Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Gardening-in-place sort of!

Becky Emerson Carlberg
My Blue Frog with Goldenrod

Hours were spent at the Japanese Peace Garden (JPG) this last week, in warm sunlight and blustery winds. The pines were extending their branches to gather sunlight, but slapped the walkers and bikers who came close. While trimming the innocent limbs back to the fence, my hair filled with pine bark and needles. I felt part tree! Next day, the forecast of future stormy weather prompted me to grab a shovel, dig up and relocate marauding out-of-control goldenrod plants at my house. Master Gardener Tom Terry mentioned the goldenrods in the downtown Native Garden were on a stampede to leave town. Goldenrods love prairies and open areas. Colonizing is a trait some species are quite adept at. These herbaceous perennials vigorously increase their numbers by sending out underground stems (rhizomes) which grow roots and sprout new plants.

I didn’t dig all the goldenrods. Left a few to graze on and pick for salads since young goldenrod leaves are palatable and nourishing. Even though goldenrods are often thought of as weeds here in this country, Europeans value them as prized garden plants: golden rods of fiery, passionate light (wildlettucegal). Our own pollinators (flies, bees, wasps, butterflies) search out goldenrod flowers, and many species of butterfly larvae and caterpillars munch the leaves. Often baby insects or eggs produce chemicals which cause the rapidly growing goldenrods to form galls around them. The stems form interesting thick balls or spindle shapes. Perfect for the tiny ones as they now have an edible house that protects them from weather and predators. Except woodpeckers. The bird is not intimidated by the structure and pecks its way into the center where the little larval protein package resides. Gall formations don’t seem to bother the goldenrods, so no doubt this interaction of species has gone on quite a while.

Eighty of the 120 goldenrod species are native to North America. One of those species, originally from the Pottawatomie County Extension Butterfly Garden, was growing on the small mound by the parking lot of the Japanese Peace Garden. A small hillock formed from clay soil dumped in a heap years ago. The red clay knoll sat there, a giant red clay ant hill even rains could not wash away. I had this brilliant idea: Why not plant something on it?

Ground cloth soon covered the large lump. Concrete chunks were placed around the base to define the boundary. Source of the concrete: pieces of World War II Naval Air Station runways that had surfaced and were excavated during the creation of the new airport walking path. Holes were cut in the cloth into which Lemon Queen sunflowers were planted. These particular sunflowers are used in the Great Sunflower Project, an ongoing citizen scientist program started in 2008 under the direction of Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn, San Francisco State University. The program collects information on the effects of herbicides, critical plants and habitat changes involving bee populations. For years the Lemon Queens grew in the Murrah Memorial plot until it was renovated. Sister City delegates would try to identify and record the number of bees they saw during their community volunteer work sessions.

The Extension Goldenrods joined the sunflowers last year atop the mini-mountain. This species of goldenrod was tall and aggressive compared to the laid-back smaller goldenrods in front of my house. Along with some sunflower seedlings, the prolific plants have now been transplanted into the new Native Plant Half-Circle across from the official Japanese Peace Garden. The historic pieces of runway concrete now form the north border of the garden. We’ll see how the goldenrods perform in that section of brick-asphalt soil. The ravaged mini-hill is ready for demolition when the parking lot of the JPG is paved.

Each time we worked in the JPG, there were crowds of cars and hordes of people trying to keep respectable distances as they exercised. Life goes on. Many of the nursing students at Rose State College also worked in hospitals. In chemistry Zoom sessions they would log on whenever they could. One attended class from a supply room and another from an empty laboratory. Perseverance and dedication.

Some take the shelter-in-home quite literally. One guy has not left his house in over three weeks. When he orders groceries, he opens the garage door to allow delivery of goods and lets them stay in the garage three days before entering his home!

Springtime is calling me. The growing season has commenced. Must go shelter-outdoors. One new Earth Box in Eggplant purple has been ordered. The other two resident boxes, orange and dark green, were weeded, top layer of soil replaced with new potting soil, and Heirloom Cherokee Purple tomato seeds planted. The seeds came out of the last tomato harvested from the tomato plant I purchased last year from Lowe’s (I’ve never been great in sprouting tomato plants).

Surely a few seeds will germinate. Tomato seed can, maybe, remain viable for five years or more. The cover mulch used in the green box was decomposing oak leaves. The orange box has a layer of oak catkins. I swept up the falling thin flower cylinders for days and collected them in a bucket. Should be good for something other than pollination, pollen production and cluttering the ground!

Flavorful black cherry tomatoes were grown at the Extension office last year. Linda Smith, cutting-edge gardener, gave me not only one black cherry tomato plant, but also a Jet Star and Cherokee Carbon. I have a plethora of tomato plants!

Jet Star was introduced in 1969 by Harris Seeds. Because the breeding program is so competitive, Jet Star parentage is kept under wraps. Although marketed as ‘low-acid’, this tomato has a higher sugar content which masks the acidity. The tomato tolerates temperature swings, resists disease, is crack and sunscald resistant. The Jet Star is often the road-side tomato sold from the backs of trucks, veggie stands and many gardens.

The Cherokee Carbon is a cross between Heirloom Cherokee Purple and Heirloom Carbon. Heirloom varieties are more prone to catface. Catface? Catfacing happens when the blossom scar becomes deformed, causing strange pucker shapes. Oh. Increasing my tomato vocabulary beyond blossom end rot! An here’s another plant word: Truss. I know what you’re thinking. Nope.

In describing the black cherry tomato, the plant produces fruits on a truss. A truss in a cherry tomato is a cluster of smaller stems and flowers that form many little fruits. In large tomatoes, the truss is the main stem with flowers that form as the plant reaches maturity and begins to fruit. Education is a wonderful thing.

“Are not flowers the stars of the earth?” Clara Lucas Balfour

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