Sunday, April 16, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/15/06)

Originating with the Incas, tomatoes have served a variety of purposes, one of which was as a poison. The same Incas who gave us tomatoes also used them to poison the soldiers of the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century. The tomatoes of that time were small, yellow, and far more acidic than our cultivars and heirlooms of today. The oxalic acid of the Incas’ tomatoes ate holes in the soldiers’ intestines, inducing slow, painful deaths. The Incas were neither the first nor the last to gain revenge by poisoning their enemy with gifts of food and drink.

With such a chancy history it is small wonder that tomatoes are hard to grow in Flagstaff and on the Colorado Plateau. Also, Flagstaff’s cold weather and short growing season make growing tomatoes even chancier.

High maintenance plants, many think that the tomatoes’ beauty and taste are worth the time, money, and anxiety they demand. Indeed, some gardeners think of their tomatoes as trophies to be trotted out and shown off to all their neighbors, frequently boasting about the time, money, and ordeals required to grow them. As with a lot of high maintenance trophies, tomatoes are fickle. Sometimes, they’re great and sometimes real pains in the ass, but when they’re great, they’re great.

The tomato is a fruit grown on a vine. The Supreme Court ruled it a vegetable, but only a lawyer or a judge would use the convoluted logic of lawyers to call a fruit a vegetable. As a fruit it is best plucked fresh off the vine by hand and eaten while still warm. Leaning forward and dripping on the ground is acceptable behavior.

No hardy mountaineers, tomato vines can’t even stand up by themselves and need a lot of propping up with cages, poles, or lattices to keep them from falling over.

The trick to growing tomatoes is the same trick used by many gardeners in Flagstaff, fooling Mother Nature by micro-managing the climate and refurbishing the soil. Flagstaff and the Colorado Plateau are not congenial to tomatoes who like it warm and humid, not cool and dry. Tomatoes have to be tricked into thinking they are in the Midwest or South during a long warm, muggy summer. Thus the choice for tomato lovers is either living in a warm, muggy climate and growing tomatoes easily or living in Flagstaff and growing tomatoes with difficulty. A real double-bind. As an old farmer once said, “Yep, the weather’s a little hard on us humans, but its sure great for the corn, hogs, and tomatoes.”

Tomatoes can be grown either in the ground or in containers. Both places work, but the choice among tomato aficionados, such as Dr. Jim Mast, is the container, preferably an ugly black plastic container. Black absorbs heat, fooling the tomato plant into thinking the soil is warm when it isn’t. For ground-growers, black, porous plastic sheets spread around the plants’ base perform the same trick.

The chilly air is the next challenge. Frost kills tomatoes. The one advantage to Flagstaff is that really hot, rainy summers are not congenial for tomatoes, either. The easiest and almost most expensive trick is the Wall-o-Water, a device sold by nurseries. It is literally a translucent plastic wall of water which surrounds the tomato plant, tricking the plant into thinking the air is warm when it isn’t. The manufacturers claim the Wall-o-Water works in temperatures down to 16 degrees F.

Less expensive and less effective arrangements are rocks, of which there plenty in Flagstaff, gallon glass wine jugs, or gallon plastic milk jugs. The rocks absorb heat during the day and keep the plants warmer at night. The gallon wine jugs filled with water do the same trick as the rocks. The gallon plastic milk jugs with their bottoms cut off and caps discarded can be placed over the tomato plant in an attempt to keep the plant cozy day and night. Also, plastic tarps or old bed sheets can be draped on poles or cages over the plants.

Of course, all of this trickery can be accomplished in a green house, surely the most expensive way to grow home-grown tomatoes, especially if the green house is heated with electricity or gas. If passive solar heating is used, then the only expense is the green house itself. A really cheap and effective green house is a lean-to affair set against the wall of a house, drawing radiant heat from the house, but such an arrangement may be too casual for gardeners with a sense of propriety.

Next tomato beds, fertilizer, bugs, and varieties.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/26/06)

Beets have been out of fashion for several years, considered by many a plebian vegetable along with turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips, but now beets and their allies are becoming de rigueur. Carrots have always remained a standard, not quite fashionable, bourgeois vegetable, conventional and humdrum. However, as gastronomic fashion changes with greater emphasis on food that smacks on home cooking and meat loaf, root vegetables are now happily chic.

Beets, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips are naturals for Flagstaff and the Colorado Plateau. They don’t wilt at the first sign of frost, like tomatoes. A hardy lot, they’re nutritious, attractive, and easy to grow.

The beet with which to begin is the Detroit Dark Red (Beta vulgaris), an Heirloom developed in 1892 by a Mr. Reeves in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. He began with the Early Blood Turnip (Beta vulgaris cv.). The same turnip was also grown at Monticello by the author of the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, whose gardens were undoubtedly tended by his slaves. At any rate, the Detroit Dark Red has a noble lineage.

An all around vegetable, almost all of it can be eaten. The
young leaves can be used in salads, and before they are too old can be used as a side dish or in soups and stir fry.

However, the real triumph of the Detroit Dark Red is the root, a delightful globe, best plucked early while it is still tender and tasty. To prevent the dark red from staining everything in sight, the globe is best boiled, baked, or roasted in its skin with the small base of leaves attached to the top and the small pig tail left on. After cooking, the skin can easily be slipped off without red stain running all over the place.

Beets are not all dark red globes. The Italian Heirloom, Chioggia (Beta vulgaris) with its interior rings of bright pink and white offers a great contrast to the Detroit Dark Red. With its sweet and peppery taste, it’s also an eye catcher when sliced properly on any dinner table.

The Golden Beet (Beta vulgaris) is golden in color and doesn’t bleed as do the red beets. A fetching contrast to the red beets, it’s attractive, sweet, and nutritious.

The Bulls Blood Beet (Beta vulgaris) is, also, an Heirloom. With an earthy yet sweet flavor, it’s darker and richer than the other beets with its leaves a deep maroon color. If the leaves are picked young, they are a striking contrast in salads. It’s a beet connoisseur’s beet.

The rules for growing beets are simple. Sow the seeds a few weeks before the expected last frost and keep sowing on through to fall. Plant an inch deep about 12 to 15 feet per foot and thin to 2 to 3 inches. Plant in well-composted soil and keep the watering even. When harvesting, choose a dry day, cut off tops near the crown, don’t wash the root, and store in the crisper in a plastic bag with small holes. They’ll last a long time. They can be stored, boiled, pickled, roasted, baked, canned, and frozen.

As far as pests are concerned, the ubiquitous aphids are a possible threat. Dill, coriander, and bronze fennel draw the insects that feed on aphids. Lady bugs are excellent predators on aphids. Insecticidal soap and detergent work as long as the leaves’ undersides where the aphids hide out are hit. If these are used, the leaves should be washed before eating. Never use systemic poisoning. Suicide and homicide are horticultural no-no’s.

Beets bring a delight to the eye, a pleasure to the palate, health to the body, and clarity to the mind.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Sunday, April 02, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/20/06)

Growing kale in Flagstaff is a lead-pipe cinch. As a cole crop, it is a cool season vegetable which makes it a fit for Flagstaff and the Colorado Plateau. Kale is hardy and grows best in the spring and the fall. It’s even sweeter after the first freeze in fall. The best time to plant it is in the early spring and the late summer. Some have even picked kale in the snow.

The most common variety is Red Russian Kale (Brassica napus), so named because of its color, not its political affiliation. As an heirloom vegetable, it precedes the rise of communism in Russia. As a matter of fact, it was first brought to North America by way of Canada about 1885 by Russian fur traders.

Close by the venerable Red Russian Kale is a cultivar called White Russian Kale (Brassica napus) whose name again has no political implications. During the Russian Civil War from 1918-21 the White Russian Army fought the Red Army of the Bolsheviks. They lost and Russia became communist. Also, a White Russian is also an alcoholic drink featuring vodka and kalua. Actually, White Russian kale is called white because it has white stems. It’s sweeter and hangs around longer than Red Russian kale, being hardy to 10 degrees F.

Nowadays, a more fashionable kale is Tuscan Kale (Brassica oleraceae) which promises a taste of sunny Italy. Delicious tasting, it is also decorative. An Italian Heirloom, it also goes by the names of Italian Lacinate Nero Toscana, Black Tuscan Kale, Dinosaur kale, and cavolo nero. Acclaimed in gourmet magazines, it has received the horticultural imprimaturs of Martha Stewart and Ina Garten, the gastronomic doyenne of The Hamptons.

For those of Scot’s heritage there is the Blue Scotch Curled Kale (Brassica oleracea acephala), a native of Great Britain. A favorite for soups and salads, it can also be used decoratively. Another fascinating kale is the Giant Walking Stick Kale (Brassica oleracea longata), a favorite amongst the Portugese. It grows to 7 feet tall. The leaves at top may be eaten as in the other kales, but the stem can be used for a walking stick. While growing, it will need a stake to support it. In the early winter months, it may be pulled and cut off at the base. After the cane has been dried, it can be polished and used as a walking stick. Seeds may be obtained from the Nichols Garden Nursery at or at 1-800-422-3985.

In addition to being used in soups, side dishes, and stir fry kale can also be used as greens in salads if the leaves are picked young. As cole crops, they can be planted by seed four to five weeks before the last frost. To get the jump on the spring, they can be started by seed indoors. They are best sown about 1/4 inch deep and 15 inches apart, except the Giant Walking Stick Kale which requires more space.

The pest to which kale is most vulnerable is the ubiquitous aphid. Dill, coriander, and bronze fennel planted near the kale draw insects that prey on aphids. Also, insecticidal soap or detergents work well if all the aphids are wetted, especially those on the underside of the leaves. Repeated treatments are necessary, and be sure to wash the leaves before cooking them.

Very nutritious and sweet tasting, kale is also quite attractive, offering differently colored varieties which makes it useful not only in a vegetable garden, but also desirable in the flower garden.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006