The column | Listen to your tree, and it will tell you what to do

If Tu B’Shevat is such a happy new year for trees, why am I sucking lemons?

The holiday, usually a time for planting — except this year in Israel, where many are observing the shmita sabbatical year — for me may be a time of cutting down.

Our lemon tree, planted over a decade ago in the backyard, is sick. Usually full of green leaves and yellow fruit at this time of year, the 7-foot tree now suffers from curled leaves and brownish lemons.

With a prolonged drought in the West, fruit trees are having a hard time. According to the University of California’s master gardener program, “Drought stress will reduce fruit size and stunt growth” and cause leaves to “wilt, curl and sunburn.” But I suspected my poor tree was suffering from something else.

I called Devorah Brous, an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture and the founding executive director of the Los Angeles–based organization Netiya, a Jewish nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners.

I had sent Brous several photos of leaves, fruit and branches, and when I called, she was ready with a diagnosis. “Is it time to start thinking firewood?” I asked.

“Could be,” she replied, half-jokingly, but it depended on “how dedicated and committed” I was to the tree.

How committed?

Around the Rodman home, lemons are regularly turned into lemonade, and I am not squeezing a metaphor here. The tree had faithfully supplied our family with enough lemons to have pitchers of the cool, refreshing drink with dinner, and enough lemons for dressings, marinades and guacamole. But it wasn’t just about the lemons.

“We planted the tree just before our twins’ bar mitzvahs,” I responded. (They are now in their mid-20s.)

“What you have there is citrus leaf curl. Severe,” Brous said. It was fixable, she added, caused by a leaf miner, a larva of an insect that lives inside the leaf and eats it — thus explaining the white trails I had seen on the leaves.

Brous said because of the severity of infestation, I may have “no other choice but to use insecticide” to return the tree to health.

But Brous, who had lived in Israel for 15 years and founded an environmental and justice NGO there called Bustan — Hebrew for “orchard” — ticked off a bunch of things I could do first, including cutting the tree back 30 percent; removing all the leaves that showed any signs of the leaf miner, as well as the fruit; and on the remaining leaves, spraying a “compost tea” made from compost that had been finely sifted.

To put more nutrients into the soil, Brous recommended that I spread a combination of worm casings and “really beautiful organic compost” onto the bed, as well as ensure that the tree is watered deeply. To get rid of the insect pests, I might also need to invest in pheromone traps, which use chemicals as a lure to control the infestation.

In addition, Brous believes that the shmita year — a Torah-mandated break every seven years in the agricultural cycle — presents an opportunity to slow down and spend more time outdoors with what is already growing around us.

“If you were outdoors, regularly watering your tree by hand rather than letting your sprinklers do it automatically, your tree would be talking to you, saying, ‘My leaves are curling, there’s a problem, and I need help,’ ” she said.

Brous said the shmita year ultimately may not be a time for acquisition. “It’s about being more reflective,” she said. “Maybe it’s not about going out and planting new trees.

“A lot of mistakes happen because we connect Tu B’Shevat with planting, rightfully so,” Brous said, referring to trees that she has seen planted in the wrong climates and in areas too small. “This year gives us a chance not to just run out and plant, but to steward what we have already planted.”

Tu B’Shevat, starting at sundown Tuesday, Feb. 3, would be a time for me to become a better steward.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected]

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on Contact him at [email protected].