Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring, Interrupted

This winter has been particularly tough all across the country. I don’t remember seeing this much snow in fifteen or twenty years. Needless to say seeing the daffodils bloom was welcome, and I looked forward to my peach tree blooming, which it did.

Sort of.

Somewhere between the March 1st snow dump and the nearly 80 degree day, the night-time temperature plummeted. All the flowers on the lower three-quarters of the peach tree died in the bud. The only flowers that bloomed are on the very top branches, and they are all that I will have this year.

I discovered this while spraying kaolinite clay/pyrethrin on the tree. I felt like Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon when he realizes he has the wrong falcon but he can’t stop scraping at it with the pen-knife. I stood there, touching what looked like perfect buds, every one of them dropping off in my hand. I wanted to be wrong. I wasn’t.

Nothing to be done about it. Made short work of spraying, that’s for sure. With plenty left over, I began to spray the flowering cherry.

It’s probably a “yoshino” variety, common in this part of the country and very pretty come springtime and “hanami.” It never did grow much above 10 ft, and I don’t know if that because of the variety (yoshino cherry trees can grow 25 ft, but maybe this was a dwarf? Or something else?) or where it was planted. Most likely it never grew very tall because in the first five years of its life it acquired a huge split which exposed the heartwood.

This photo shows the clearly exposed heartwood. Looking at the other trees in the yard and how they died, I can read what happened: the area was hit with drought, the original homeowner was clueless, and the drought-tolerant trees (bradford pear, leyland cypress) lived, while the others (water maple, river birch) died. The cherry didn’t die right off, but it split, as is common with thin-barked trees. A new split can be doctored and the tree will try to mend itself. This split was left unattended, the area was dry year after year, and it just got bigger. This tree has been going to die ever since we moved in 10 years ago. It just… didn’t. And because it was so pretty and so brave, I never cut it down.

If I could read insects like I read trees, I probably would have.

The lead branch was already dead, but again, I couldn’t stand to break it off and ruin the shape of the tree. I did, however, pull off a dead lower branch… And maggots boiled out where I broke it off. I thought, “Why are there maggots in a tree?”

No. Not maggots. Termites.

I ran for an empty jelly jar and knocked the stragglers off the broken limb into the jar (always ALWAYS grab samples). By then the others had disappeared back into the tree. I left the branch and didn’t spray anything else. Let the termites stay and be happy so long as I knew where they were.

The next day a tree specialist came out — a real old-timer. He said, “Yep, termites. Gotta get ‘em when it’s cool out before they swarm. The boys got the chipper shredder about five minutes from here. You want I call and take the tree?”

The cherry hadn’t even bloomed yet. It was beautiful when it bloomed. I missed it last year because I went on a trip. The poor tree. Take it? I mean, I knew it would have to go, but my God, give me some time to get used to it… Termites? Are they in the house? Would taking the tree now make them swarm? No, it was only 50 degrees, they’d probably stay put. The poor tree, it hadn’t even had a chance to bloom…

And then I remembered there was somebody standing there. He had a look on his face like, “C’mon lady, make up your mind.”

“Yeah. Call them.” I replied.

I went inside and told MP. “We knew it had to go, right? I mean, poor tree. I wonder if I should cut a few branches and force them? No, that’s kind of morbid.”
Then somebody rang the doorbell and I burst into tears.

I was suddenly torn between grief and total embarrassment. “I can’t do this. I can’t write the check. Please, take care of this.” But I wasn’t too out of my mind with grief to holler out “And make sure they get the right tree!” (MP said later he told the guys, “You touch that peach tree, we all die.”)

The chipper-shredder was surprisingly quiet.

Later that afternoon I went to kung-fu. “Don’t look,” MP told me, “Just keep your head down and don’t look.”

I didn’t. I wouldn’t have looked the next day, either, only MP said something about how they “ground down the stump. Looks like they mulched, too.”

Oh. God. They didn’t spread the remains of a termitey tree all over the daffodils, did they? I ran outside and there was… Nothing. No mulch, just a ground stump, and no tree. Just a hole in my heart that I am honestly truly surprised is there.
I didn’t have much of a chance to dwell on it. Last Thursday the Weather Channel called for rain, ice, and snow.

Oh no, no... Not on my peach tree.

There are two ways to fail: You do the wrong thing, or you do nothing and events unfold accordingly. Doing something, even if it’s the wrong thing, at least provides the possibility of endless variety.

It was the only time I’ve ever worn the Bluetooth into a store and confused people by having an apparent one-sided conversation.

“What do you think, Dad? Is 100 watt enough? I’ve got this ten gallon cooler MP uses for beer-making… Huh? For hot water, Dad. No, spraying only works for radiant frost. Radiational? Oh hell, I don’t know, but this is a cold-air mass. Now, how do I do this without getting electrocuted?”

I mean, the paint department at the Home Depot didn’t quite know what I was on about.

Let me get my keywords straight for the search engines of posterity:

If you have a very few trees, then you can protect the buds and blossoms of fruit trees from freezing temperatures by using a plastic drop cloth and a 100 watt bulb

You will need:
• Drop cloths to cover (probably 2 of the 10’ x 25’)
• Clip on flood lamp
• 100 watt bulb
• 100ft indoor-outdoor extension cord (or whatever it takes to get to the nearest outlet)
• Thermometer (must be accurate)
• Zip-top bag
• Binder clips or clothes pins
• Rope, clothes-line, yarn from your stash, etc., about 2-3’
• A 6’ or longer pole/stick
• Duct tape (naturally)

• Duct-tape two drop cloths together (3 mils or less each. Any thicker is too heavy) using short pieces of duct tape every 12-18” apart. The goal is to keep the plastic together, not to make it air-tight.

• Use the pole (I used a kung-fu staff) to get the plastic up over the crown of the tree with the duct-taped seam off-center. Close the bottom off with loosely tied clothes-line around the trunk.

• Put the clip-on flood light with a 100 watt bulb (bulb facing DOWN) on an inside branch under the plastic, securing and waterproofing the plug of the flood light to the indoor outdoor 100 ft extension cord using duct tape. Tuck the cord/plug under the plastic.

• Put the thermometer inside the zip-top bag and using a binder clip hang it higher than the light by about 3 ft.

• Using the binder clips close any holes/leaks in the plastic; roll or fold up the loose ends of the plastic and secure to tree branches. Make sure to leave a large opening for you and the pole to duck under the plastic, and secure that, too.

The theory is that the heat of the bulb will keep the air mass under the plastic warmer than the air mass outside. The temperature needs to stay at or about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. At 26-28 degrees Fahrenheit flowers will die. Buds can tolerate about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. CHECK WITH YOUR COUNTY EXTENSION OFFICE FOR FREEZING TEMPERATURES FOR YOUR TYPE OF FRUIT TREE. The thinner the plastic and the more holes, the less heat will be trapped. However, if the plastic is too thick it may crush the top branches, and the tree does need some air exchange.

Oh, and try to set all this up in the daylight. I wasn’t so lucky; my first attempt blew off and I didn’t realize it until I got home at 8:30 PM. Alone in the dark, trying to get plastic up over an 8-10 ft tree, one sees the world in rather stark terms.

At night, the setup looks like this. More Halloween than Springtime.

Could you burn the tree down? Oh yeah, count on it. But what are you going to do, lose your peaches? Because Plan B was a 10 gallon open-topped cooler filled with near boiling water and kept under the plastic with the tree. In order to make that work you’d have to boil massive quantities of water and haul them out to the tree, replacing the cooled water every 1-2 hours. As it was I still didn’t get much sleep.

At 11 PM I went out to check the final set up — 38 F

At 2 AM I ducked under the plastic with the pole, and using it like a pool cue, popped about a gallon of rain out of the gathers in the plastic — 34 F

At 6 AM I was popping snow off the plastic — 33F

At 8 AM I popped more snow off the plastic and realized that farming sucks.

The temp under the plastic was 34 F. There was an inch of snow on the ground that didn’t melt until the afternoon. Did I save the peaches? I don’t know — ask me in July. I still have flowers, but what’s going to pollinate them with this wonky weather?

Last night I dragged everything out and wrapped the peach tree up again. I’m glad I did, even though there were 23 mph gusts of wind that left me clinging to 500 square feet of drop cloth with fleeting visions of becoming Mary Poppins of the gardening circle. It shouldn’t have gone below 32 F, but when I woke up this morning there was frost on the ground.

My neighbors think that I am bat-sh-t crazy.