Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Hello May

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Clematis in rain

Today is May Day, Tuba, Day, Space Day, Naked Gardening Day and the Kentucky Derby is back. Go wild.

As spring unfurled, my father’s garden grew rows of milk jugs. My dad could hardly wait to plant his tomatoes. Some years he planted them two or three times despite the fact his garden was below the hill and prone to late frosts.

Shades of my father. Tuesday night, April 20, I commandeered several buckets and covered the remaining living tomato plants. Two had turned to mush the night before. Must have gotten colder than I thought. The sprawling tomato that overwintered in the greenhouse had been taken outside and tied to a fence days before. The entire plant, with 10 small tomatoes, was draped with an insulated blanket. Strips of insulation were snugged cozily around its base.

After counting the packages of leftover handwarmers, I figured there were enough to put one with each tomato and the poppy. At 11 p.m. the handwarmers were activated and distributed. Went to bed. The next morning Mesonet reported Shawnee hit a record-breaking 28 degrees. My Acurite weather station registered 31 degrees. Either way, temps dropped below freezing but the plants survived. Had to be the handwarmers. Should have covered the basil. They were burned and now cringe anytime I come near. I warned them the cold was nothing. Just wait for the hail and gale force winds.

Find the tomatoes

In a vain attempt to get to the Master Gardener meeting (which I missed because the Community Center had obviously been relocated in Kansas), I discovered sections of Shawnee I had never seen before. It would have helped to have the cell phone, but that was being charged back at the house. With no sense of direction, I have often traveled to worlds of the unknown. I operate by landmarks such as unique buildings, mountains or outstanding trees. When we were living in Germany, a friend and I drove to Heidelberg in Baby, my van, to the scout shop. It was an easy trip. I somehow missed the very obvious Transatlantic Council Boy Scout Headquarters, and, before we knew it, had driven out of Heidelberg and were in route to Frankfurt.

Baby drove all over Germany hauling Boy Scouts, camping supplies, furniture and seldom missed a Volksmarch. Back in Oklahoma, Baby has done her time transporting garden tools, plants, lumber, hoses and lawnmowers. She’s thinking of retiring since she is 24 years old. A real classic.

During my tour of Shawnee, I wondered why the cupholder between the front seats was askew. My attention was diverted when we began to parallel I77 going north. Wrong way. When Baby and I stopped at the light across from the Mexican Restaurant, we knew our tour was at an end. Time to go home for a late breakfast. Too early for Mexican.

At home the cupholder was lifted up. Below was a hoard of fresh, half-eaten acorns in a neat pile. Ahh, the reason Baby stopped running on I77 a few days before while lightning streaked across the sky and thunder boomed to the south. The well-fed critter chewed its way through the air filter, leaving the van able to start, but only get a few miles from home before resting. Got a bit scary when she cut out, but it’s all good now.

The mechanic mentioned he uses solar lights in his three trucks. String the lights through the engine compartment. Rodents don’t like bright lights. He saw our repellant still in the engine area, the green bar of Irish Spring Soap. The man shook his head. They like soap fat. Irish Spring has sodium tallow, straight from animal fat. We looked closer. The end of the soap bar had been nibbled. No more soap.

As the sun sets, the light show begins. Baby has white lights glowing under the hood powered by stored sunlight of that day. A string of multi-colored lights could be added to the interior. But, does Baby really want to scream ‘Party time?’

The month of May has arrived along with neotropical migrants. Scissor-tailed flycatchers that overwintered in Central and South America are back at the Shawnee Airport. They perch on the fences and hide in the Bradford pear trees. The first Monarch at the Japanese Peace Garden fluttered in on April 19 and found a place to rest on a pine tree. The first Ruby-throated hummingbird showed up at my house April 21.

Monarch butterfly on Pine tree

Sunday, April 25, was an amazing plant day if you liked strong winds and sunny 80-degree temperatures. I potted the new Osage Blackberry (Rubus ‘Osage’), a thornless variety, in a larger pot, not the ground, to keep it under control. The deep red geranium was transferred to a roomier vessel. Black swallowtail attracting rue plants (Ruta graveolens) and donkey ears (Kalanchoe sp) were transplanted. The pink Clematis on the trellis has burst into bloom.

The Hibiscus and two spider plants are out of the greenhouse. The spider plants were frying in the greenhouse sun and look forward to dappled shade. The Hibiscus has tropical milkweed growing within it and the flowers might attract visiting Monarchs. Sidenote: Native green milkweeds (Asclepias viridis) are about to bloom.

Plumeria blooms

The rest of the plants remain within the plexiglass wonder under the watchful eye of the Plumeria. Plumeria (Frangipani) is actually native to the tropical regions of the Americas. The blooms provide the scent in some Chanel perfumes. Early winter my Plumeria alba went into dormancy and dropped its long leaves. New spring leaves are beginning to form at all branch ends except one. It has three blooms. Goes along with all the other confusing things this year!

“There is only one planet on which people live and are being born. And while it is, it's a miracle. A miracle, every leaf and every bug.... And it all depends on how you are able to enjoy this miracle. Some do not even think that they were born into a miracle." Edvard Mirzoyan (Armenian composer)

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at