How to preserve blossoms and young fruit from the frosts, according to the practice of an experienced Gardener. "THE first thing destructive to fruits is violent frosts in the spring, which kill the blossoms and young fruit, especially of the apricot, for it blossoms earlier than any other sort. Trees growing against walls may, in some measure, be preserved from this mischief, by shading them with branches of laurel, yew, or beach [sic], and in calm weather there is much fruit saved by this means ; but if the season is tempestuous and windy, then part of the blossoms and young fruit are frequently beat down by the shades ; yet, notwithstanding this disadvantage, I have observed more fruit generally upon trees that have been shaded, than those exposed to the weather, though against the same wall. I always found the branches before-mentioned preferable to mats for shading fruit-trees, and that they were applied with the most success, provided they could be so fixed as not to be displaced by the winds."
Anon, via the The Weekly Amusement, Saturday February 9, 1765
These eighteenth century pearls of orcharding wisdom come to us via the Weekly Amusement for Saturday February 9, 1765, in an article that’s sadly left anonymous, but for the legend at the top of the piece. The same article goes on to explain that these shades of laurel, yew or beech branches should not be removed too soon, for “as the spring is a very inconsistent season, we should not be tempted by two or three fine nights”. The experienced Gardener in question also advises that, to avoid damage by really hard frosts, fruit trees should be watered every afternoon when they are in blossom, because:
"...in this sort of weather there being no dews in the nights for the trees to imbibe, their juices become thick and glutinous, and consequently slower in motion, whereby they less resist the penetrating force of the frost. Perhaps some may object against watering, and say, that is it too cold and perishing in such sort of weather : but whoever shall be pleased to make trial, will find the contrary ; for it encreases heat in the trees, by accelerating the motion of their juices, especially where the borders on which they stand have been prepared and ordered, in a proper manner."
This section reads to me as a bit of a mish-mash of observation and guesswork from someone who seems to have plenty of experience of growing fruit trees and is clearly happy with their own methodology, but doesn’t quite possess the scientific knowledge to fully explain the outcomes they’re observing. Neither do they present any evidence for their claims beyond their own observations.
How, for instance, are they checking to see just how “thick and glutinous” the trees’ “juices” are? How do they know these “juices” are moving faster within the trees after irrigation? How are they checking the temperature differences, before and after? Do they have records of results obtained from different trees at different temperatures? We’re also lacking one vital detail: what part of the country is this method being practised in? It would be one thing to give it a go in Cornwall, but might be quite another to try it out in East Lothian.
I might be expecting a bit much from an era in which the modern scientific method was still in its relative infancy, but these sorts of unverified claims can quickly become adopted as standard practice and then in time become received wisdom, without ever being properly challenged and tested.
Speaking of which: does anyone think the above method might actually work, and if so, on what basis? I’d be very interested to know if you’ve tried anything similar and if so, what results you’ve had. If not, what is your favourite method for protecting your tender fruit blossoms from the worst effects of spring frosts? Do please let me know, via the comments.