I live in the desert. Not in the middle of the desert, but in the middle of a city in the desert. It’s January in the desert and last night it was cold: very cold. We had a hard freeze warning which means we had to take extra care with some vulnerable growing things, particularly our beautiful lemon tree. That lemon tree grows against an adobe wall along the north side of our entrance patio. That lemon tree is our unofficial greeter. And that lemon tree supplies delicious lemons to us and to several neighbors up and down our street.
We are new to desert living, and although we have husbanded citrus trees in the past, we have never had to protect them from a hard freeze. So, we took what was at hand: one grey tarp, three fleece blankets and a quilted coverlet, and we draped the tree in a patchwork covering, hoping to protect the precious cargo of lemons. The randomly placed fabric shields were not lovely. The blankets hung disconsolately among the branches, looking like wash day at a makeshift outdoor encampment. There was more tree showing through than blanket covering. But it was the best we could do.
It did freeze overnight. Both birdbaths in our courtyard, which were previously filled with rainwater, were now frozen solid. There wasn’t just an ice crust floating on top of very cold water. But each birdbath held a full pancake of ice in its bowl. We weren’t sure whether our efforts to protect our lemon tree were all that successful. But, determined to do better, my husband purchased two rolls of real freeze cloth and we spent the afternoon removing the old assortment of quilts and blankets and then fashioning some more efficient swaddling cloths for our tree.
We measured the cloth in lengths of 25 feet, cut, then unfolded the lengths. We attached weights along a short side, then hurled the cloth over the top of the tree: the weights somewhat guiding their trajectory. After that came the more detailed work of arranging the cloth in the best way possible to protect the fruit. It sounds simple, but it required 3 people, 2 ladders, 1 stepstool, an adobe wall, several carpentry clamps and a few clothes pins. I was standing on the top of the adobe wall, steadying myself with one hand grasping the fronds of a nearby palm tree, and the other hand manipulating my corner of the freeze cloth, when our next door neighbor called up to me, “What are you guys doing?”
So I explained. Then he, chuckling with his desert wisdom, told us that it really doesn’t get cold enough for long enough to ruin the citrus here. “It takes 2 full hours of fully frozen fruit to ruin the lemons. It doesn’t happen here.” He told us.
Well, that was interesting, no doubt. But as we were already two thirds of the way through the job, we decided to just continue on and finish.
It froze again last night; the birdbaths again told the story. So we’ll wait, and hope our lemons make it. And we’ll learn to be desert dwellers: reading the signs, taking the actions needed and growing.