Monday, April 23, 2018

Extended Morel Season

The cool rains that began early Saturday morning have greened up the countryside and extended Morel Season! Celebrated among rural folks from Oklahoma to Minnesota, the magical, mystical, and utterly delicious morel is more than simply a mushroom; it has a cult following. Why? Perhaps because the season is so short lasting only a few weeks with the first onset of spring; perhaps because conditions of temperature and moisture must be met; perhaps because the palate remembers this delicacy long after the season is over; or perhaps because they have never been successfully produced on a commercial level. Regardless of the reason, the arrival of this edible gem is the cause of many culinary celebrations all across the country. Only the subtle French truffle is more eagerly sought than the morels growing in our own back woods.

The elusive morel is usually found in specific locations, many of which are jealously guarded by experienced hunters and often these locations are passed down from one generation to the next. Morels, originating from spores, are found in clusters among fallen leaves under dying Elms, in abandoned apple orchards, under Sycamore or Ash and near decaying stumps. The morel requires a host, preferably a dead or dying tree, in order to produce.

Morels are a genus of the edible cup fungi and the highly porous ascocarps are the prize. It is said that collecting morels in a porous bag helps spread the spores, but this has never been scientifically proven. Morels are a delicacy that commands a hefty price of $20 a pound if found for sale, which is rare as most morel aficionados prefer to eat their finds rather than sell them. Dried morels are available, however much of the flavor and texture is lost in the process.

After a successful hunt, the mushrooms should be soaked in salted water overnight, if one can wait that long. The soaking kills the tiny micro bugs and critters that live on the mushroom. The traditional method of cooking includes patting them dry then rolling them in a mixture of (optional) beaten egg, flour or cornmeal or a combination of both and frying them in butter. Since margarine is one molecule away from plastic, it does not allow for as robust flavor a ‘real’ butter.

There is no better way to enjoy the arrival of spring than a walk through the woods on a fine day. Add the pleasure of searching for morels, an adult version of an Easter egg hunt, and you have a perfect day followed by a perfect meal. Happy Hunting.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Late Freezes

In the Garden

By Catherine Dougherty

Not Quite Spring


The Oklahoma weather has been bi-polar at best providing the gamut of conditions from summer-like highs to deep winter lows. Last weekend, we had an arctic plunge with rain turning to sleet and snow over much of the state. The early blooming flowers were sorely damaged and many of the Iris which were earnestly planning a fabulous show were completely frozen. The tulips drooped their heads and much of the early foliage has the tell tale transparency that indicates it was frost bitten.


The flocks of geese that were seen flying North last week were absent over the weekend… they knew of the wintry weather so they settled on local lakes and ponds to wait a bit. The rule of thumb in Oklahoma is that we usually have our last freeze on or about April 15th and folklore suggests freezes are over when the leaves on the Oak are the size of a squirrel’s ear. Another freeze is expected on Saturday morning so gardeners will have to set their trembling trowels aside for another week and resist planting the tender begonias and geraniums.  


Regardless of the sporadic weather, the song birds have increased their activities with the arrival of mating season and since the trees have not yet leafed, we are allowed a brief moment in time to watch feathered courtship rituals. Their songs have a new sweetness and they are darting about seriously flirting and ‘dating‘. The Titmouse, Chickadees, and Goldfinches are earnest, the lady Cardinals all look like teenagers, and the Woodpecker has begun rat-a-tat drilling to provide a home for babies. Once the trees have fully leafed, the sight and sound of our feathered friends will be minimized but right now they provide delightful entertainment in the garden.


It must be noted that early buds are swelling on the Maples and Elms and with them comes considerable pollen and without rain it is floating about. Without going into intricate scientific explanations, it may be simply stated that the pollen of most trees, shrubs, and grasses is lighter than the pollen of flowers. It is carried by the wind as high as three miles up and as far as 100 miles from the original plant. Easily inhaled, it is the culprit of the condition called hay fever (or allergies) as it may irritate an individual’s throat and nose. With our typical breeze often increasing to driving winds, it is impossible to avoid this early pollen. As way of compensation, the pollen on flowers that arrive later in the season is generally much heavier… meaning it does not tend to blow about with such a vengeance. Thus as the season progresses, allergies will ease a bit. However annoying it may be now, it is necessary for the plant reproduction so we must be accommodating… while sneezing our way through spring.


Photo: Oak buds swelling.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Darling Dandelions

Easter weekend provided us with the blessing of a perfect sunny Saturday before the chill arrived for Easter Sunday. Many of us received a smattering of frost while others got a light freeze.  The early blooming bulbs have built-in antifreeze, so the Jonquils and tulips are all fine. However gardeners who purchased summer annuals at nurseries may notice a tell tale transparent look to the foliage signaling it has been frost bitten and probably will not survive. In my opinion, it is best to grow annuals from seed since the seeds seem to instinctively know when conditions are best to emerge.  


A true sign that spring has arrived are the bright yellow dandelions that began blooming in full force several weeks ago. We can thank the colonist for bringing the dandelion to the New World. Its name is a French derivative which means ‘lion’s tooth‘, referring to the leaves which have saw-like ‘teeth’. The golden yellow head is a cluster of tiny flowers which appear as one. Its roots have hair like tendrils, each of which is capable of producing a plant and the seeds are fertile without pollination. The dandelion was purposefully imported to the Midwest to encourage survival of honeybees and it is among the most widely recognized plants, growing worldwide.


The Dandelion has many admirable attributes if one can get beyond the compulsion of having a perfect lawn. In fact the medicinal properties make it a natural garden darling.

Early dandelion greens which appear before most other edibles are a plethora of nutritional benefits. Leaves may be added to salads and have a crisp flavor which resembles chicory or endive and have the ability to ‘cleanse the blood‘. They contain more beta carotene than carrots and are richer in iron and calcium than fresh spinach.


They may be sautéed with other greens and onions as a side dish. Used in Europe, China and among Native American tribes, tea made from the leaves or roots is a gentle diuretic and system restorative. Stomach, liver and digestive problems have all been greatly alleviated by drinking dandelion tea, which does not tend to have the side effects of pharmaceutical medications. A tea taken now will cleanse the body of toxins which have built up over the housebound winter and allow an energetic ‘fresh start’ for spring activities.


The cheerful little flowers are sensitive to light so they open with the morning sun and close at dusk. The sweet delicate seed head is a wonder unto itself and has its own urban legend. It is said if one makes a wish and all of the magical seeds are dispersed with one breath, the wish will be granted. 


*My children grumbled but drank the tea each spring.

Photo: Catherine Dougherty... make a wish!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Crocus Produces Exotic Saffron

Spring is in full swing and the lovely spring crocus are peeking above the ground, reminding us that the early arrivals will be punctual. Native to southern Asia, the Netherlands now control much of the market by producing hybrids of amazing breadth and color. Crocus grow from corms and were introduced to the Netherlands from the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador in the 1560s. A few corms were forwarded to Carolus Clusius at the botanical garden in Leiden and by 1620 new garden varieties had been developed.

Hardy perennials, the plants are found naturally in a wide range of habitats, including woodlands and meadows. However the most fascinating species of all is the Crocus Sativus, which blooms in autumn... saffron, one of the most ancient and celebrated of all spices, is produced from the scarlet stigmas. It takes a mind boggling 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound which explains the expense of this exotic spice... it costs approximately $120 an ounce!

Research yields that Saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000 year-old depictions of prehistoric beasts in Iraq. Sumerians used wild saffron in remedies and magical potions. Ancient Persians cultivated saffron for personal use or trade and by the 10th century B.C. saffron threads were woven into textiles, offered to divinities, and used in dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds. Alexander's troops mimicked the practice and brought saffron-bathing back to Greece.

European cultivation of saffron plummeted following the Roman Empire's fall however the spread of Islamic civilization allowed reintroduction in Spain, France, and Italy. Saffron was widely sought as a curative medicine and during the Black Plague of the 14th century, demand exceeded local availability and much of it had to be imported by ships from southern Mediterranean lands. The theft of one such shipment by noblemen sparked the fourteen-week "Saffron War". The conflict and resulting fear of piracy spurred significant saffron cultivation in Basel, which grew prosperous from saffron alone.

Cultivation and trade then spread to Germany where the price of the spice tempted many growers to add various ingredients such as beets to the mix. These epidemic levels of saffron corruption brought on the Safranschou Code, under which those convicted of altering saffron were fined, imprisoned, and even executed.

Saffron cultivation spread throughout England with the Essex town of Saffron Walden emerging as England's prime saffron growing center. As more popular spices were discovered, saffron production decreased and today only southern France, Italy, Spain, and India have continued significant cultivation.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Parsley is Perfect

Spring arrived Tuesday amid chilly howling winds, which somehow seem typical for Oklahoma. This winter produced the deepest freeze since the winter of 2011, which was long and dreadful.

A marvelous cool weather herb is parsley which is lovely with its clear vibrant green and curled leafy texture. Parsley is mentioned often throughout history, and not only for its culinary and medicinal properties. The early Greeks made crowns of parsley to bestow upon the winners their athletic games and it is used in the Hebrew celebration of Passover as a symbol of spring and rebirth. The notoriously wild Romans wore garlands of parsley on their heads to prevent them from becoming intoxicated… of course it did not, however it did settle their stomach as they continued to drink. It is mentioned as one of the plants in the gardens of Charlemagne and Catherine de Medici.

 In medieval times parsley was surrounded by much superstition due to the germination of the seeds. One belief claimed that the extremely long germination period existed because they traveled to hell and back seven times before sprouting. Naturally superstitious farmers were afraid to grow it especially since one belief stated if it was growing near the house there would be ‘a death within a year’.
Parsley is popular once again as people seek natural means to cure or avoid illnesses… and this herb has a wide range of health benefits ranging from strengthening the immune system to regulating blood pressure.   

It is high in  Beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body and reduces the risk of diabetes, colon cancer, and atherosclerosis. The vitamin K in parsley helps regulate blood clotting and may be helpful in reducing bone loss and fractures. When eaten with a bit of lemon the combination will kill 97% of bacteria present in the body!

Everyone who has eaten at a restaurant is aware there is always a small sprig of parsley served with the main course. The history of its use as a food decoration began in the late 1800’s when butchers decided the curly green looked good placed on or near meat displays. In the 1970’s as frozen foods became more common in restaurants, parsley was used to make the meals look more appealing and in 1978, the Southern California Restaurant Association issued a statement saying that ‘We must make food attractive. It’s part of the cost of putting an item on the table.’ And thus parsley once again made its way to the American table.

Since parsley can help cleanse the palate, freshen breath, and settle the stomach it is an ideal condiment to consume following a meal. Don’t leave it on the plate… eat it!

*Plant some since butterfly larva love it!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Raging Red Cedars


The drought, high winds, and the pollinating Red Cedars have created a health hazard for practically everyone who ventures outside. Over the years, observation indicates that Cedar pollen continues to increase in potency and if one merely brushes by one, a mist will swirl about the hapless wanderer.
The Cedar is a determined tree, and the product of evolved survival tactics. A Cedar will grow in impossible conditions and each one will selfishly take any and all available water, leaving less aggressive trees to perish. The fact they have adapted so well would be wonderful if they were not so prolific.
This time of year, Cedars produce massive amounts of microscopic pollen which can travel hundreds of miles on the wind. Ranging in color from deep yellow to burnt sienna, this pollen is famous for the effects it has upon the human race, causing much misery as it drifts through the air. The female trees are covered with small blue berries… each one is an infant Cedar tree. The birds find the berries delicious and the baby Cedars are spread through the bodies of the birds. The birds gorge themselves, fly to rest in leafy trees, and drop a Cedar ‘package’ of unprocessed berries to grow at the base of the tree. The aggressive adolescent Cedars surround and literally choke or starve any other species of tree, taking all water and nutrients from the soil for themselves.
In retrospect it is an amazement they were purposefully introduced to Oklahoma as wind breaks to hold the land following the dust bowl… their reputation as invasive had not been established back then. In my research I discovered a helpful site called ‘People Against Cedars’. This web-based Texas group organized to provide the latest information in the battle to control Cedar trees. Their mission statement is ‘to make the public aware of this menace and give them knowledge about the most effective means of reduction. We also encourage the replacement of cedar trees with more beneficial trees like native oak, elm, or other non invasive species’.
Since Cedar pollen is so prolific, it is wise to make efforts to partially protect yourself from allergy based illnesses. Obviously the more time spent outdoors the more problems with allergies so do not invite pollen inside by opening doors and windows for fresh air on pretty days…  there is no fresh air during Cedar season. Wash your hands after playing in the yard, wash your hair before bed, and change your pillowcase daily. If necessary take an antihistamine to relieve allergy symptoms and remember Cedar season does not last forever…. it just seems so.

Photo: The Cedar appears to be dead, but it is just covered with pollen it is planning on tossing to the 4 winds!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Darling Daffodils... Naturalizing Them

Naturalized in a woodland setting... stunning! 

To the delight of gardeners everywhere, Monday brought the unmistakable signs of Spring. The song birds were calling and courting, the current bushes began to swell with tiny blooms, and the Sun was unmistakable as it shone through the windows in an altogether different place making formerly invisible dust shine on every surface.  

The mist Sunday managed to moisten the garden and before the winds could dry it out, the darling daffodils began to swell and bloom. Daffodils are among the first to arrive at the garden party, ushering in the joy of spring with their shiny faces. They have so few requirements that they may be successfully grown by anyone… even novice gardeners and children will be enthralled by their ease. There are early, mid, and late blooming varieties and the colors range from traditional yellow to apricots, pinks, and even whites. Planting some of each will allow for a continuous show all spring.

Daffodil bulbs multiply underground and over time become truly spectacular if left undisturbed. Unlike the tulips which bloom only once, one bulb eventually becomes ten or more so they should to be planted with enough room to spread. A large bag of Daffodils will not break the bank either and for this reason they are perfect candidates for a process called ’naturalizing’.

Naturalizing is a show of blooms that has been left undisturbed until over time the bulbs have evolved into a large and spectacular show. The site chosen may be at the edge of a field or orchard, on a hill, or any random unexpected place a spot of spring beauty will be appreciated. To naturalize with spontaneity, randomly toss the bulbs and plant them where they have landed… children love this unexpected fun and will be eager to help. Or choose to plant in swirling drifts, so the blooms seem to be drifting as a sea of early color… a large display of daffodils is truly show-stopping. 

The area chosen for naturalizing bulbs needs good drainage but since Daffodils bloom before foliage appears, sun light is not a factor and they may be planted under trees. Plant six inches deep and allow for their expansion. Following blooming the foliage must be left for six weeks or so to collect and store energy for blooms the next year. It may be cut or mowed once it has dried and becomes brittle… it is spent and the bulb no longer needs it.

We have planted bulbs in our woods and each year their show is more amazing… and Lake Aluma located in NE Oklahoma City has a show stopping display right now. Since non-residents may drive around the gated addition to view it, try to do so this week.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Saved Seeds... A Gift

A worker sorting and saving seeds at the Vavilov institute
A week ago we thought Spring had arrived then last Thursday Winter reappeared with a vengeance. Sleet and thunder snow, a rare occurrence, was followed by a welcome albeit cold rain, with many receiving over an inch. As the weather warmed over the weekend, the greening of the garden began, sending shivers of delight to the gardener’s heart.

Last week an important announcement for mankind was made very quietly, lost among frivolous news. I have written before about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and this week it will open so scientists can add 60,000 new seeds to the existing collection of millions. The vault, located at the coldest point on the planet is referred to as the Doomsday Vault. It houses seeds from all parts of the world which contain seed biodiversity that will assure mankind’s survival. Should a man made or natural disaster wipe out existing crops, seeds from the vault may be called upon to begin agriculture once again. Syria is an example as chemical bombing has rendered former agricultural land a barren desert… it will need new seeds at some time.

The concept of a modern seed vault became a reality as warfare during WWII caused famine across Europe. No stranger to famine, Europe had suffered many before, losing thousands of people to starvation. In St. Petersburg, a family of scientists had studied plant genetics and decided that preservation of seeds was paramount, for without them famine was inevitable. A Seed Institute was founded by a man named Nikolai Vavilov and his collection of seeds became the largest in the world.

When German forces began a 900 day bombardment, blocking food and supplies to the city of St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) Vavilov was targeted, arrested, and tortured because of his work. The Germans wished to confiscate the contents of the Seed Institute to preserve their ‘scorched earth’ policy which would leave their Russian rivals no way to recover from the war. Refusing to cooperate, Vavilov died in prison of torture and starvation.  

 Following his death, his staff persevered in secret counting, sorting and storing seeds. Even when discovered, arrested, and tortured, all refused to reveal the hidden location of the seed vault. Although they too were starving none of them consumed the seeds in their care. Following the War, when the vault was discovered and opened, the body of one the scientists was found slumped over the bags of rice seed he was guarding… they were safely sealed.

 Nobility is the highest calling and those who value humanity over their own survival deserve honor. Throughout history, gardeners have proven their love of mankind and this story illustrates it beautifully.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

Fresh Produce Alert

Enjoy a winter salad after the produce has been thoroughly washed
*Do NOT eat a salad at a restaurant if the lettuce id dry... it has not been washed! 

The weather is finally somewhat stable and we actually got a bit of rain. The garden is grateful and the moisture gave hope to the emerging spring flowers… buds of the Redbud and Lilacs are swelling and three Jonquils are in bloom!
We have had another alert about produce and we were told to avoid Romaine lettuce. The recalls began in 2006 with spinach and the culprit was finally assigned to hog waste and rightly so... religious texts are full of references to avoid hogs. Several years ago the tomatoes were apparently poisonous, causing severe illness, then peppers, and the list grows weekly. Fresh produce is available year round, but at a cost… most of it is produced in third world nations that are notoriously dirty.

What plants utilize from the soil goes directly into what they produce and thus care must be taken to properly wash them. Contrary to popular belief, produce is often unwashed when packaged. On a television special I noted workers packaging strawberries in the field. The strawberries arrive at the supermarket with whatever the worker had on his hands at the moment… and my visual of a worker harvesting while ill is not good. 
I also watched a popular cooking show and noted the lady making the luscious cake did not wash either the strawberries or the blueberries she put between layers of whipped cream. Always assume produce is dirty upon arrival in the market… enjoy it after it has been properly washed.

Lettuce, tomatoes, squash and the like must be carefully washed, onions must be peeled, and celery and potatoes scrubbed with a vegetable brush, and so forth. Don’t wash off dirt…cut it out and toss it. Although she was not Jewish, my grandmother, an excellent cook and a thrifty lady, kept a kosher kitchen. She never used the same cutting board for meat and vegetables and knew cooking kills much of the bacteria naturally occurring on meat but that it may be transferred to raw produce. She utilized yesterday’s newspaper to catch vegetables peelings then tossed it‘s folded contents into the trash or the compost bin.

Wash your hands between preparation of raw meat and vegetables and sanitize the counter often. Women are encouraged not to place their purses on the counter as purses are notoriously filthy on the bottom… the very thought of what my purse has ‘seen’ makes me wince. The same is true of school supplies and back packs…keep them off the counters as they are a germ fest.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Natures Antibiotics

Wild Rose Hips... to ensure health
The weather of late has been schizophrenic to say the least and the forecast predicts more erratic behavior in the coming weeks. With temperature fluctuations, pollen floating about, and the influx of flu it would be wise now to look to nature to boost the immune system and prevent illness.

Until the advent of antibiotics, Nature provided all the ingredients to ensure survival and health for the inhabitants of the planet. Here in North America our own Native Americans survived severely harsh conditions with an intricate knowledge of healthful foods. The Plains Indians ate as they nomadically traveled and the Apache alone had over 200 items in their yearly diet. Much of what they “found” along their path was both nutritional and medicinal.

An example of one of their naturally occurring health boosters are the Rose Hips found on wild bushes from Texas to North Dakota. Rose hips have long been a valuable source of Vitamin C, which easily boosts the immune system. The hips are the berries formed on wild roses following their flowering and contain as much ascorbic acid as an orange. In fact the portion of the orange containing the most health benefits is the bitter white inside the rind that most people discard. During WWII the federal government recommended that citizens add rose hips to their stews as a vegetable and recommended brewing it as a tea for the health benefits.

Another valuable immune boosting plant is the Echinacea. Results of archaeological digs indicate that Native Americans have used this marvelous plant for over 400 years. It was used to treat everything including infections, wounds, scarlet fever, blood poisoning, and diphtheria. Considered a valuable cure-all for hundreds of years, its popularity declined with the advent of antibiotics. Today Echinacea is used to reduce the symptoms and duration of the common cold or flu, and the symptoms which accompany them such as sore throat, cough and fever.

Recent reports from the medical community have issued alarms that antibiotics no longer work; our systems are saturated with them. It is not necessary to actually take an antibiotic to ingest substantial amounts of them either. They arrive in our bodies from consuming milk and meat from cattle that are overly medicated, eggs from chickens that receive a daily dose, and so forth. I consider this medical warning a strong indication that we best seek natural cures that have been around for eons. Nature contains an arsenal of plants and herbs that were put here for us to use... they are the plants that kept our ancestors alive and well. They are easily obtainable as supplements and teas today and they are perhaps a necessity as winter continues along its frigid path.

Medieval Gardens

There is little action in the garden as the deep freezes continue so noting historical events is interesting. In 2003, the buried remains of a 700-year-old garden at Whittington Castle in Shropshire, England changed historian's understanding of medieval gardens.

The 14th-century garden had one of the earliest and largest viewing mounts ever found in England, an unusual layout, and an elaborate ditched water system. Viewing mounts were created to provide elevated views of a castle's garden, grounds, and surrounding landscape and symbolized the owner's wealth and high status… Wittington had one of the first such mounds.

The Whittington Castle mount, a 16-foot man-made mound, puzzled archaeologists for years. However historical researcher Peter King discovered in records dating to 1413 reference to ‘a garden with a ditch of water around it,’ which led archaeologists to conduct a geophysical survey of the area. Employing techniques such as magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and soil resistivity surveying to look below the site's surface, the archaeologists traced the buried outlines of the paths and rectangular plots of the garden. The findings suggest the mount and garden were built sometime between 1300 and 1349.

It is the earliest example to survive in the United Kingdom and was quite ornate in its heyday. Wittington had been built as a stronghold for the protection against Welsh raiders, the French and Scots, and when the hostilities ended in 1282 the landowners turned their attention to such leisure luxuries as gardens.

The Nearby streams, no longer essential to the defense of the castle, were diverted to fill trenches surrounding the castle thereby creating a moat. Small footbridges needed to be crossed to reach the garden while another footbridge connected the garden and the viewing mount.

Following Wittington, lavish water features became common in medieval high status gardens and a special pavilion was perched on the top of the mount so vistas of parkland with unusual imported animals and fruit trees could be viewed from above.

These gardens were statements of the owners' wealth and power, designed to imitate a vision of paradise and to impress visitors. The Wittington castle was owned first by Fitz Warin and his family… Knights of the First Order, wealthy from dutiful Service to the Monarchs they owned it from 1204 to 1420 and it is they who built the spectacular gardens for their enjoyment.

Several hundred years later it would be in ‘utter ruin’. It is unfortunate Wittington has been reduced to piles of stone however it is amazing that technology has allowed us to view this long buried British treasure.

* Of note: The ruins are said to be haunted.
*Photo is of the gate houses, all that remains of the Castle.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Gardeners: The Eternal Optimists

As you can see, mine is a mess!

As January continues to drone on, there is little to do in the garden, and dusting the house is not nearly as satisfying as playing in the real dirt outside. Now is the time to review your gardening journals to note seasonal happening of the past.
Year after year, depending upon one's memory becomes impossible as a first garden slowly turns into successive decades of them. Lovely gardens visited, names of plants, and often disastrous experiments may be lost to memory entirely unless there is a reminder of them. Not to mention the sorrow of accidentally severing sleeping bulbs while planting new ones. Left to chance, the established garden may suffer unless careful records are kept and a five year journal is best.

Now, when the garden is resting is a good time to review the endeavors of the last season and make note of exactly which plants thrived and those we accidentally killed. I have a list of those I have loved and lost, and often wonder if my favorite roses will greet me in heaven. I also have a list of those that will not acclimate to my garden; like the detestable Rhododendron which was finally sent to the rubbish heap, banished forever. Year after year it was a struggle to keep it alive, moving it from place to place, from sun to dappled shade, from various drainage and variable soils, until at last I forced myself to abandon it altogether and promise never again. The same is true of Hydrangeas who will absolutely refuse to live here for any reason and are a waste of otherwise well-spent money.

The winter months are perfect for planning for the next season. By reviewing a journal, one may note when to expect the early Crocus, the Stars of Bethlehem and Peonies. Or when the last freezes arrived and how the fruit trees fared. Journals may include diagrams of the location of perennial plants and bulbs so there will be no mistakes when adding new guests in the garden. The growth cycle from planting the seeds to enjoying full bloom may be noted, as well as the scent of flowers and the taste of vegetables at their peak, and which years were best. If left to recall crops may not be rotated yearly, which may result in poor vegetable yields.

 Photographs of the gardens according to year are helpful as well; to look back five, ten, even twenty years and see how plants grew, how light changed is an amazing trek. Gardening is so dependent on the weather that some gardens that were spectacular in May were gone by July with no rain and 107 degree heat, yet some years have been rewarding all season. The beauty of the garden is really at the whim of circumstance no matter how much we try otherwise. Late freezes, freak hail storms, torrential rain, no rain, wind, temperatures over 100 degrees for days on end, hoards of locust… we gardeners face some daunting obstacles and yet remain the eternal optimists!

 Finally, please remember to water at least twice a week, weather permitting… it is far too dry without significant rain for several months and the garden is suffering.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

Catalogues and Cedar Trees

Seasonal Thoughts
The weather is that of deep winter and but for the birds scurrying about there is little action in the garden… it is resting, awaiting  Spring. After the fervor of the holidays many gardeners are content to relax and browse the catalogues that begin arriving this time of year to temp us with new and amazing gifts we may bequeath our gardens.  Considered the gardeners ‘dream books’ they are generally poured over until threadbare as they feature the latest hybrids. Always intriguing hybrids, which are genetically modified to alter the look and performance of a plant, often produce a product which is astounding.
The cramped and simple gardens belonging to poor laborers and factory workers in Europe were the birthplace of the hybridized flowers we now know. In the early 18th and 19th centuries the Carnation, which was once the size of a dime-sized Dianthus, grew to the proportions we now recognize. Petals were doubled and redoubled as enthusiastic breeders toiled in their tiny spaces after working long hours at their jobs.  Plant breeders today work as tirelessly as their predecessors so plan to add something totally new, unusual, and fantastic this coming season.
Being house bound this time of year is perhaps a blessing since the Cedars are currently pollinating and if one merely brushes by one, a pale yellow mist will swirl about the hapless wanderer. This pollen causes considerable misery to those who dwell among them and they are prolific throughout the state. It is an ancient tree with the oldest known living tree to be over 500 years living near Tulsa… it is obviously a determined tree and the product of evolved survival tactics. It will grow in impossible conditions and each one will selfishly take any and all available water, leaving less aggressive trees to perish at their feet.
The female trees are covered with small blue berries; each one is an infant Cedar tree. The birds gorge themselves in a frenzied feast, fly to rest in leafy trees, and drop a Cedar ‘package’ of unprocessed berries to grow at the base of the tree. The aggressive adolescent Cedars surround and literally choke or starve any other species of tree, taking all water and nutrients from the soil for themselves.
In retrospect, it is an amazement they were purposefully introduced enmass to Oklahoma as wind breaks to hold the land following the dust bowl. At the time the public was unaware of their aggressive nature and their rapid growth and hardy habits were considered a miracle. Forestry folk encourage the replacement of cedar trees with more beneficial trees like native oak, elm, or other non invasive species.
Photo: Princess Parizade Bringing Home the Singing Tree from The Arabian Nights, 1906, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.  
*I wish to see a singing tree!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

In Praise of the Potato

You know we have turned the corner with Winter when the potatoes begin to sprout!
Julia and I will plant the sprouts since I don't have the heart to toss them!
Wednesday the Potato Expo will begin in Orlando Florida. Potato growers from all over the country will gather to share all their insights on the potato... exciting vegetable news is rare!

Cultivated globally, the potato has long been considered the world’s most perfect food and has been credited with saving people from the brink of starvation. The failure of the potato crops in Ireland created a famine causing thousands of people to flee that tiny nation in search of food... thus the Irish immigrants arrived on our shores.   

The potato is native to Peru with the earliest tuber remains found dating back to 2500 BC. Potatoes provided the principal energy source for the Inca Empire and its Spanish successor. In Bolivia and Peru in altitudes above 10,000, tubers exposed to the cold night air are made into chuño. Making chuño, which means frozen potato in Spanish, is a five day process during which the potatoes are frozen for three nights then subsequently exposed to bright sunlight each day. By the end of the process the chuno is chopped and may be stored for years with no loss of nutritional value. The potato was introduced to Spain and cultivation traveled throughout all of Europe by the 1600's, reaching the American shores by 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda sent a chest of them to Jamestown, Virginia. 

Astounding potato news was released last year as a new scientific study was begun in Lima, Peru. Lima's International Potato Center is a nonprofit research facility that seeks to reduce poverty and achieve food security for millions globally. They have chosen the La Joya Pampas, a sector of the Atacama Desert in southern Peru, for an experiment in growing potatoes in harsh conditions. The La Joya Pampas are considered perhaps the driest place on earth... nothing grows and there is no insect or animal life. It was selected because it resembles Mars.

Of the 100 potatoes selected for the experiment, 40 are native to the Andes Mountains, all are conditioned to withstand sudden climate changes, and to reproduce in rocky, arid terrain. Sixty have been genetically modified to be immune to viruses and survive with little water and salt. The head of the experiment, Peruvian Julio Valdivia-Silva is concerned as cropland disappears and population grows, millions may starve. He is hopeful that perhaps food may eventually be farmed on Mars to feed our ever-growing population.
 A potato will draw poison from a wound. Michael had a bad toothache once and the dentist put an intricate drain in the wrong place so he was in agony. I had him put a thin slice of potato on the gum line above the abscess and after about 15 minutes it popped and drained. After swishing with hydrogen peroxide, he was good to go.
 Other uses of the Potato:
Place raw slices on broken bones to promote healing
Carry them to prevent rheumatism
Treat facial blemishes by washing you face daily with cool potato juice.
Treat frostbite or sunburn by applying raw grated potato or potato juice to the affected area.
Ease a sore throat by putting a slice of baked potato in a stocking and tying it around your throat.
Ease aches and pains by rubbing the affected area with the water potatoes have been boiled in.
Place potato slices on the eyes after receiving welders flash to reduce pain and swelling.
Photo: We have turned the seasonal corner when the potatoes begin to sprout!


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Entertaining Angels Unawares... A Christmas Story

 It was late December and our children were still little so naturally we were broke. Christmas was coming and although we were not extravagant, we still provided special food and thoughtful gifts for all eight of them. We were entering the on ramp on I-40 to drive home from a grocery excursion and saw an elderly gentleman standing on the side of the hi-way, leaning on a wooden crutch. He was about 75 with a stubble of beard, dressed in ragged clothing, wearing an old gray hat. His belongings were in a small stained bag, and he had an old woolen blanket pulled tightly about him. I felt sudden sadness upon seeing him and asked Michael if we should stop. He said no because we had three of the children with us and he would have to squeeze him in the backseat with them. He said that surely someone would pick the old gent up for me not to worry. And yet both of us felt a nagging sadness at the old man’s plight.

The following morning we realized we had forgotten some necessary items and again made the twenty mile run to the adjacent town. It was overcast, drizzling and a very cold blasting North wind made conditions miserable. As we drove I asked Michael if he thought someone had picked up the old man. He promised me that surely someone had. We bought the last of our necessities and had only forty dollars left as we entered the on ramp.

Sweet Jesus, he was still there! How could he still be there? We stopped just beyond the old man and Michael got out of the car to help him to his seat. He settled in and I turned the heater to warp while he began thanking us. He said he was trying to make it the Indian Pueblos in New Mexico where he knew he could stay for the winter. He was Canadian and had served in WWI for the US but had been denied benefits due to his citizenship status. He had fallen on hard times and just needed a bus ticket to get on his way but could find no help in getting one. He had been standing on the side of the road for many days.

Michael suggested that we take him 15 miles to the Travel Plaza where all of the truckers stopped for gas and that perhaps he could find a ride from someone there. He gratefully accepted the idea and said he was warming up a bit. Michael stopped at the plaza and pressed our last forty dollars into the gentleman’s hand as he helped him into the building.

As we drove away we kept feeling a nagging worry and so after unloading our bundles, we drove the seven miles back to the plaza to check on him to see if he had gotten a ride. Our inquiries were met with puzzled looks for no one knew what we were talking about. No one had seen him... not the people Michael had nodded to as he opened the door, not gas attendants nor any the truckers. Only we had seen him and I have often wondered if he was there as a holy test for us... a test of our humanity, our faith, and to show our children by example how to generously love.

As this recession deepens, let us remember that many times our sense of compassion, our sense of brotherhood and our ability to unconditionally share with those less fortunate than ourselves may be tested.

And let us remember:
‘Forget not to show love unto strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares‘. Hebrews 13:2

Monday, December 11, 2017

Glorious Grapefruit

Grapefruit growing in clusters like grapes!

With the arrival of Christmas just days away, the historical significance of fresh fruit cannot be underscored. Common in tropical climates, citrus fruit was rare and exotic in the twentieth century, and often children wished only for an orange for Christmas. By the 1950’s gift boxes of fruit and nuts were a special and much appreciated gift and are still presented to business acquaintances.   

Among the most popular citrus fruits is the grapefruit which has an interesting past. An ancestor of the grapefruit, the pomelo (Citrus maxima, or Citrus grandis) originated in Asia where it was discovered by Captain Shattuck of the East India Company. He took seeds from his travels to Barbados and planted them in 1696. It is one of the four original citrus species and the grapefruit as we know it is love the child of a polemo and a sweet orange.  Unnamed for several centuries, it was eventually called grapefruit for its unusual habit of growing in clusters as do grapes.

The grapefruit was originally called ‘forbidden fruit’ and was first documented by Rev. Griffith Hughes in 1750. In his book entitled ‘The Natural History of Barbados’ he lists it as one of the seven wonders found on the Island.

The fruit was brought to Florida in 1842 by Count Odet Phillipe, a settler of French descent who also introduced cigar making to what is now the Tampa Bay area. The climate was perfect for growing citrus and the Count was later joined by Kimball Chase Atwood who founded the Atwood Grapefruit Company in the 1890’s. The largest grapefruit company in the world, the Atwood Company produced 80,000 boxes of fruit annually and discovered the pink grapefruit in 1906.

In the early nineteen hundreds the fruit became so universally popular that silver companies began producing grapefruit spoons, which are tapered to allow the bowl to slip easily into the segments of fruit which surround the cored center.

A spectacular Christmas dessert is broiled grapefruit. For the dessert, cut the fruit in half, core and cut 2/3 around each segment leaving 1/3 intact to secure the others. Douse it with a smattering of Cointreau (an orange flavored liqueur), sprinkle with brown sugar, place a scarlet maraschino cherry in the center and broil until the brown sugar bubbles. It is an elegant show stopping finale!

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Christmas Tree


 The lovely evergreens have begun their seasonal show and it is always impressive that they chose winter, as the world is encased in frosty slumber, to appear their finest. Bearing fruit or berries despite the cold of winter, they have always been considered quite remarkable and were an important aspect of ancient pagan rituals.

The Romans considered evergreens symbols of fertility and used them to trim their homes for the New Year while northern Europeans hung them over doors to ward off evil spirits that were believed to stalk the winter landscape. German and Scandinavian people had long made evergreen wreaths to celebrate the Winter Solstice and over time were included in their celebrations of the birth of Jesus.

It is said that Martin Luther began the German tradition of decorating trees. In about 1500 as he was walking through a snow covered forest, he was struck by the beauty of dusted evergreens shimmering in the moonlight. So enamored was he by the natural beauty that he placed a tree inside for his children, decorated with lit candles symbolizing the starry sky and honoring Christ's birth. Following this tradition, the church began to include a tree for Christmas and by the mid-1600’s it was decorated with apples to symbolize Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden.

About this time German Christians began bringing trees into their homes and soon they began to decorate them. Their tradition arrived with Hessian immigrants to the colonies and overcame the austere (and unpopular) Puritan belief that ‘all work and no play’ included banning Christmas celebrations.

In 1832 Charles Follen, a German immigrant and professor at Harvard, decorated the first American Christmas tree to share with his family and friends. And in 1846, a young German Prince Albert presented his new bride Victoria with her first tree and thus the English Victorian Christmas was born. Word of decorated Christmas trees spread rapidly and was embraced by almost all Christian cultures; it remains today a universal symbol of the holiday season.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Leaves: To Rake or Not to Rake


Following the high winds last week the garden is not only beaten but absolutely bone dry. Sunday we set sprinklers and almost instantly the winter grasses resumed their vibrant green and perked up. The tree branches were wind stripped of their last leaves and are now bare so suddenly the birds may be seen and heard with amazing clarity.

Nature devised leafless trees to give additional sunlight for warmth during the cold winter months. The leaves are now collected in crisp piles on the garden floor where they will begin to work by slowly decomposing over time. Lately there seems to be much discussion among various gardening experts on the subject of these fallen gems.

For many years raking leaves was an autumn duty to tidy the lawn for winter and they were dutifully transported to a compost pile. Compost was first described as useful for the garden in 1587 so its properties have a time tested tradition. Compost is simply decomposed organic matter which improves the soil and gives it a lighter consistency.

In the 1930’s to 1940’s a united America was encouraged to grow vegetables for the war effort and most urban homes had a compost bin. My father had one and was fairly constant with his enthusiastic interest in it. It was located in the farthest corner of the yard and consisted of three wooden sides approximately four feet high and it was deep enough to move about in. Leaves are the basis of compost with grass clippings, old newspapers, coffee grounds, and other organic matter added, all of which were in 12-18 inch layers. Bone meal and ammonium nitrate were sprinkled between the layers to aid in decomposition and give it a boost. The mixture was tossed about while sprinkling with water occasionally to dampen it and encourage it to ‘cook’… it was quite a chore. By spring the process was complete producing dark matter that had a deep and rich aroma. It was a safe and natural fertilizer for the vegetable garden.  

It sounds like an incredible effort to produce what may be found naturally on the forest floor which is covered by undisturbed leaves. These leaves break down over time creating the dark rich soil that nourishes the fledging saplings as they grow to become forest giants like their parents… it is an ever-repeating cycle.

If one takes inspiration from the natural cycle this process may be utilized in the garden and raking will definitely deny the landscape these valuable nutrients. Natural nutrients are far better than bagged fertilizers and again there is the time, expense, and effort involved in application of such products. Perhaps mow over the leaves to mince them up a bit, however allow them to remain to do their work over the winter.  To answer the question:  Not to rake!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Pumpkins Saved the Pilgrims

Map by John Smith circa 1605... note pumpkins

Pumpkins are believed to have originated in North America where they have thrived for thousands of years. They are reputed to be one of the earliest known food crops in the Americas with ancient containers of stored seeds discovered in Mexico dating back as far as 5,300 to 7,000 BC.

Early Native Americans roasted pumpkin strips over campfires and used them as a food source long before the arrival of European explorers. Pumpkins helped The Native Americans make it through long cold winters as they stored well and were not prone to insect infestations. They used the sweet flesh in numerous ways: roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried.

They ate pumpkin seeds and also used them as a medicine as it was believed they guarded one against cold. Some Mexican tribes believe pumpkin seeds give exceptional endurance to the people… plus they are an easy to transport energy snack to take along on travels. The hollowed dried pumpkin shells were often used as bowls and to store food when the top was put in place.  

Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans. This took place long before the emergence of maize (corn). After maize was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with maize and beans using the "Three Sisters" tradition. The three are all that is required to keep one healthy.   

Columbus took seeds back to Spain where they were grown as food for hogs and considered unfit for human consumption. The word pumpkin originated from the Greek word Pepõn which means large melon. The word gradually was morphed by the French, the English and then the Americans into the word "pumpkin."

As the Pilgrims were enduring their first freezing winters in New England, they were welcomed by kind Native Americans who saved their lives through bountiful gifts of local food. They provided roasted pumpkin for them and the Pilgrims soon discovered they were easy to grow.  

For the Puritans, pumpkin not only provided breakfast and lunch, but beer as well. For the beer they fermented a combination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin… beer is high in nutrients and for this reason it is still served to recovering patients at hospitals in Germany.

As one Pilgrim wrote in 1633:

For pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."