Gardens of the Cross Timbers: De boids are singin' in da trees

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Apricot blossoms

Here we are in the middle of March. Spring break is next week. St. Patrick’s Day is next week (17th). The first day of spring, the Vernal Equinox, arrives next week (19th at 10:50 pm). It has been 124 years since spring was this early. At this time of almost equal day and night, the sun crosses the celestial equator (imagine a line in the atmosphere directly above our equator) from south to north. The tilt of the earth is zero. Why is spring early?

When we hit the year 2000, ordinarily that Feb would not have had a leap day. Leap days are omitted in century years, but things begin to get out of whack. To straighten out the calendar, Feb 29th 2000 was allowed to be a leap year. This shifted days back. Remember the recent leap day Feb 29th 2020. The 2020 was divisible by 4. From now until 2100, years with leap days will have earlier springs until leap year is skipped in 2100 and all is reset once again. We’ll not see another March 21st spring start until then!

It is called Phenology when you observe the cycles of plants and animals in relation to temperature, altitude and other influences. You can use these signs to figure when to plant seeds in your veggie garden. Farmer’s Almanac states when you see your crocus bloom it is time to plant radishes and spinach. I have one purple crocus in bloom, the only one I have, so it is a sign to put in those radishes. If only I had some radish seeds. The forsythia is putting out yellow blooms throughout Shawnee. Time to plant onion sets, lettuce and peas. And, of course, the daffodils are out so keep going with beets, chard and carrots. Wait for dandelions to bloom before planting potatoes. Trying to follow the Farmer’s Almanac in Oklahoma is difficult since all our flowers often bloom simultaneously. One must have the garden prepared, stock up on seeds and be prepared to plant extensively at a minute’s notice.

Then there’s the next problem in Oklahoma. Our temperatures go up for a few days, the flowers explode and then there is a reckoning of the ways, usually in the form of a frost or freeze. My beautiful pink apricot and peach flowers are now being visited by bees and other pollinators. There is a 30% chance of a frost or freeze by April 15th. Risky business. I am watching with interest the sand plums as well as other plums, since they are beginning their spring fling in the fields and woods. Often these natives can tolerate the colder temps, but not always.

Have your heard? St. Patrick’s Day parades have been cancelled in Boston and many places in Ireland because of the coronavirus. Savannah Georgia is still waiting to make the call and many of the parades in New York and other places are still good to go as I write this.

The celebration will go on regardless. My green shamrock is hanging proudly in front of the glass cabinet. Second thoughts, though, have cropped up about making corned beef from scratch. Have yet to locate a brisket that isn’t the size of Texas, but most of the pickling spices are in the cupboard….juniper berries, whole cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns, mustard seeds and ground ginger. Lacking are the cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds and allspice berries.

If a 3 to 4-pound beef brisket does appear, shall I follow Steven Raichlen’s recipe or go with Martha Stewart? Steve’s brisket takes 8 days of brining. Martha’s is quicker at 5 days. Both cooks have similar spices, carrots, potatoes, onions and cabbage. Martha goes one step further with turnips and parsnips. She also makes rye soda bread to sop up the juices or eat thickly covered with butter. If everything falls through, I can just purchase a corned beef brisket with spice packet, boil for hours, and finish with root veggies and cabbage while the soda bread is cooking. Oh yeah.

“Corned” beef comes from the coarse rock salt the size of barleycorns or “corns of salt” used in preservation. The Irish ate dairy, pork and lamb. The beef produced in Ireland was controlled and sold by the British, French and the colonies. The Irish ate little beef because it was so expensive. Many were living in involuntary indentured servitude and their lives were controlled by their British masters. Even more had been forced to farm poor soils while the cows had the best pastures. Living in poverty, the Irish turned to the potato to survive. The demand for corned beef grew as populations increased in the British Commonwealth and Atlantic trade became even more profitable. Then from 1845 until 1849, the Irish Potato Famine rose its ugly head.

The potato reached Ireland in 1590 from Europe. Potatoes grew well in Ireland. Several potato varieties had been introduced, but the high-yielding Lumper potato could tolerate the poorest of soils and rapidly spread through part of the country. It became the main meal for tenant farmers living at subsistence levels.

Luck of the Irish. Phytophthera infestans, the fungi often called water mold thrives in really moist conditions and decimates potatoes emigrated from North America. The potato blight fungi produce asexual spores that travel great distances in the air, swimming zoospores that can do the backstroke over leaf surfaces until they find a suitable site, germinate and cause extensive leaf rot, and oospores that can survive great lengths of time in the soil.

These microorganism arrived at the perfect time and growing conditions. Ireland was experiencing cool, wet weather. The fungi destroyed half the crop in 1845 and practically all of Ireland’s potato crop in 1846. Over one million people died from starvation and typhus. Two million, many also suffering from malnutrition, emigrated from Ireland to other countries. More land than ever was available for the cows and sheep that would eventually be shipped to Britain. By 1921, the Irish population was less than half that in the 1840’s.

Fast forward to 2020. I like corned beef, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. My mother, though, seldom made it, and, from what I recall, my grandmother never did. But times change. I even have British friends! So as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, regardless of the flu, virus, or plague, I plan to make merry this St. Pat’s Day with family and friends. Just don’t get too close, carry hand sanitizers and bring your own dishes, cups and cutlery.

La Feile Padraig sona duit (Law leh Paw-drig suna ghit)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

“May your pocket be heavy and your heart light. May good luck pursue you each morning and night.

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