Monday, July 27, 2015

Frogs and Toads... Notable Differences

We have the rain to thank for the resurgence of the frogs and toads with every kind seemingly everywhere this year. The last time they were seen in such great numbers was 1993 when they appeared after the spring flooding along with hundreds of tiny painted turtles.

(Mr. Toad has lived here 25 years.)


Earliest fossils indicate frogs existed 125 million years ago… they are a mirror of the environment and a treasure. Sadly frog populations have declined dramatically since the 1950’s with more than one third of the species believed to be threatened with extinction and more than 120 species already suspected to be extinct since 1980. Their skin must remain moist so oxygen which is dissolved in an aqueous external body-film may pass into their bloodstream… this process may mainstream toxins, which are believed to be the source of their decline. Also their eggs are subject to water pollution and they have adapted no protection from man-made poisons.

The frog is a true amphibian… frog eggs are fertilized and laid in the water and it is in the pond that young hatch and begin to morph. They appear first as tadpoles then gradually change into young frogs by losing their tail, losing their gills, developing lungs, and finally developing their fabulous hind legs, which are more suited for leaping than hopping. They eat mosquito larva, so cultivating their acquaintance is a garden must.

There are differences between frogs and toads; the toad has adapted far better than his cousin the frog. The toad is not particular about laying eggs so she may lay eggs in a standing puddle… the puddles this year were perfect. A toad is not dependant upon water, has warty skin, a shorter more muscular face and short hind legs well suited for hopping.

Toads do not migrate but rather burrow into the garden to hibernate with some living up to 40 years. The toad has developed survival tactics against predators which the sleek frog lacks. A toad may inflate his body, play dead, or secrete an unpleasant tasting chemical through a gland behind his eyes. A dog who has the perchance for catching toads will begin to foam at the mouth for his efforts… the canine will usually drop the toad upon contact.  

 It is a myth that toads may pass their warts to humans; the warts belong to them alone. The hundreds of tiny toadlets hiding among the flowers, uttering their adorable squeak when surprised, are harmless and make marvelous playmates for the day… remember to release them by evening.

Baby Toads from a puddle

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Promise of Summer Performance

As the garden was winding down last fall, I noted the plants that were performing valiantly and planned to include them again this year. Fortunately some had saved their show for the end of the season, indicating perhaps the best had been saved for last. The colors of the late bloomers seemed deeper and more vibrant... as though the stressful conditions of the Summer heat gave them an extra boost. Annuals that appear their best when it is so hot mirages appear in the distance include the lovely Morning Glory and the cheerful Zinnia. And for a blooming tree, the Crape Myrtles must be included for they provide an excellent show from mid summer until frost.

The magnificent Morning Glories seen climbing a pole, tumbling over a trellis, or creeping along a fence reach their zenith in the heat of Summer. Ever popular, the traditional blue has been joined by a vast array of colors and now include triple stripped cream and burgundy. They require full sun, are extremely drought tolerant and will provide glorious beauty until frost.

The ever popular Zinnia is another annual which is quite prolific in harsh conditions. A member of the Aster family of plants originating in Mexico, they come in single, double, ruffles, or pompon and their joyous colors certainly remind one of a fiesta. They are easy to grow from seed, attract butterflies, require little care and will freely bloom all season until frost.

The delightful Crape Myrtle gives a full show of fuchsia, crimson or white flowers which provide a glorious show in July. Her blooms arrive in clouds of clusters which exude an exotic look. The deeply ruffled flowers, each almost a quarter of an inch and complete unto itself, are bunched in gorgeous tapering cascades which literally cover the tree. Additionally the bark is most unusual, curling and peeling in various beige and taupe colors.

If the spent blooms and about six to eight inches of the wood above them are cut following first bloom, the Crape Myrtle will bloom again in late August. Originating in China, the Red Crape Myrtle was first introduced to the South in 1747 where it thrived in their moderate winters, gracing both mansions and farmhouses. In 1950 a cold-hardy Japanese Crape Myrtle arrived, placing the tree on the national agenda. It has a resistance to powdery mildew and few natural enemies… and with dwarf varieties available for pots or small spaces, it is suitable guest for every garden.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flowers From Daddy... Amaryllis Belladonna

The lovely Amaryllis Belladonna has made her arrival at the garden party this week. Commonly called ‘Naked Ladies they appear from a leafless base and are also known as ‘Surprise Flowers’ for their overnight appearance in the garden from a barren spot. The stunning Naked Lady comes from a clump forming bulb. Each year the bulb will increase in size and the flowers will appear at the outermost edge consequently over the years one bulb becomes a mass of exquisite flowers.

Mine arrived in my garden quite by accident. When my father died in July of 1994 I was distraught and could not be comforted. In his last hours I had held his hand and finally told him he could go, he did not need to stay for me… I promised I would be okay. He squeezed my hand and looked upward, his eyes lighting as though he saw something glorious… and he was gone.

My loss was devastating. I adored my Daddy and had wept to Michael that no one had even sent me flowers as consolation. The day following his funeral I was walking in my garden hoping to find comfort and solace when miraculously before my eyes was the most beautiful flower I had ever seen. It was the first of 13 Naked Ladies to arrive, one each day for 13 days, each in an odd place in my garden. No one had planted them and I had never seen one before so I have long been convinced Daddy sent them to me. Each year they begin to bloom on the anniversary of his passing… they will always be special to me for I see them and am reminded he is still watching over me.

The Amaryllis foliage arrives in the garden very early in the spring, appearing at first like emerging jonquil leaves. Very soon however, the foliage thickens and out grows everything around it. It grows to twenty four inches before collapsing and requiring braiding or staking to allow its neighbors to breathe. Removing the nourishing green foliage will adversely affect the future flowers so it must be kept intact until it naturally dies.

Once it has collapsed again as dry, crisp, untidy debris, it may be easily removed. The spot in the garden is quite bare until mid-July when suddenly the flowers begin to appear, slowly growing on sturdy stems until they are a mass of lovely pink. Each stem carries a large head of six to twelve funnel shaped flowers which have a sweet and delicate odor.

While awaiting the blooms, an elevated plant stand with a potted plant may be placed over the barren area. The stand must be high enough to allow air to circulate and water to flow beneath it to the waking bulbs below

This magical flower seems undisturbed by severe growing conditions and will bloom faithfully in shade or sun regardless of the heat. As with so many of our garden guests, this one is originally from South Africa where it grows with wild abandon in dry and dusty sites, impervious to harsh conditions. If planted next to perennial Shasta Daisies, both will bloom now, creating a visual garden bouquet. Amaryllis will make even a novice gardener joyful by adding her beauty and grace to the garden setting.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Science and the Plant Kingdom

The Plant Kingdom is highly complex and has been the subject of mystical intrigue since the beginning of time. As with any stationary object, plants must develop an internal ability to protect themselves from all manner of assaults, be it atmospheric or predatory. Part of their intrigue is their ability to adapt; plants sprayed with Roundup will become resistant to it in five generations.

In the mid seventies, scientists were conducting studies on plants by attaching electrodes to them and measuring the plant reactions. The initial study was to see how the plants reacted to various conditions such as certain plant food, lack of food, or drought. However the experiment took a drastic turn when one scientists noted the needle went crazy when a particular scientist entered the room… the plants were practically shaking in their pots, terrified of her. Research discovered she chose to cremate her subjects following her experiments, tossing them into an incinerator as the others watched. It became proven scientific knowledge that plants had feelings and the ability to think.

Following this information a movement ensued...  talking to your plants would ensure happiness and healthy growth. It is the reason I still say ‘excuse me’ if I brush to harshly by a bush. As with all movements, this one fell out of favor as large companies altered the genetic make up of plants, thus altering many of their abilities.

Scientific data of plant abilities is currently featured in Horticulture Magazine as a new generation rediscovers the magical mysteries of the Plant Kingdom. Using new technology Dr. Heidi Appel and Dr. Rex Crocroft at the University of Missouri, recorded the sound of caterpillars chewing on leaves and devised a system to test if plants had any reaction to it.

Using a members of the cabbage family, they exposed one plant to the recording, another was not so fortunate. When the caterpillar was introduced in person, the cabbage exposed to the recording had already produced unpleasant tasting immunities that repelled the caterpillar. The other plant had not built immunities and lost most of her leaves to the voracious caterpillar. They further noted the plants knew the sound of a predator in contrast to other ’noises’ such as wind or crickets. They claim their work is the first to clearly illustrate plants response to vibrations. 

Even though it is terribly hot, perhaps stroll about the garden patting and praising all of the inhabitants dwelling there… they will thank you.

*The poor Dahlia in the photo missed the memo....

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Farm House Kids in the Movie Rain Man... They're Mine

The Rain Man Story

My friend Phyllis Mashaney called me at 5:45 in the evening to say a casting director for a movie had been in town auditioning the kids at school all day. She said they were looking for kids and pickups that were needed to drive by a house… they were going to film in Hinton. She told me they had taken videos of her girls Carrie and Megan and then laughed and said it was too bad my home schoolers hadn’t been able to audition… auditions closed at six. Never a slacker, I sprang into action… it is an eight minute drive to town and I was determined to make it!

I had been getting dinner so I turned everything off, hastily grabbed baby Lize, and rushed outside yelling to the kids to get to the car… hurry, hurry, hurry! Everyone piled in, some without shoes, some who had been in the sand pile had dirt on their faces and no one was clean. The tone of my voice had caused instant mood elevation, so they were bobbing up and down all over the station wagon as Michael sped to town.

When we got to the school auditorium, the production crew packing up equipment. Oh no…auditions were over. Never mind… I hustled the kids inside the auditorium and asked the lady at the desk if it was too late to sign up for anything. She glanced at the casting director, precious Marie Rowe, and Marie nodded we could sign up so I began to fill out paperwork while my kids went nuts, running around ‘testing’ anything that was not tied down. Marshall was carrying baby Andrew at a dead run so I had to stop several times to try and save the baby. I tried to wipe the dirt off Peter’s face as he ran by and wished I’d had time to find their shoes and wash their hands. Please don’t climb on that I‘d had to caution, don’t run with that pencil, leave that electrical cord alone! I felt we made a dubious impression. Marie visited with me and the children, took pictures since the video equipment had been packed, I signed up our old truck, and we left.

Several weeks later I got a call from her that they had chosen my children to be the ‘farm house kids’ in the movie. The script had called for two brunettes, but they had rewritten the script to use all six of our sons; she had issued a press release. I was stunned… I just sat there in disbelief. I called my Dad and Michael’s parents. Daddy was happy, but Michael’s Dad didn’t believe me so I decided to call the Daily Oklahoman newspaper to see it they knew anything. They told me ‘front page tomorrow’. And then the phone began to ring… tv stations, radio stations, newspaper interviews. Marshall, who was 12, called a friend and said he was going to be in a movie ‘with Tom Cruise and some old guy‘… my children had never even been to a movie and seldom watched television so their references were hazy.

Marie had interviewed thousands of kids, most had parents with high hopes for their budding careers, but they were looking for farm kids, which is exactly what we had. Their naiveté was probably the key to my kids being chosen.

Beth Grant, the mother in the scene, came over to meet the children before filming and told them she was their mother in the movie. John, who had just turned 8, whispered to me ‘Is she really my Mother‘ so confusion reigned that day. The next day, amid a flurry of calls from people wanting interviews, a huge black limo picked us up and took us to the house where we would spend three days filming.

*Filming is another story.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tomato Time

This 1996 harvest was from ten tomato plants... enough to share with the Jesus House.

For almost a decade now tomato harvests have been lackluster to say the least. I can remember when a tomato plant tossed anywhere in the garden would flourish, producing an over abundance of fruit all summer. There were no requirements or procedures to ‘baby’ fussy plants… they were tough and hardy. Planted in several three week successions, one could expect tomatoes from June until October and first frost. And as Autumn arrived, the last green tomatoes were collected for relish or wrapped in newspaper and allowed to slowly ripen for an extension of the season.

Originating in South America, tomatoes were prized by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD. They were brought to Europe from the Americas by Conquistadors in the early 1600’s but were considered poison by the wealthy. Unfortunately, the flatware and plates of that time were made of lead based pewter and the acidic tomato caused the lead to leach from their dinnerware to the fruit. When it was eaten, the victims died of lead poisoning… a very unpleasant way to go. Peasants had no such finery in their kitchens and ate from wooden plates with wooden spoons. Thus the tomato was relegated as a food of the lower classes where it was widely accepted as a staple. Not until the 1800’s did the upper classes begin to embrace the tomato. By the time of the Civil War, the tomato was at last accepted throughout the south as a garden and dietary staple.

Americans eat over 12 million tons of tomatoes each year, making it one of the most popular items on our menu. Throughout the United States, tomato harvests have been declining for several years now. Last summer the Farmer’s Market in Oklahoma City said due to the erratic weather their suppliers in Texas had very few to ship. And elsewhere yields have been down, with many home gardens producing only several dozen instead of the bushels that were collected in the past.

There are factors which need to be considered but the current list of illnesses the tomato plant may have seems a bit ridiculous. It includes leaf roll, blossom end rot, sunscald cracks, and cat face ad others. Various sites call for a laundry list of exhaustive remedies… all for a plant that was at one time so hardy it originated in Mexico!

The weather may truly be a factor according to new guidelines for growing tomatoes. It is reported that tomato plants like daytime temperatures between 70 and 85 degrees. Accordingly, our summer temperatures are entirely too hot for the hybrid tomatoes that have been recently introduced. In hybridizing the tomato for growers in cooler climates, they have genetically altered the original requirements of the plant... previously tomatoes liked it hot and dry.

For our climate, perhaps purchase some heirloom seeds and begin the plants on a sunny window sill three to four weeks before planning to plant them outside. And maybe, just maybe the old tomato seeds will remember their genetic make up and produce as they did in the past. There is nothing more tasteful to the palate than a warm, freshly picked, sun-ripened tomato. I miss them!