Friday, December 21, 2007











CYNTHIA WARZECHA




The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/20/07)

In a time when angst, alienation, and vitriol are fashionable, a conversation with Cynthia Warzecha is refreshing. She isn’t angry at her parents or ashamed of the place from whence she has come. She embraces them and sees her life as an adult a continuation of her life as a child in northern Minnesota. Her face shows it as do her hands, resting comfortably in her lap. At ease with her background, she’s at ease with herself and thus with other people.

As she said, “In a Lake Wobegon kind of small town in northern Minnesota there aren’t many diversions, except the local tavern and the outdoors. My family chose the outdoors. I went fishing and agate hunting with my Dad. An outdoorsman, hunting for him wasn’t just a sport, but a way to put food on the table.” Never losing her love of the outdoors, as an adult, she has worked to sustain that world, the natural world, as the artificial world encroaches on it.

As such, she is currently the Area Assistant Agent, Natural Resources and Agriculture with the Coconino County Cooperative Extension, all of which means that she is on the faculty of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She’s the first natural resources agent in Coconino County.

Rather than merely embracing her childhood in northern Minnesota, using it as a foundation, she’s has developed it. Her family valued education, but being of modest means, they couldn’t help her. As the first member of her family to seek a college education, she had to pay for it with work, grants, fellowships, and loans. So when she graduated from the University of Minnesota with both B.S. and M.S. degrees, her education was an achievement. She always wanted to accomplish something with her life and saw education as the way to do it.

She has taught English in Germany and worked for the Department of Transportation in Michigan, mitigating the adverse effects of new road construction on the environment, both natural and social, such as the disruption of communities. Her life then and now has been two-faced in that she faces two ways, natural and social and the intra-action betwixt the two.

For her, the world doesn’t work like a machine with interchangeable parts, but as an organism with feedback, each member affecting the others. Rather than external, human relationships with the environment are internal. For her, nature isn’t “out there,” something that human beings observe as an object apart from themselves, such as “going out into nature” as though they were going out into the backyard. Nature isn’t a part but the whole of something, not an object, but the subject. In short, human beings are as much as part of nature as the Ponderosa or Arizona fescue. Her task is to see that the two don’t destroy each other, such as wildfires, which means that she has to work with “all sorts and conditions of men,” as the Prayer Book reads.

Her task is the sustainability of nature, that is, the conservation of natural resources, such as keeping the watersheds healthy and unpolluted. In addition, she works for the welfare of those unprotected biological communities as they intra-act with those pesky creatures who seem bent on befouling their nest. In working with human beings, her ease with herself is her secret weapon. Graciousness always seems to work.

She isn’t on a crusade. She’s doing a job. The job is to sustain nature so that human beings can continue to enjoy themselves as members of nature. For her, the Biblical mandate to subdue the earth is a call to sustain it for generations to come.

A tall, slim, attractive woman who likes to wear sweaters, Cynthia Warzecha is making the world richer for her presence. One of her enrichment activities is teaching a Master Naturalist Class in the fall. Then it all comes together that nature is not only out there, but right here. For her, sustainability is self-preservation for the human race.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

MASTER GARDENER CLASS: EXPANDING HORIZONS

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/3/07)

When I was an adolescent, I thought that Bob’s Big Boy cheeseburgers were the ultimate in fine dining. My mother took me to a fancy French restaurant in Santa Monica, Le Petite Moulin, to expand my gastronomical horizons. Baffled by the menu, I asked her, “What’s escargot?” She said, “It’s French for snails.” I hit the bœuf button. I got filet minion with mushroom sauce. After I scraped off the sauce and mushrooms, I asked the waiter for ketchup. The maitre’ de, a sallow-faced Frenchman with slicked down black hair, a thin mustache, and a flickering sneer, came over to the table and said, “Young man, you may ask for ketchup, but you cannot have it.” At the time, I wasn’t up to the lexical shift, but I got the idea. This wasn’t a drive-in with cheeseburgers, French fries, hot dogs, Cokes, and malts. Eventually, I learned that over the rim of my horizon lay a whole world of cuisine.

So it is with the Master Gardener Class coming up Wednesday, February 6. There is a lot more to gardening in the High Country than horticultural chili dogs. Freddi Steele who is in the current Master Gardener Class is also a naturalist with the National Park Service at the Grand Canyon. She’s said, “It’s an excellent opportunity to study with the best in the fields of horticulture, water conservation, high altitude gardening, and arboriculture in the Southwest.” This coming from an expert herself. There’s nothing like getting it straight from the horse’s mouth especially on subjects about which so many people have opinions but little information.

Karen Cooper, our City Council member, after years of listening to political flapdoodle, said it plainly and simply. “It’s really nice to hear from people who know what they’re talking about.”

When Dave and Jean Hockman retired to Flagstaff several years ago, Jean signed up for the Master Gardener Class. “It was a great decision,” she said, “introducing me to an absorbing new hobby and to new friends.” The absorbing new hobby is getting closer to the earth, an activity much needed in a time of so much glass, steel, concrete, and asphalt. If someone is looking for down-to-earth friends, gardeners are a safe bet. As with a lot of people who work with their hands, they’re open, congenial, and convivial.

Linda Chan’s experience has been simple. She wanted to be a better gardener than she already was. “It’s been things like compost for my garden. I knew a little about it, but now I know a lot more, and my garden’s better for it.” As an insurance agent, Linda knows the value of property and how much a good garden increases property values.

The people who take the Master Gardener Class are a cross-section of Flagstaff, but they all have one thing in common. They want to be better gardeners. This means expanding their knowledge of gardening. In the class a person not only learns about landscaping, plants, soil, water, and fertilizer, but also how to find out more. In addition to that knowledge, they also become a part of a community of gardeners. In a society in which so many people are strangers, a sense of community goes a long way.

The final test of a course is the pay-off. There’s no better pay-off than a beautiful yard, great flowers, and abundant vegetables. Just learning about growing tomatoes in Flagstaff is reward enough.

Hattie Braun is the impresario of this horticultural repertoire company, not of thousands, but of about ten. Her shows, matinees all with a different show each afternoon, run on Wednesday afternoons from 1:30 to 4:30 with an intermission, starting their run on February 6 and finishing on May 14. The stage will be dark March 19. The tickets are $200.00 for the fourteen shows and includes the Arizona Master Gardener Manual, a comprehensive playbill. The theater is the East Flagstaff Community Library, 3000 N. 4th St. For tickets email Hattie Braun at hbraun@ag.arizona.edu or call 774-1868, ext 17. Sorry, no the cheeseburgers or escargot.

Monday, December 03, 2007







SLOW GARDENING



The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/17/07)

Meine Überfrau runs upstairs, hops in the shower, jumps in her jeans, and runs to the store. She’ll be back in a minute. A junket to Trader Joe’s is just a hop, skip, and a jump. Yeah, sure, hopping right over the Mogollon Rim, skipping Black Canyon City, and jumping onto the 101. She hasn’t pole vaulted upstairs yet. I live in dread of clearing the hurdles.

I like to mosey into the day, sneaking into it so that it won’t know I’m there, that is, until I hear that chirpy voice, “I’m awake.” Then, I know my cover is blown. Gretchen says my sotto style is a carryover from my times of stealth in military counter-intelligence and that it’s time for me to change. Fat chance.

What’s appalling is that she’s not unique. Most of the women I know are always running somewhere. When leaving a meeting, they don’t just get up and leave, saying “See ya ‘round.” No, they’ve “got to run.”

Quick living afflicts men as well as women. I watched a middle-aged guy I know fast-walk up the sidewalk in front of our house with stopwatch in hand. He’s reasonably sane, actually quite enjoyable, but, there he was, racing against time, rather than enjoying his walk.

There aren’t any stop watches in gardening. It’s like scratching a dog’s belly. Slow time. Seeds don’t respond to commands, such as, “Hop to it.” When I set out my tomato seedlings in the spring enclosed in their walls of water, I don’t shout, “Now, hit it.” If I did, they’d wither. I wait, slow time, for a couple of months, and then they produce more than we can eat. If people don’t want to wait, then they’re destined to eat those supermarket papier-mâché wannabes.

Like a good pot roast, gardening is done slow time, especially with plants. It’s best to plant them small and let them grow big, allowing them slowly to get acquainted with their surroundings. If they’re double- timed planted big, they don’t acclimate well, suffering shock and desiccation. Besides, who wants a gang of instant teenagers? Part of the pleasure is watching them grow up.

The seasons aren’t on speed dial, either. Some yahoo always wants winter “get a move on.” Such language will likely result in June snowstorms. Pushing the seasons elicits a push back. As my Greek professor said, “Gentlemen, we don’t break God’s law. We break ourselves against it.” That’s certainly the case with global warming.

Into instant gratification, speed gardeners are global warmers who gravel their yards or plaster them with concrete and asphalt. After heating themselves up with their radiator yards, they go inside the house and flip on the air conditioner.

One of the worst things the English ever did was to invent the clock. Actually, the malady of keeping time goes way back to 7th century Muslims. However, the mechanical clock was invented by Richard of Wallingford in 1336. The problem with the clock is that some damned fool is always trying “to beat the clock” which is akin to running “a race against time.” Another chronological malady is being “on time” or, worse yet, “being late.” I’ve even heard fast track, stopwatch gardeners say that their tomatoes are “late this year” as though they were tardy and needed an excuse for the gardener.

A garden takes “its own good time,” like the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare. By now, we should know enough to bet on the tortoise rather than the hare, but we don’t. Harried, we continue betting on the hare. Better yet, we should sync with real time.

Several years ago when rafting down the American River, the rafter, a doctoral student in philosophy at Berkeley, philosophized about running the rapids. “The first principle is: don’t fight the water’s power. You’ll lose and crack your head on a rock or get sucked into a whirlpool. The second is: cooperate with it and you might win. No guarantee, but a fighting chance.” Don’t fight the natural processes, use them, relax, enjoy the ride, and you might get there. No speed trials.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Sunday, November 18, 2007




















SHOOT OUT AT THANKSGIVING

Dana Prom Smith (11/21/07)

Several years ago meine Überfrau and I had a shoot out at Thanksgiving over the gravy. She asked me to make the gravy and stuffing, writing out the steps for gravy making. I compressed a couple of steps. The gravy clotted with free-floating lumps. “I just knew it!” she said. “You’re always taking short cuts. You’ve just ruined the whole dinner.” A former first-class flight attendant during TWA’s days of glamour and glory, Gretchen likes things “just so.”

A tense time was had by all. The gathering was composed of people who ordinarily don’t sit down together for dinner. An inclusive dinner, we invited my mother-in-law and my former wife. My children, all adults at the time, not wanting their mother to be alone on Thanksgiving, asked us to invite her. We also invited two couples, a veganesque Wiccan priestess who ate all the mixed nuts and her husband, a hummingbird feeder salesman, and an Assyrian Orthodox deacon and his Sephardic Jewish wife from South Yemen. A malaise underlay the gathering until dispelled by Gretchen’s magnificent feast.

Some gardens suffer the same malaise, something is going on in the garden just below the surface, resulting in a garden that doesn’t thrive. As my mother used to say of my academic achievements, “The potential is there, but the actual isn’t.” The alpha and omega of successful gardening is soil, and soil is “what you make of it.”

The best guests for a soil dinner are those strangely-worded creatures called mycorrhizae which are not discreet entities like a rock or a gas tank, but fungal associations or symbiotic relationships between nutrients in the soil and the roots of a plant. Growing in the tips of plant roots, they are little strands of fungi that pass from just outside the root to inside it. Spooky looking, they resemble a diaphanous spider web or that gossamered stuff used at Halloween. Of course, they can’t be seen with the naked eye, lying well below our visual radar screens.

In corporate-speak mycorrhizae are facilitators and in psycho-babble enablers. Although, they can be bought, it isn’t necessary because they’re in the soil already, but to function effectively they need soil amended with organic matter, such as vintage cattle, horse, or chicken manure and compost.

Some mycorrhizae are good and some bad. The good ones are called mutualistic and the bad ones parasitic. If the soil isn’t composted and too much artificial fertilizer is used, especially heavy doses of phosphorous, the mycorrhizae sometimes turn bad or parasitic. Ironically, sometimes fertilizing a garden with artificial fertilizer withers the plants.

Indeed, as in life, good relationships mutually benefit everyone in the relationship. The plants take up the nutrients and release carbohydrates to the fungi all because of the mutualistic mycorrhizae. Everyone wins. The parasitic mycorrhizae suck nutrients out of the plant and don’t deliver carbohydrates to the fungi. Everyone loses. The mycorrhizae facilitate or enable the plant through its roots to take up nutrients from the soil.

As the middle men of a thriving garden, mutualistic mycorrhizae are the sine qua non of gardening. They improve nutrient and water uptake, root growth, and plant growth and yield. They also reduce transplant shock and drought stress.

Amending the soil with organic matter does something else. It helps save the planet, by replenishing the earth rather than consuming it, by cooling the planet through water conservation and foliage rather than heating it with concrete, asphalt, and gravel. It’s thinking globally by sustainable gardening locally. What better way to thank God at Thanksgiving than having a sumptuous feast of manure and compost for the earth!

The Sephardic woman from South Yemen and I got along swimmingly because we both spoke the same Sephardic dialect of Hebrew. She rescued the gravy, vigorously smoothing it out with a wire whisk. The stuffing turned out well. I had read and followed the directions. “For just once in your life, why don’t you do as you’re told?” The shrinks tell us that men often marry women like their mothers.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007



A RHODODENDRON CAVEAT EMPTOR
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/12/07)

My grandfather, Brynjolf Prom, was a Norwegian ship’s master who left the sea after his brother was swept overboard during a Caribbean hurricane. After leaving the sea, he used his navigational skills as a surveyor, charting the course for the Great Northern Railroad across the high plains. A seaman and a plainsman, he was always on watch, scanning the horizon, deeply set, steel blue eyes underneath great craggy eyebrows peering into the unknown.

He also said, “If you look at the horizon where your line of sight leaves the earth’s curve and travels straight into space, Dana, you’re looking into eternity, and if you could see clearly enough, you just might see the face of God, but, alas, no one never sees that clearly.”

A tough-minded mystic, Brynjolf gave me a sense of wonder and a critical turn of mind, something similar to Ernest Hemingway’s “built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” He often said that doubt is “the growing edge of faith.” As for atheism, he snorted, “Ach, what merit is there in believing in nothing?”

Gardeners need a sense of wonder and a critical turn of mind in the High Country. Beginning in wonder at the beauty surrounding Flagstaff, gardeners have to consider whether or not a plant belongs here. When meine Überfrau and I moved to Flagstaff several years ago, I knew I couldn’t bring my camellias, avocados, and figs, but I craved a rhododendron and some forsythia.

Along with dogwood and eastern red bud, they reminded me of my four halcyon years at Princeton when the world of the mind about which Brynjolf had so often spoken opened up for me. Born and raised in the desert of the West where beauty is sere, severe, and austere with its browns, grays, reds, greens, and granites I was stunned by the voluptuous beauty of Princeton in the spring. After winter’s stillness, all at once the campus erupted in a blazing potpourri of colors, reds, purples, pinks, yellows, roses, whites, and greens. I wanted a remembrance of things past. By the way, my tuition in 1947 was $600 a semester, $2,500 a year including room and board.

In spite of meine Überfraus cautionary words, “I don’t see any rhododendrons around here,” I was determined to have a rhododendron and forsythia. Even with large holes in the clay stuffed with organic material and special care, my rhododendron shriveled each year while my forsythia flourished. Determination a flourishing plant does not make.
Purchased locally, I should’ve “stopped and thunk,” but my lust for a rhododendron kept me from doing “due diligence,” as the brokers say. Asked about rhododendrons in Flagstaff, the sales person looked away, answering faintly, “Well, they’ll need a lot of care.” However, when asked about forsythia, the eyes were straight and the voice firm, “Yes, they do well.” That should’ve been a clue.

Even such a premier gardener as Jacki Hainsworth tried a rhododendron, wanting to bring a little of Pennsylvania with her, but, try as she might, “winter kill,” a Flagstaff malaise, knocked it off. A woman with whom no sensible person would care to mess, Jacki hied herself back to the nursery complaining that she was sold a plant not suitable to Flagstaff, only to be told, “Well, people want them.”

Caveat emptor, Let the buyer beware!

Rhododendrons don’t do well because our soil isn’t acidic enough and doesn’t have enough organic matter. Our climate is too harsh with low humidity and aeronautical winds. Rhododendrons like humidity, protection, acidity, and organic soil.

Jacki has a beautiful, flourishing garden. A Pennsylvania pragmatist, she likes things that work, and as a Master Gardener, she learned what works in Flagstaff.

By the way, a gift of the tuition for February’s Master Gardening Class would make a fine gift for a loved one who loves to garden. Being taught by experts, people who know what they’re talking about, is a rare gift in this age of spin and hype. They not only teach the facts, but also how to find out the facts and, what’s important, how to think horticulturally.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007





Monday, November 05, 2007











UNDERSTOOD BACKWARDS, LIVED FORWARDS




The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/5/07)

After I signed onto Social Security at 62, I began receiving “get ready” advertisements. First were cheery notes from the Neptune Society. Then, when I went on Medicare, they escalated. After my triple by-pass, they flourished. Insurance companies sent angst-laden, lachrymose messages, reassuring me of their profound concern about my eventual death and my survivors’ anguish as though these concerns had somehow slipped my mind. If I planned ahead, cemeteries offered bargain prices for graves, morticians for embalming, and Arkansas casket companies for caskets. All suggested financing, but no one proposed “buy now, pay later.” Finally, at 80 I got an advertisement from a crematorium. Immediately, images of the gaping, flaming maw of Don Bendel’s mile-long kiln flashed through my mind. Soon, I’ll see vultures circling in the sky dropping notes of condolence

However, lurking in this necrological avarice is a truth. Preparing for inevitabilities frees a person to focus on present. In addition to our memories, today is all we have. Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Today’s a flash in the pan without hope of living forward. I learned from my heart attack that if I wanted to live longer, I had to change what I ate. Oddly, some heart attack survivors continue to smoke and eat heart clogging foods. Perhaps, Freud was right about death instincts.

The same message is now being delivered to everyone. Unless we change the way we consume our planet, we are in danger of going coronary with floods and droughts. After ravishing our planet, we can hardly expect a tête-à-tête intimacy. Organically enriching the soil, as in composting, is the price for continued bounty.

Although the coming of spring cannot be proven, we assume it as an act of faith. Since the future is unknown and unknowable, save for our beliefs, planning for it is full of ironies. Albert Camus, the French philosopher, novelist, partisan of the French Resistance in WWII, and Nobel Prize winner of a generation previous, wrote: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t a God and die to find out there is.”

Yet, planning ahead is a form of art as well as an act of faith. Art is first agitated in the artist’s mind long before it is ever crafted into an artifact. As with life, it begins with conception. Gardeners who’ve bedded their gardens down for the winter begin planning during the winter for the unknown of spring. Their minds’ eyes are canvases on which they express their wintered imaginations. As a “movable feast,” to use the Prayer Book’s phrase, gardens can be fashioned anew each year as the gardener’s insights grow with experience.

Louis Monza, the primitive painter, once said to me during an interview that his paintings began in his dreams. He would get up in the middle of the night to sketch what he had dreamt, and finally, in the morning, begin painting. Gardeners have the same opportunity with their limitless palettes. Monza drew from his unconscious processes in the depth of the night and painted in the daylight what he most deeply felt during those midnight watches.

Art is a confession of the artist’s faith just as a garden is an expression of the gardener’s. Sadly, some gardeners’ faith is bleak with graveled expanses, weed-choked yards, and neglected beds, expressions of a faith gone sterile, hunkered down, barren of hope, without love of the soil.

As Saint Paul wrote, “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” The gardeners’ greatest is a love of life and living things. Gardeners even pray for worms, those squirrelly, elusive creatures who enrich our soil. After the wintered midnight of the gardener’s creativity, spring’s day dawns and the gardeners can once again express their faith with their palettes and canvases, shaping their gardens’ designs, refurnishing the soil, and choosing the plants, bulbs, and seeds that best express their dream in the renewal of life.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Saturday, October 13, 2007







A GREASE MONKEY’S GERANIUMS

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/5/07)

I first met Tom Perpich feet first. Lying flat on his back underneath a car on a mechanic’s creeper only his feet stuck out. The garage’s floor was as clean as a fire house’s, scoured and scrubbed, unlike some garages which resemble the Black Hole of Calcutta. However, it was a lot more than a garage for “automotive service;” it was also a nursery for geraniums and other exotics along with being an automobile museum for a classic red Mercedes.

My automotive knowledge is limited to my fading high school memories of an old 1931 Model A Ford which I sold on leaving for the army in 1944. Nowadays, I need guys like Tom Perpich.

Tom, a bright-eyed, smiling, alert fellow, is interesting in himself. After military service in Korea and trying college at ASU and NAU, he decided to follow his heart and do what he liked. Fascinated by cars as a youth, he became a mechanic. In 1975 he opened a shop with Bill Dunnam. Most people go for the money and end up with “lives of quiet desperation,” to use Thoreau’s phrase, but Tom found what he loved, did it, and earned money in the process, “the old-fashioned way.” He “earned it.”

As I listened to Tom about my aging car’s engine and its ills, I noticed vigorous geraniums throughout his shop, a huge split leaf philodendron, a fiddle leaf ficus touching the ceiling, and way in the back against a wall a gothic appearing Norfolk pine, unexpected sights in an automobile garage. At the time, meine Überfrau was having only limited success with her geraniums. So Tom’s geraniums intrigued me. They were so large and colorful that they looked like tropical flora in the upper reaches of the Amazon River.

Now, I’ve never been fond of geraniums. Raised in Southern California, my father thought of them as invasive, noxious weeds. One of my garden duties, in addition to snailing, was to chop them out with a hoe all the while getting a whitish, stinky, sticky, itchy slime all over my clothes, hands, and arms. However, as James Russell Lowell’s 1844 poem, The Present Crisis, reads, “new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.” I married a high stepper who likes geraniums.

I asked about his geraniums. Growing them as a year-around plant in Flagstaff, they have to be grown indoors for part of the year. This means the sun of south-facing windows or glass doors. They cannot survive the winter outdoors. Neither native nor adaptable, they are along with tomatoes “trophy flora.” All of Tom’s geraniums run along series of windows facing south.

Tom waters them regularly, using a drip system of his devising which keeps the soil moist so that it never dries out. Geraniums like to keep their feet damp but not wet, delicate creatures that they are. They aren’t drought tolerant.

They like their beds both soft and firm, so either native soil well supplied with compost or potting is a must. As “heavy feeders,” they like a steady supply of nutrients, a balanced diet of equal parts of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. Tom uses All Purpose Miracle Gro with an attachment to his drip system. However, hand watering and fertilizing will work, also. Geraniums cannot be neglected, like bearded irides, tulips, or daffodils, and still flourish.

As trophies, they need grooming. If they aren’t pruned, they get leggy. The purpose of pruning is shaping the plant and inducing a profusion of blooms. The cut should be made just above a bud and at a slant so that water cannot stay on the cut. A sharp knife or clippers ensure a clean cut. Pruning is best done in the winter months to ensure blooming in the spring.

I asked a friend of mine why there was so much fuss about such problematic, foul-smelling, icky plant. She said, “Because they’re so beautiful, so welcoming on a front porch.” Gretchen tells me that it’s time to change the set of my 1930’s mind. Paraphrasing Saint Paul, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, but when I became a man, I gave up my childhood ideas.” An old dog can be taught new tricks. So, it’s go, geraniums, go.



Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Tuesday, September 25, 2007











MISS EDITH AND COUSIN EVA




The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/25/07)

My first parish was in the hills of Kentucky where the cash crops were moonshine and tobacco. With no black church nearby, Miss Edith and Cousin Eva, members of the church, supported my efforts to welcome a black family into the church. The family was delightful, with the wisdom, warmth, and strength of the oppressed who yet believe. Well-liked in the village as long as they stayed in their place, they would’ve been rich additions to the church. Integration is, after all, a change of place.

Miss Edith resembled Popeye’s girl friend, Olive Oyl, only with cane, ear trumpet, and hearing aid. At the village post office, she often passed out birth control literature to worn-out country women trailing broods of tattered children. She always sat in the front pew, ear trumpet in place and hearing aid attached.

Cousin Eva, strong as a horse at 86, stooped, grey-haired, and bright-eyed, took care of a frail Miss Edith at 51. They lived in a large house on a “nob”, a term used in those parts for a small hill. With running water and a newfangled flush toilet, they flushed daily to conserve water. With their peculiarities they were dedicated way back in 1953 to racial integration, birth control, and, oddly enough, water conservation. Ironically, God seldom uses establishment, country club types, but rather the odd and seemingly daft.

While members of the church either supported or acquiesced to the invitation of the black family, the local sheriff’s deputy, leading a gang of rustic thugs low on the evolutionary scale, threatened to torch me and the church. Amidst midnight torches and burning crosses, Miss Edith and Cousin Eva, like Amos of old, cried out for justice in a wasteland. The state is a greater threat to the church than ever the church to state.

Life in other parishes, marches down State Street in Chicago, and demonstrations and jail in Selma, made me realize that integration enriches communities. As in food, it betters our palates with tacos, pizza, barbequed ribs, pot stickers, and even fusion cuisine in uptown eateries. And so it is with gardening. Integration is not simply mixing; it is integrating diverse elements into a whole. Look at the forest around us! It is an integrated organism, each species enriching the others.

An excellent model for gardens, the forest is not rectangular, symmetrical, or geometrical. It was not laid out with a rule, a T-square, or a triangle. Lines are neither vertical nor horizontal, boxing the mind, but lead the mind off on trails of imagination. In the forest, there is always a sense of mystery.

Rather than a buzz-cut front lawn, bound by borders, a wandering path of a sheep fescue, strewn with flat stones, amidst various tall grasses and pockets of irides and daffodils sets the mind and heart free. Curved lines, like the S lines of crouched skiers, are more powerful than straight lines, like the spent lines of vagrants leaning against lamp posts.

Some favor ersatz gardens of gravel, asphalt, and concrete whose rectangular forms stifle the mind and spirit. They spread no joy. They bear no welcome. They have no black-eyed Susans beckoning a mind to wonder at their annual beauty. They sprout only weeds on their barrens.

Speared gladioli and lascivious dahlia set amongst red peppers, dwarf Roma tomatoes, and purple egg plants are French cuisine for the eye with all the color, texture, and taste of meine Überfraus coq au vin.

Integrating a garden, ghettoed beds of flowers and vegetables can be brought together into a whole. Some vegetables make excellent flowers, such as zucchini and artichokes. A wandering line of yellow, purple, and red beets deeply colors a garden. And what a beauty is a sweet red pepper plant laden with fruit. Towering over the whole, serendipitous sentinels of dill add a sense of the ethereal, especially in mornings when seeds beaded with droplets water glisten in the morning sun as though they were crystals of ice. On the wings of our gardened mornings, we can sense eternity in a moment and in the twinkling of an eye fly to the uttermost parts of the universe.




Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Tuesday, September 04, 2007







AUNT EMILY



The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/4/07)

Aunt Emily was an elderly, pale, downy-faced myopic Fundamentalist with killer halitosis and a bristling mustache. For seventeen years during my childhood and adolescence she repeatedly announced that the end of the world was “just around the corner” and that I had best get ready for the coming apocalypse. The last time I heard her end-of-the-world sermon was the day I left home for shipment overseas. I feared that the end of my world was just around the corner. Like James Thurber’s “The Get Ready Man,” she was a community curiosity along with the man who kept himself from falling down by hanging on to strap around his shoulder.

Aunt Emily urged me “to set my house in order.” I never understood what she had in mind. However, now I do. The end of the summer is upon us, and the first freeze, une petite apocalypse, is statistically scheduled to arrive September 21. It’s time to set our gardens in order. There is always some unpleasantness on the horizon for which we must get ready, April 15, final exams, I-17 to Phoenix, and September 21. For the skier, it might be the harbinger of glories to come. What’s one person’s meat is another person’s poison.

What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. We’re on the threshold of taketh away time in the garden. After the good times rolled during summer’s garden party, it’s time to clean up and put away. Even well-tended gardens accumulate debris, and debris is often a haven for creepy crawly, clandestine horticultural terrorists. Get rid of the debris and their cover is blown. It’s CIA outing time in the garden.

Once while I was taking a respite from picking weeds, Aunt Emily found me sleeping behind a huge eucalyptus tree. Poking me with her cane, she screeched in a thin crackle, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways.” Aunt Emily favored the Book of Proverbs. As a ten year old dawdler, I was a sluggard at picking weeds. Alas, now that I’m well past Aunt Emily’s age, I realize that autumn is not a time for sluggards or dawdlers. It is pruning time, a time to get ready for the death, desiccation, destruction, and decay of autumn and a time of gloriously beautiful trees.

The first to feel the knife are those spent, dried-up shoots, vines, and stalks, the likes of corn, hollyhocks, and sun flowers, those annuals and perennials who’ve lost their bloom or been blighted with powdery mildew. It’s sans merci. If pruning and pulling times are put off, then l’apocalypse grande will overwhelm a garden with piles of debris.

In addition to cut, pull, and trim, it’s save time, as in gladiolus corms and dahlia tubers. After the autumnal blitz has struck, they have to be saved because they cannot inherit the winter’s freeze. In short, like high maintenance beauties, they must needs be dusted and saved in a peat moss comforter.

After cut, pull, trim, and save, it’s time to get ready for spring, as in pruning trees and bushes to get rid of dead, diseased, and non-productive branches and stems so they’ll perform better next year. Pruning requires an artist’s touch to groom aesthetically.

It’s also a time to plant the rhizomes and bulbs of such beauties as irides, tulips, and daffodils. If there is one constant in gardening, it’s that there is always some pleasantness on the horizon. The trick is to plant now for glory in six months. Along with planting, nearly everything in the garden needs to be covered with some kind of mulch for the coming winter.

Finally, it’s time to prepare the soil in the vegetable and flower beds for spring, as in spading, digging in new compost and manure, and raking. After the get ready time of autumn, winter gardeners, like sluggards can lie down for a snooze. As they nap and nod with their seed catalogues and gardening magazines, they can dream of spring when, as the Cajuns would say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll).

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Wednesday, August 22, 2007







THE BEAUTY OF COMPOST



The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/22/07)

As I was turning my compost with a pitchfork, meine rothaarige Überfrau, leaning over the railing of our deck, informed me that Martha Stewart uses only the best and freshest ingredients. I had just dumped coffee grounds, grass clippings, beer mash, garden cuttings, kitchen scraps, and horse manure into the composter. I replied that Martha was talking about the end of the food chain while I was working at its beginning. The fact is that soil is enriched with horticultural off-scourings, gardening beginning with depleted organic refuse transformed by decomposition into fresh nutrients.

As I contemplate the many meanings of turning eighty, I’m grateful to my father for many things, his insistence on education, his Scottish Calvinism, his good humor and generosity, his love for my mother, his moral and physical courage, his ability to tell a great story (my mother accused him of “witty improvisations on the truth”), his love of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Rabbie Burns, and his devotion to fly fishing and gardening. He taught me love of the soil which in these days of asphalt, concrete, and gravel is a great gift. I never quite got the hang of Scotch (Aye, a wee dram), golf, and haggis (oats and sheep innards boiled in a sheep’s stomach,) but I did get the hang of fly fishing, gardening, and love of the soil.

Love of the soil is at the heart of gardening. It’s not seeds, plants, vegetables, flowers, trees, and bushes because they all assume soil. Whether people advocate native plants, immigrant plants, or adaptive plants, they all beg the question of soil. Now, soil is not dirt which is usually clay, sand, and silt. Our dirt in the High Country doesn’t have much silt. It has some sand and has lots of clay which means the need for even more compost. However, we do have the advantage of nutrient rich volcanic rubble which can substitute for our shortage of sand to break up the clay.

Soil has a steady charm. It arrests a person’s attention. In short, soil is a spiritual experience. We come from the soil. Genesis has it that the Lord God fashioned us from the earth, as though we were breath-infused mud pies. We’ve all heard, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We’ll all eventually return to the soil. We are of the earth, earthy, for all of our ethereal pretensions.

Enriching the soil, we enrich ourselves, but more importantly, enriching the soil, we become involved in the ongoing processes of creation. When we explore the soil with our hands, we’re no longer observing creation, but entangling ourselves in it. As the great Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, might have said, “Working with the soil is an I-It encounter which leads to an I-Thou encounter.” In short, gardening is not merely an avocation, it’s a spiritual quest because spirituality is not experienced ephemerally, but tangibly by touch. Enriching soil is a naturally occurring sacrament, the tactile experience in which we enrich ourselves as well as the soil.

While visiting the gardens at Olivia White Hospice during its annual tea, it hit home once again the spiritual significance of soil. In a facility that deals with the penultimates of life, there is a garden, a garden that is not merely a diversion of beauty but an experience of renewal.

The trails in the garden wind amidst a soil so enriched with compost that it blooms with beauty, each turn of the trail leading to a fresh enchantment and finally a graceful gazebo. Its floor carpeted with paving stones of remembrance, it is a fitting place amidst beauty’s bloom to recall those whom we’ve loved and more importantly those who’ve loved us. As Loni Shapiro, the garden’s major domo, said, “We began with truck loads of compost from Fort Tuthill, and it worked miracles in our garden.” The beauty of the garden bears witness to the miracles of its humble origin.

Gardeners treasure water. A soil enriched with compost saves
water, making for a water-wise garden. Compost begins with the commonest of the common, refuse. “Waste not, want not.” Compost gardening is more than a mere minimal sustainability, it’s an affluent luxury.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Thursday, August 02, 2007




THE SLOTHFUL GARDENER


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/1/07)

Slothful gardeners deserve a good word. Some people are just naturally inert. Medieval and renaissance physicians called them phlegmatic. Their system for analyzing human personalities was built on the foundation of bodily fluids called “humours.” It was simple. They identified four humours, sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and various combinations of the four to identify types of personality.

The theory was that bodily fluids were like sap in a vascular plant. As life-forces they affected the physique while also emitting vapors which influenced the personality.

The sanguine’s humour was blood. Energetically cheerful, as gardeners, the sanguine like bright, cheery flower gardens bursting with annuals. The choleric’s humour, the spleen’s yellow bile, makes for aggressive gardeners who love to prune, dig out old, diseased plants, and unleash pesticides on the infected. The phlegmatic’s humour, the lung’s phlegm, produces slow moving, viscous, sluggish gardeners, big into energy conservation. A minimal gardener, the phlegmatic favors a low maintenance, sheep fescue (festuca ovina) lawn. A melancholic’s humour, the gall bladder’s black bile, produces a cool, dour gardener whose garden consists of gravel-covered black plastic sheets in place of a lawn, a couple of ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), and instead of flowers a collection of weeds sticking out here and there through the decaying plastic and around its edges.

If genteel, high-toned gardeners are discovered sniffing their underarms on a hot, muggy day during monsoon, they’re checking their humourous vapors. A sanguine gardener may need a few whiffs of yellow bile to fight off an invasion of grasshoppers. Of course, a well-rounded gardener has all the humours in balance as in Antony’s eulogy of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “His life was gentle, and the elements\ So mix’d in him that Nature might step up\ And say to all the world, ‘This was a man’” (V.v.74-76.) A gardener with the elements “so mix’d” would have a balanced garden, but our concern is with the phlegmatic, the lazy lout who wants to take it easy and have a beautiful garden.

“Take it easy” gardening begins with bulbs, rhizomes, corms, tuberous roots, and fleshy roots, those things a gardener plants and pretty much forgets. They are the garden introverts. Make things comfortable for them, feed and water them now and then, and leave them alone to do their own thing. They want their space. Don’t even pick up their dirty clothes where they’ve left them after blooming at a garden party. Daffodils (Narcissus) and tulips (Tulipa) need to suck the life-juices (humours) out of the leaves to store them in their tear-drop shaped bulbs for their next blooming season a year away. Both are notoriously slovenly but beautiful introverts.

Bearded irides (Iris germanica) are rhizomes, abstemious but elegant beauties. Their rhizomes are finger-like, fat roots, which are planted horizontally to the soil almost at its surface. Feed them a couple of times a year and water them once a week during dry spells. Let them alone during the winter. All they want is sunlight. Party animals they aren’t. Beautiful and aloof, they are a sloth master’s dream.

Another fetching rhizome is the Lilly of the Valley (Convallaria majalis.) A tasty rhizome is the subtropical ginger root (Zingiber officinale,) a sure loser for the lazy in the high country.

The dahlia (Dahlia) is a finger-like tuberous root whose fingers point down rather than horizontally. Sadly, it’s demanding. A native of Central America and Mexico, it doesn’t winter well in the high country and has to be dug up and carefully kept warm during the cold months wrapped in peat moss. Although it’s extraordinarily beautiful, it’s a bother for the slothful.

Another useful tuberous root is the daylily (Hermerocallis), a bright cheerful flower although not a true lily. It demands little, survives the winter, and blooms for most of the summer, the lazy lout’s best friend.

Nix the gladiolus (Gladiolus.) A corm of varied and elegant beauty, it has to be dug up in the fall, preserved during the winter, and replanted in the spring. All that extra work just for beauty and grace, how disgusting!
As usual, the French have a word for it. Ennui, tiredness and boredom. However, ennui can be beautiful. Vive le ennuyé jardinière.


Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Monday, July 23, 2007




FRONT YARDS: Eyes into a Household’s Soul.
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/11/07)

“You don’t know everything,” were the words with which meine Überfrau greeted me as I stepped out of the shower, naked as a jay bird and dripping wet. Cornered, as I was, in the shower stall, we were discussing fertilizer for the dinky, grub-shaped patch of grass in our backyard. Green grass is her “remembrance of things past,” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 30). She wanted me to use the fertilizer her father used for his large spread of Kentucky blue grass (Poa pratensis) on her Illinois childhood’s black loam prairie. I wanted to go organic, using vintage chicken manure on the general theory of horticultural relativity that anything that stinks is good manure. I reminded her that I’m an ordained clergyman and was, therefore, an expert on manure along with many other things. “Fat chance,” she snorted, her hair flaming out, her heels sparking, as she left the bathroom, trailing puffs of smoke. I was left groping, blinded by soapy eyes, for a towel.

Our patch of green grass is a token of “things past,” lovely, great spreading lawns being an anathema on the parched Colorado Plateau. Ironically, many water-efficient grasses are far more interesting than the water-guzzlers with their buzz cuts commonly used to cover front yards. Some avoid the grass problem altogether with the landscaping antimatter of gravel which heats up yard and house. A gravel pit for a front yard is a garden’s black hole. Better au naturel. Given the astronomical price of land in Flagstaff, one wonders the reasons for plastering pricey real estate with gravel, creating a kind of yuppie yard. Sloth comes to mind. Some cry penury, but a bag of grass seed and a couple of bales of steer manure cost a lot less than a truck load of gravel.

Most people don’t enjoy their front yards. Seldom do they look at them, except when they’re backing their cars out of the garage. Front yards are useless for many save as a buffer to keep neighbors and passersby at bay, something like the drill ground of a military disciplinary stockade. However, front yards are eyes into the souls of those who live in the houses behind them. Sadly, gravel front yards are “weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable.”

For those who wish to put their front yards to good use,
water-efficient grasses and shorter showers are more important than they once were now that Flagstaff has notched up on the global warming meter.

Robert Browning’s phrase, “less is more,” from his poem Andrea del Sarto, might well be the motto for high country gardeners because it focuses, not on excess, but on beauty through limitations. If, as Browning suggests, limitations stimulate creativity and imagination, as in a sonnet, then less water can mean a more beguiling beauty. Wordsworth hit the nail on the head in his Ode on Intimations of Immortality when he wrote of the spiritual significance grass and flowers, “Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.” There’s not much splendor or glory in gravel.

One such water-efficient grass is blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis,) the ancient sod of the Great Plains stemming from the end of the Ice Age. John Muir might’ve said, “the auld lang syne of grasses.” Blue grama was the sod of the sod busters and was often used to build huts, called soddies. Willa Cather’s My Antonía details life in a soddy. Blue grama seldom dies in a drought but rather goes dormant, just like many people. Depending on whether it is sown or plugged, it can be turfed or clumped.

Another water-efficient, Great Plains native is buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides), getting its name from the animals it fed. Spread by runners, it is best planted with plugs. Low, slow growing but chancy in Flagstaff’s colder neighborhoods, it needs mowing only twice a year and with its sage-green color is useful for a front yard. Blue grama and buffalograss need 12 inches of water a year while Kentucky bluegrass needs 60 inches a year.

Two colorful water-efficient Southwestern grasses are Elijah Blue fescue (Festuca cinerea ‘Elijah Blue’) and blue fescue (Festuca ovina ‘Glauca’). A good water-efficient grass for shady places is creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra). A dark green grass which mounds, lies flat, and whorls is sheep fescue (Festuca ovina) and can be turfed or clumped by sowing or plugging. Even meine Überfrau, a Martha Stewart wannabe, thinks our front-yard sheep fescue is “soft and beautiful, like a down comforter.”

Water-efficient grasses are simultaneous triple threats, allowing the self-righteously prudential virtue of water-efficiency, the enjoyable vice of sloth, and a beauty both intriguing and beguiling.
Sheep fescue photograph by Debbie Shepard
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Monday, June 25, 2007


SNAP BEANS

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (6/20/07)

Anyone fortunate enough to take Latin as an adolescent remembers the beginning of Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic and Civil Wars. With a simple, declarative sentence, he wrote, “Gallia est omnis in partes tres.” (All Gaul is divided into three parts.) The parts were the Belgae, the Acquitani, and the Celts, all of whom were markedly different from one another. So it is with beans (Phaselous vulgaris), the snap, the shelled, and the dry. Rather than take on all the beans, as Caesar did Gaul, our concern is the snap, formerly called stringed, sometimes green. Needless to say, dry Pinto beans are markedly different from a freshly picked, tender Blue Lake.

As with most clearly stated distinctions, Caesar did not include the overlaps. So it is with beans. Some shelled beans become dry. Snaps can be shelled and dried. However, the heart of the matter is the preferred state in which they are eaten. Dry Pintos are eaten only after being soaked, boiled, and simmered. Snaps are eaten when green or immature.

Snaps come in two sizes, pole and bush, although some bush are straggly and need support. Also, they come in three colors, green, yellow, and purple, although some are mottled. Pole beans require more work, as in poles, trellises, ladders, lattices, fences, strings, corn stalks, or anything that works. As with tomatoes, pole beans don’t do well by themselves, always needing something on which they can hang, but they produce more than bush beans and are tastier to boot. The only advantage to bush beans is that they are easier to grow, a considerable advantage.

Snap bean fanciers begin with the Kentucky Wonder pole bean, an heirloom from the 1800’s. First produced in 1864 as the “Old Homestead,” it was renamed “Kentucky Wonder” in 1877 and has been the most popular snap bean down to today along with the Blue Lake. A genuine American heirloom, the Kentucky Wonder is prolific, disease resistant, and tasty. It’s the old standby of snap beans and American as apple pie.

As with artichokes, snap beans are best eaten when immaturely tender and tasty. A mature snap is fibrous, dry, stringy, and wanting in savor. After much chewing all that is left is a flavorless mass of fiber difficult to swallow.

However, there’s a lot to life beyond the familiar. Hanging out
with Kentucky Wonders is safe and rewarding, but a trip to Europe is salutary for the soul as well as savory for the palate.

The French, as always, have a fancy phrase for the snap bean and everything else. Haricot vert, pronounced ah ree koh Vehr, literally means green bean. Haricots vert are served in fancy restaurants. They are slimmer, longer, tenderer, more elegant, and thought more flavorful than American snap beans. Amongst the literati, cognoscenti, and gastronomes they are fashionable if there can be such a thing as a fashionable bean.

Two interesting haricots vet are the purple pole A Cosse Violette and the yellow wax bush Beurre de Roquencourt. Both reach maturity in 55 days. With these two snaps Wolfgang Puck of Malibu has nothing on the backyard gardener of Flagstaff.

Of course, a trip to France is best finished with a trip to Italy, the home of the Anellino snap bean, a bean in the shape of a shrimp, grub, or sleeping dog with its snout touching its tail. Children who view eating as entertainment, that is, they play with their food, will love the Stortino de Trento, a mottled green anellino bean of varied colors which curls upon itself. Another Italian is the Marvel of Venice, a long, yellow, flat pole bean of rich taste.

A select few remaining adolescent Latinists may recall the Venerable Bede’s simple, declarative sentence with which he began his 8th century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, “Et Britannia insula est” (And Britain is an island.) For High Country gardeners their backyard gardens serve as an island in which they can to grow fresh, e. coli free, and flavorful snap beans which are served at the fanciest restaurants in all corners of the world. Without leaving their backyards they can eat the best that money can buy.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007



LUSH XERISCAPE
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D.

The word “xeriscape” has a harsh, Puritanical ring to it, indicating bans and curbs rather than opportunities and possibilities. Sad it is, but some purist xeriscapers smack of a dismal self-righteousness that loves to say “no,” whose horticultural ethics are anti-excess rather than pro-beauty. Actually, xeriscape means dry landscape or a garden congenial to Coconino County, the Colorado Plateau, a real simpatico for the sere of the Southwest.

The real issue then is the means to have lush, beautiful gardens on less water than a tropical rain forest, something like a water budget. The vice against which purist xericapers rail is excess, and, indeed, excess is a threat to a budget. Also, excess is bad taste. G.K. Chesterton observed that art is how people respond to their limitations. So how do we spend less and have more beauty? What it takes is imagination!

Happily, God has given us imagination and the Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima,) a gardener’s delight. Its leaves are so fine they sometimes tangle, but sadly not a tangle with which to dally. Yielding to a breeze with the grace of a ballet dancer it does a light fandango with castanets and in triple time in a good wind with which Flagstaff is blessed (no smog.) Its tall (2ft to 3ft), light green set amongst the lower blue green of a blue fescue (Festuca ovina ‘Glauca’) make an beguiling accompaniment to a small cluster of bearded iris (Iris germanica). As in all art, gardening, especially landscaping, is compare and contrast.

All of these survive, even prevail, on budgeted water, needing water only during dry spells. They can make it on water from dishpans or washing machines. The blue fescue gets even bluer with less water. The voluptuous blooms 0f the bearded iris are one of the few beauties of the world who flourish on a benign neglect and low maintenance. Of course, benign neglect doesn't mean abuse. They need some water and appropriate nutrients. Some bearded irides (plural for iris amongst Hellenistic purists) also come as rebloomers, blooming again in the summer and sometimes in the fall.

The word “iris” is a Greek word meaning “rainbow” or, metaphorically, “halo.” The unknown John of the Apocalypse writes a lovely verse using iris, “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs pillars of fire (10:1.)” The setting reads like a thunderstorm over the peaks with flashes of lightning, a rainbow threading its way in and out of a virga, and the brilliance of the sun blazing through gaps in the clouds. All the colors in that scene can be found in irides whose beauty can become, as the Book of Common Prayer reads, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

Perennial grasses and bulbs and rhizomes are all available for gardeners on a water budget. Unless a lawn serves as a playing field, a golf course, or a place for children’s play, grasses suitable to the Southwest offer an intriguing texture. Creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra), a finely-textured, dark green grass, does well out of the sun, forming lazy swirls in the shade. Sheep fescue (Festuca ovina), a dark green, lies flat and in mounds in various patterns and needs mowing with a weed-whacker a couple of times a year. Both of these need only 12 inches of rain annually.

Many bulbs and rhizomes love gardens on a water budget. A lushy xeriscaped garden can have color spring, summer, and fall. Beginning with Wordsworth's "fluttering and dancing daffodils" (Narcissus) and tulips (Tulipa) in late winter and early spring, the list continues through the bearded iris and the western blue flag (Iris missouriensis) and perennials such as the fire wheel (Gailardia pulchella), blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) and various penstemon such as the Red Rock penstemon (Keckiella corymbosa), Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), and pinelead penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius). The drought tolerant geranium-leaf larkspur (Delphinium geraniifolium) is a long-blooming perennial as is the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplocfolia) and the old-time favorite of cottage gardens, the hollyhock (Althaea rosea). The list is extensive.

Two resources are Janice Busco and Nancy R. Morin's Native Plants for High-Elevation Western Gardens and a color wheel xeriscape poster through Hattie Braun at Coconino County Cooperative Extension (928-774-1868 or hbraun@ag.arizona.edu.) Bon sec jardinage.

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2007

Photograph of iris by Debbie Shepard


Friday, June 01, 2007


THE ARTICHOKE: An Improbable Vegetable

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/22/07)

During the Middle Ages, a gang of Vikings raided Scotland in the dead of night. Trying silence, they landed bare-footed but hadn’t reckoned on the Scotch thistles. Their howls awakened the sleeping Highlanders who drove them back into the sea.

The Scotch thistle became the symbol of Scotland and the emblem of the fabled Highland infantry regiment, the Black Watch, whose motto is Nemo me impune lacessit (No one touches me with impunity.) However, nowadays the Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium), formerly Scotland’s early warning system, has been benched as an invasive species and even sent to the showers as the U.S. Forest Service’s Weed of the Week.

Another famous thistle, the globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus), hails from softer Mediterranean climes. Not to be confused with the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) or the Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis), whose edible parts are tubers, the edible part of the globe artichoke is its flower bud, a thistle’s flower bud certainly being an improbable vegetable.

Legend has it that the first artichoke was Cynara, Zeus’ beautiful, young earthling mistress with whom he dallied when his wife, Hera, was out of town. When Cynara wanted to return to her mother on earth, Zeus, miffed at the rejection, hurled her back to earth, turning her into the first artichoke. As Cynara is botanical Latin for artichoke so the Arabic al΄qarshuf is the root of English word. Arabic Moors introduced the artichoke to Spain where monks developed it in their monastery gardens.

During the Renaissance, the wives and mistresses of dottled aristocrats weren’t allowed to eat artichokes because they were considered aphrodisiacs. Apparently, they feared their sex-crazed young wives and mistresses would dump them, taking up with younger bucks. Marilyn Monroe was California’s first Artichoke Queen. The oxymoron of a sexy thistle is far cry from “No one touches me with impunity.”

Historically, artichokes can be traced to the 4th century B.C. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery had a recipe entitled “To Make Hartichoak Pie.” Early in the 20th century Fannie Farmer introduced artichokes to America in her cookbook’s ninth edition.

Anyone who grows tomatoes knows the drill. With a 90 day cycle from transplant to fruition, the best thing to do, unless the gardener’s a green house horticultural aristocrat, is to start them indoors, like early, seeding two or three seeds ½ inch deep in little discs or pots of sterilized potting soil. Water well and place on a window sill. After the first green appears, fertilize them with a small amount of water-soluble fertilizer. Transplant them to a larger container after the first real leaves appear, and then transplant them outside either after the last frost or before within Walls O’Water. Purchasing an artichoke plant from a nursery is lot easier. However, seeding offers the possibility of exotic varieties, such as, the Italian Carciofo Violetto di Chioggia, a violet tinged artichoke without thorns.

As perennials, artichokes can winter, but as Mediterraneans, four or five inches of mulch, leaves, pine needles, or straw are required. Even then survival is chancy. They grow well in containers, saving water.

Artichoke buds in bloom adorn a garden with intense purple, five inch blossoms. Stems grow nearly three feet high with long spiny leaves.

Eating artichokes is akin to eating corn on the cob, messy. Rinse and boil them in water with a squirt of olive oil and pinch of salt for 40 to 50 minutes. Crushed garlic cloves, crushed oregano leaves, or lemon slices may be added to the water. When the scales are easily pulled off, drain upside down, and serve with melted butter. The gastronomical prize is the crown, a concave disc at the base of the scales. First, use the lower choppers to scrape off and eat the scales’ fleshy base. Remove the inner, undeveloped flower and savor the crown. A Cream of Tomato, Avocado, Basil, and Artichoke Crown Soup recipe is blogged at http://oldfartskitchen.blogspot.com.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet and master of nearly everything else, after his tour of Italy, wrote, “Only peasants eat artichokes.” In America, Thomas Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy” relishes corn on the cob and artichokes. Comme il faut.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Thursday, May 10, 2007


PANSIES AIN’T NO PANSIES

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/9/07)

Pansies ain’t no pansies. In fact, they’re a hardy lot. Pansies (Viola tricolor) look sweet and smiling as though they were charming, soft, Southern Belles meaning to please, but beneath that winsome appearance lies a will of iron. They’re tough and fit for the High Country. It doesn’t take much to imagine them riding on the front seat of a buckboard, elegant coiffures hidden beneath a bonnet, reins in hand, cracking the whip, trekking all the way from Virginia to the Arizona Territory. They can take it when it comes to temperature, but as with people, whose faces they disquietingly resemble, they need warmer clothing for the cold winter months. Akin to William Faulkner’s Dilsie, pansies endure. They don’t overpower. They last.

Pansies aren’t the only tough ones. So are the lettuces (Lactuca stiva). They look frail, but they literally have an iron backbone with 6% iron content. With the exception of the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce which has little nutritional value, the other lettuces are jampacked with good stuff, such as anti-oxidants, folic acid, potassium, vitamins A and C, and calcium. Also, they have no fat, cholesterol, and salt. As with celery which has few calories, eating lettuce may happily produce a caloric deficit. It even tastes good, almost sweet.

Some divide lettuce into an either-or category of loose leaf and head. However, as with other Manichaean categories, such as good or bad, right or wrong, loose leaf and head don’t explain much, leaving out all the other possibilities as Nicolas de Cusa pointed out in his coincidentia oppositorum. There are at least four types of lettuce, head lettuce, romaine, loose leaf, and butterhead and probably more. The most useful for the backyard garden in the High Country is the loose leaf because it is the fastest to mature and offers a wide variety of types.

A good type with which to start is the Black-Seeded Henderson, a lime-colored, broad, crumpled leafed lettuce. Its seeds can be planted 3 to 4 weeks prior to the first frost which means that High Country gardeners can stretch our notoriously short growing season. It can survive some drought, a little frost, and heat. As with some human beings it is only bitter when old and neglected.

Another type friendly to the backyard gardener is the Forellenschluss (Trout’s Tail), a romaine heirloom lettuce coming from Austria. Its olive-green leaves are bedecked with pretty russet-colored freckles. Forellenschluss lettuce gives the feeling and taste of cool streams and clean, crisp air. In addition to adding class to a salad, Forellenschluss can be started early, a little less than a month before the last frost.

The last is the Gina Lollobrigida of lettuces, the Lollo Rossa. With the nickname, La Lollo, the extravagantly sensual and beautiful actress of the 50’s and 60’s is a fine symbol for this Italian heirloom lettuce. A frosty green rim of leaves surrounds a rosette of frilly, red-edged leaves, a real gorgene. It calls to mind her statement when she was 73, “I’ve had many lovers and still have romances. All my life, I’ve had many admirers.” So it is with the lettuce La Lollo Rossa. It is well-loved and admired. It’s also easy to grow and tastes great.

Such an elegant salad can even be garnished with the blossoms of our hardy old friend, the pansy, or the nasturtium. A raspberry-vinaigrette dressing would be the pièce de résistance. Among effete Easterners, San Franciscans, and West Los Angeles types this is all haut cuisine, but it tastes pretty darned good up here in the High Country. Sounds a lot more appetizing than a hunk of iceberg drowned in thick, gooey, million-dollar caloric Thousand Island dressing. The kicker is that all this can be grown in containers on a window sill, a balcony, a deck, or a patio and in backyard beds.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Saturday, April 21, 2007




I KNEW I WAS OLD

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/17/07)


I knew I was old when one of my sons asked me about the merits of joining AARP. At my 80th family birthday party my other son said, “Gee, Dad, you’re as old as dirt.” Meine Überfrau thought that his remark was offensive, but she doesn’t understand male humor, not knowing that his remark was a sign of admiration and affection. As a matter of fact, I’ve always liked dirt and as a toddler ate it garnished with worms.

However, I feel more like compost which is old stuff decaying into new life. A rich, fertile mix of my life’s memoried debris, such as, a counter-intelligence Sgt/Maj, field hand, ditch digger, college, numerous and varied graduate schools, private investigator, parish minister, college teacher, newspaper columnist, author, backpacked the John Muir Trail, Alaskan shipwrecked, jail bird, psychotherapist, clinical hypnotherapist, occasional radical, sometime conservative, triple-bypass, “regular old coot,” and gardener, compost seems a better fit than dirt. I still like dirt and worms, just not gastronomically.

Having lived as an adult for two generations, been brushed by death four times, and abided with people as they’ve died, I’ve learned to cut out the crap. Not much matters, but what remains does. My Occam’s Razor has resulted in a belief of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking in faith with God. Gardening is just such a walk. While not an old man’s avocation, gardening is salutary for old people (no “senior citizen” nonsense) because it keeps up the exercise and provides life-extending nourishment.

The walk of faith begins with onions, especially the Hybrid Candy (Allium cepa ). Onions extend the notoriously short growing season in Flagstaff by at least three months. Hardy down to 20° F., onion sets can be planted in March just as daffodils begin to peek from their winter slumbers. Stored, they can be eaten throughout the winter. Besides tasting great, onions are good for what-ails-you, as in heart disease and cancer. An onion a day keeps the doctor away. I have planted 450 onion sets just to be sure.

The next horticultural glory is the beloved globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus,) a thistle of beauty and taste, unlike the notoriously prickly Scotch thistle. Not native to the Colorado Plateau, the globe artichoke can be grown here if the same devotion is used as that required for an equally beloved vegetable, the tomato. If left to flower, the globe artichoke is a delight to the eye with a purple flower of extraordinarily beautiful intensity. If eaten, it is a delight to the palate as well as a tonic for the spirit.

Next on the walk to glory is the Siberian tomato, the Galina (Lycopersicon lycopersicum), a golden cherry tomato of a deliciously complex taste of sweetness and acidity. In addition to that virtue, it is an early producer (59 days.) The fruit seldom gets into the house because various and sundry people eat it off the vine, dust and all.

Close in glory is the Sweet Baby Girl (Lycopersicon lycopersicum ), a prolific producer of clustered bright red, very sweet cherry tomatoes on a compact bush. At 65 days, it is apt for container gardening. Also, the thumbnail-sized Red Currant tomato (Lycopersicon lycopersicum) is great for salads with its intense flavor. A wild South American tomato the Red Currant works in Flagstaff at 62 days.

A good slicing tomato and great for hamburgers is the Glasnost (Lycopersicon lycopersicum). A large Siberian, it matures at 62 days and, as with the rest of the tomatoes, it supplies prodigious amounts of the antioxidant Lycopene which helps to fend off cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

Not forgotten is the beet, the sweetest of all vegetables, especially the "Bull’s Blood" beet (Beta vulgaris) which along with "Burgee’s Golden", "Red Ace", "Detroit Red", and the "Chiogga", is an early producer and a fount of goodness. The beet lowers cholesterol and triglycerides, reduces blood pressure, helps ward of colon and stomach cancer, is colorful, and tastes great with leaves and fruit adding pizzazz.

Having lived this long, I want to live longer, so it's "Go gardener, go!"

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Tuesday, April 03, 2007




WHITEFLIES: ONE OF LIFE’S LEARNING EXPERIENCES
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/23/07)

Whiteflies are amongst life’s learning experiences. In fact, a learning experience is an actual failure which the politically-correct try to transform into a potential success with the phrase “learning experience.” The purpose of such polite obfuscation is to put a pretty face on an ugly event. “A learning experience” is in the same politically-correct category as “at heart he’s a really nice guy” which means “he’s a real s.o.b.” or “she meant well” for “she really messed up.” However, with “learning experience” the politically-correct are surprisingly right. Gardening is jam packed with learning experiences.

The first horticultural learning experience is: “Vigilance,” to echo my flame-tressed Überfrau. Those small little white things flying around, ensconced on the underside of the leaves aren’t harmless. They’re the al-Qaida of horticulture. They suck the life out of plants. When discovered, spring into action, don’t wait around, as did I, to see what will happen in the vain hope they’ll go away by themselves. They won’t. They’ll destroy. They’ll multiply exponentially ad infinitum into a Malthusian nightmare. “Apocalypse Now.”

With a four stage life-cycle, whiteflies begin as eggs, scarcely visible to the naked eye, laid by adults on the underside of leaves. Then emerging as crawlers, they wander the leaf’s underside until they pierce a vein with their needle-like mouth parts and begin sucking the phloem (life juices) out of the plant. Remaining immobile as nymphs, they keep on feeding. After about ten days, they stop feeding and mature as pseudo-pupa. Finally, they emerge as adults, flying and laying eggs. As with all rat finks, they leave refuse, ironically called “honeydew,” which attracts sooty molds, resulting in an unsightly, sticky mess. Gunk City.

Armageddon has arrived when the plant is alive with whiteflies, covered with eggs, crawlers, nymphs, pseudo-pupa, dying with curled, desiccated leaves, and oozing a sticky mess. Then, the only thing to do is to sack the infected plant and debris around it in a sealed plastic bag, dump it in the garbage can pronto, and dispatch it to Environmental Services.

Last fall, I brought two flourishing Genovese basil (Ocimum baslicum “Genovese”) plants I had raised from seed into our house. Within two weeks they were covered with whiteflies. I wondered “why me?” After a few moments several reasons came to mind, and I forsook my theological inquiry. Carelessly, I hadn’t made sure they were free of whiteflies. Ever vigilant my Überfrau, Gretchen, discovered them. I learned to inspect plants regularly, especially those coming from nurseries which, as with hospitals, harbor many ailments.

If, on the other hand, hope is warranted, grab a hand sprayer loaded with either insecticidal soap or botanical insecticides. Available commercially, both have low toxicity for plants and mammalians and act and degrade rapidly. Avoid pesticides unless you want to poison the atmosphere and kill the friendlies in the bug world. Systemic assaults work well, but don’t eat the fruit, leaves, or stems of the plant. In the morning or evening, spray the underside of all the leaves. Then, keep doing it several times until there’s nary a sign of a whitefly.

No Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” when it comes to whiteflies. For them, vengeance and extermination. Sans merci. As my aged Aunt Emily told me just before I was shipped overseas, “Smite them, dear sweet boy, smite them hip and thigh.”

Sadly, there is no cure, only control. Working three ways, insecticidal soaps and botanical insecticides stop the adults from flying and the colony from laying more eggs and suffocate the remaining members of the colony.

Happily, there’s a secret weapon, yellow sticky paper. Whiteflies like yellow and stick to the sticky paper. The paper is good as an alert for the first signs of whiteflies and as a means of control.

Whiteflies have natural enemies. Green lacewings, lady bugs, minute pirate bugs, big eyed bugs, damsel bugs, tiny black ladybeetle, and parasitic wasps like to eat whitefly eggs and nymphs. They should be released gradually throughout the growing season and in the evenings.

Elimination isn’t possible. Control is. Fresh Genovese basil, along with all manner of flowers, plants, vegetables, and herbs, is worth the vigilance and effort.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

Thursday, March 01, 2007




SASHA’S ALTAI TOMATO
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/20/07)

The Altai Shan, the golden mountain range, is a complex series of mountains rising in the Gobi Desert and descending into the West Siberian Plain. Traveling southeast to northwest, it threads its way through Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan. Its highest peak is 15,000 feet. A remote neck of the woods, the Altai Shan was until the 19th century terra incognita for westerners. On their maps, medieval cartographers would have designated such unknown places as the Altai Shan with the inscription, “hic sunt dracones” (here are dragons.)

Yet, it’s the origin of a prized tomato, Sasha’s Altai (Lycopersicon esculentum), which at one time fetched $5.00 per single seed in Australia. But, in a sense, one shouldn’t be surprised since tomatoes originated with the Incas in the remote high country of the Andes where, growing wild, they are more a berry than a fruit. Indeed, the word “tomato” is a corruption of the Inca word tomatl. From Peru the Conquistadores took the tomatl to Mexico, thence to Spain, and then to Italy. Finally, the ubiquitous tomatl made its way to Siberia and Sasha Stavrov’s garden in the Altai Shan where it was discovered by Bill McDorman of http://www.seedstrust/ in Cornville which is just a few miles down slope from Sedona.

A horticultural explorer, Bill McDorman stalks and hunts seeds sans gun but with camera. On one of his heirloom seed hunting expeditions, Bill ventured into the Siberian city of Irkutsk on the shores of Lake Baikal looking for tomato seeds. In short, Bill is a guy who takes his seeds seriously, especially his tomato seeds, else why would he find himself smack dab in the middle of nowhere looking for tomato seeds. Only a true hunter would venture into terrae incognitae, searching for descendants of the tomatl amongst the dracones.

The reason was quite simple. After the Communist Revolution of 1917, Russia had been cut off from outside horticultural influences for 70 years. One of the influences from which it was protected was the horticultural genetic engineering of western capitalistic corporations. So in effect, rather than the artificial selection of hybrid tomatoes, there was 70 years of natural selection, producing the best non-hybrid tomatoes. In many ways the Soviet Union had been a hermit kingdom run by privileged class of corrupt political hacks commonly called apparatchiks. However, with the coming of glasnost (transparency) under Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 all of Soviet horticulture began to open up.

For Bill McDorman this meant open season for heirloom seeds. Siberians are avid gardeners, and he figured that with 2 million highly-competitive gardeners he could have a field day hunting for the best non-hybrid vegetables and tomatoes. He was looking for that right combination of acidity and sweetness, in short, a sophisticated, complex taste.

While in Siberia he collected sixty different kinds of tomato seeds. On one occasion a smiling man with sparkling blue eyes came out of a crowd, telling him about his deliciously nonpareil tomatoes, and claiming they were “the best tomatoes in all of Siberia.” He said he would walk home to fetch him some of his own seeds. He didn’t come back. Three days later as Bill was waiting to board his airplane for the flight home, he burst through the crowd with his seeds carefully wrapped in an old newspaper. Surprised, Bill wondered why he had taken so long. Bill’s translator said that there were no roads where Sasha lived and that he had to walk home, some 22 miles into the Altai Shan, a forty-four mile walk altogether.

What Sasha brought back were the seeds of Sasha’s Altai tomato, a thin-skinned, scarlet-red, slightly flattened, luscious tomato with a delightfully complex taste. Maturing in a short 55-60 days, it’s a fit for both the Altai Shan and the Colorado Plateau and Flagstaff. Along with its companion Siberian, the Galina (Lycopersicon esculentum,) Bill McDorman struck gold amongst the golden Altai Shan.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007