Tahlequah resident Cathy Cott is an unusual gardener. She admits it’s one of her greatest passions, and she can often be found planting things in the rain and even the dark.
Cott suffers from lupus, which prevents her from working in direct sunlight without ample cover. But that hasn’t seemed to slow her down once gardening season begins.
“I have to be very careful about being out in the sun, so I garden sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the dark, and almost always wearing a big hat, long sleeves, or under my giant umbrella that I can stick in the ground if it’s not too windy – which in Oklahoma is about twice a year,” said Cott.
She used to plant both flowers and vegetables, but since moving to Tahlequah – which is infamous for having more rocks than soil – she’s a little more selective.
“I haven’t grown anything much more than tomatoes and peppers, vegetable-wise,” said Cott. “Years ago, when I was young and energetic and lived in Cleveland County, I grew and canned green beans, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, pickles, and froze the rest, such as broccoli, okra, and corn on the cob.”
Her love of gardening began as a child.
“My dad loved to garden, especially roses, and I think I inherited his green thumb,” she said. “He and I would work in the yard together and have a lot of fun hauling yard waste off to the town dump. On the way back, we always stopped for ice cream. My mom used to say I could put a dead stick in the ground and it would grow. She wasn’t far off the truth. I take plants that nurseries have put on the ‘maybe some idiot will buy these’ rack and trim them up and plant them, and within two weeks, I have a beautiful new plant in my garden!”
While most people wait for fall to plant bulbs, or a long warming trend to plant starters, Cott seizes any opportunity she can to dig in the dirt. Some may spend months planning a planting season, but Cott just goes with the flow.
“I don’t really plan so much as I look at what’s there and try to find things that will complement what I have,” she said. “I have to seriously mention the support of my husband, Dan. Gardening isn’t a cheap hobby. It’s also hard work and sometimes I’m not up to it. Dan is always willing to help me dig, weed, mulch, edge, and anything else I need help with.”
Cott has discovered over the years that, many times, annuals will seed back and essentially become perennials.
“I have some ornamental grasses, but most of what I plant blooms or has interesting leaves,” she said. “I have been adding rosebushes here and there, and you can tell, because while I was cleaning out my winter plant waste and leaves from my gardens, I managed to wound my arms rather spectacularly.”
Cott has had the most success with Shasta daisies, Rose of Sharon, balloon flowers, mums, a variety of day lilies and cannas. She’s also had a mishap or two, and shared her secret for success.
“I have never once had an azalea of any type survive my tender loving care. Not even one, and I’ve tried and tried,” she said. “[One important lesson I’ve learned about getting things to bloom is to use] rabbit poop. It’s the best fertilizer in the world. It doesn’t burn the plants, but it has something in it that really makes them bloom and grow. Mulch is important, too, in Oklahoma, after it starts getting hot. That’s about April 4 in Oklahoma, so better hurry, gardeners, and mulch! If you water and water and there’s nothing there to hold that moisture in the dirt ,then you’re in for a sad-looking garden. Mulch is important in the winter here, as well, because it protects your perennials.”
Cott begins putting plants in the ground the latter part of March, but admits she often has to rush to cover them when a cold snap arrives.
“I usually have to get out there with Dan covering things up with sheets and plastic tarps,” said Cott. “Last year, he developed an actual system of PVC pipe and heavy plastic for frost blankets, so it’s not a scramble every year. Now we can just roll them out.”
Cott grows plants from seeds, but employs starter plants more often than not.
“Some things, like morning glories, marigolds, and zinnias are really better and hardier if they are from seeds I’ve collected from last year’s plants after they die back,” said Cott. “I’ve sent deep purple morning glory seeds to friends and family all over the country. They were my dad’s favorite flower, and they are one of mine as well. I love to share the beauty of flowers with anyone who is interested.”
Cott uses a variety of containers and raised beds, but also plants things directly in the yard.
While some people prefer ornamental gardens, probably just as many prefer to grow edible flora.
Carl Wallace, 4-H educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Office, said his groups have two community gardens: one on College Avenue, and another at Park Hill Baptist Church. They’ve already been busy tilling the raised beds, and have starter plants under grow lights in a potting shed.
“For those who are looking at growing vegetables, you’d have to hope they’ve done tilling work back in the fall,” said Wallace. “The gardens we’re in now, this is the third time we’ve tilled. We’re trying to get the soil loosened up.”
Wallace said onions, potatoes and lettuces could have already been planted, but folks should hold off a bit on other summer vegetables.
“Realistically, the last frost should be somewhere around the 15th of April,” said Wallace. “We’ve got tomatoes growing in the building under grow lights, though. We’re going to watch the long-term forecasts before putting them in the ground.”
Wallace said vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and okras are very sensitive to frost.
“Every year, it happens: We get a few warm days, then we get a frost,” said Wallace. “Until the soil temperatures warm up, there’s not a lot to gain by getting vegetables in early. They won’t really activate until the soil reaches higher than 50 degrees, but 50 is about the benchmark. When they really develop, the soil temp will be like 60 or above. We can plant in 50 degree soil temperatures, but if we have a cold snap, that’ll go south really quick.”
Wallace recommends vegetable growers get a soil test to measure nutrients and pH.
“If you’re nutrient deficient, you’ll never produce a really good crop,” said Wallace. “You need to make sure the pH is proper to have a good chance. Loose soil is also important. Some of the soil in this area has a lot of clay in it. You can add organic material to help with that. We added a lot of wood mulch to make the soil better, and you can do the same thing with leaves.”
To read a vegetable planting guide and other tips for gardening, visit tahlequahTDP.com.