruning, 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 here, so we have to think small.

It’s also good news that Ann teaches workshops nearby, and that I got to attend one last weekend. Here she is, tending to a little plum tree in the Kensington backyard where about a dozen students came together in search of pruning wisdom.
Ann Ralph | Hitchhiking to Heaven

The deal is that any fruit tree can be pruned so that the furthest branches remain within reach of its caretaker’s hands. Most of us backyard gardeners don’t need gargantuan fruit trees like that Santa Rosa plum that broke under its own weight. Such trees can be grown head high instead of being allowed to sprawl to the height of a house.

One surprising thing I learned is that we don’t need dwarf or semi-dwarf root stock to grow small trees. On the contrary, Ann recommended avoiding dwarf varieties, because they limit our ability to choose the best root stock for flavor, disease resistance, climate, and soil conditions. We can choose any tree we want, if we are willing to make one hard cut early in the tree’s life and then continue to prune regularly after that, especially in summer.

Wait. What? Aren’t we supposed to prune our fruit trees only in the dark of winter? Sure, Ann says, if we want them to grow out of control. She teaches that summer pruning — done close to the solstice, like get out there and prune your trees this week — is best for controlling size, while winter pruning helps to determine aesthetics, because you can better see the architecture of the tree.

I wish I could tell you everything I learned on Sunday. We talked about different kinds of pruning cuts and many varieties of trees. Even in the drizzle of dense midsummer fog, I felt like I could stand around all day and listen to Ann talk about the beauty and benefits of keeping fruit trees small. She definitely has a contagious enthusiasm for her work, which I appreciated even though I’ve already caught the pruning bug. She’s writing a book, called The Little Fruit Tree, which will be available from Storey Publishing next year.

Tree Pruning Class | Hitchhiking to Heaven

There’s a little apple tree in there somewhere!

I came home and had to put my lessons to use right away. Our apricot tree (a semi-dwarf Blenheim) was in need of a good haircut. You can see the great big whips it sent out since I pruned it in January.

Apricot Needs Pruning | Hitchhiking to Heaven

While I worked, I tried to keep in mind one of my favorite quotes from our pruning class handout: “Pruning is like editing. You remove what is getting in the way so the real story can unfold.”

Also, it helped to remember that over and over again, as we students were wondering whether we should make this cut or that, Ann would say, “Sure.” There were basic instructions about looking at the leaves and buds to make these decisions, because the cuts determine the direction in which the tree will grow. Beyond that, however, she kept asking the rhetorical question, “Does it matter to the tree?” Rhetorical because the answer was almost always, “No, it does not.” So relax.

Apricot After Pruning | Hitchhiking to Heaven

Be well, little fruit tree!

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