Thursday, December 31, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/31/09)

Stepping out of a warm shower stall on a cold winter's morn, stark naked, dripping wet, half-blinded by soap in my eyes, groping for a towel, meine Überfrau greeted me, saying, "You know, DP, your teeth are a bit dingy, like some old geezer's." I replied, "What's the matter with that? I am an old geezer, and, besides, I don't look at my teeth." The retort was swift and fast, "But I do, and you're not my kind of old geezer. Here's some whitening strips for your teeth. Dingy teeth age you. Besides, I want you to look nice. I love you."

Straightaway, whitening strips were thrust into my mitts, and I was told them to put them on my choppers. To put a blasphemous twist on Hebrews 10:31: "It is a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of a loving woman!"

As I tried to affix gooey, slippery brightening strips to my teeth, I ruminated on the irony that women are always trying to improve on their husbands while men wish their wives would stay the same as when they first knew them. First, I thought that perhaps women were smarter than men, but then I concluded it's that damned managerial gene they get from their mothers. "If mamma ain't happy, ain't nobody gonna be happy."

"By the way, are you going to plant all those onions this year like you did last year? You know, you go overboard on tomatoes and onions, like twenty tomato plants and 405 onion sets. Really compulsive."

"Just think of my tomatoes and onions as brightening our taste buds, besides it was only 375 onions, and we ran out at that."

While my teeth were still brightening, stealthily I ordered my onions sets on the Internet to be delivered on March 15 for planting on March 19, the first day of spring when the days are long enough, 12-13 hours, to grow onions. Chastised, I ordered only 225 sets.

Around about January or February is the best time to order both onion sets and tomato seeds because the selection is greater. Wait until it's time to plant, and it's the dregs. There are lots of places to buy onion sets on the Internet, like Brown's Omaha Plant Farms in Texas,

Onions, like Caesar's Gaul, are divided into three parts, short day, intermediate day, and long day. Flagstaff is intermediate. Walla Walla onions are long day, coming from up north, and Vidalia's are short day, coming from down south. Three intermediate sweet onion hybrids are Superstar, Hybrid Candy, and Red Candy Apple. Onions are tolerant to the cold so they can be planted without protection when the temperatures are still freezing but the soil has thawed.

My Superstars from last year were so sweet that one of my dentist's assistants, Leona McGeary, ate one as if it were an apple without any serious side effects. We, Leona and I, barter onions for chicken manure, not dental work.

As with everything, success is in the preparation. Onions, being a bunch of tight-knit leaves, love nitrogen fertilizer which means blood meal and coffee and tea grounds as well as other nitrogen fertilizers. They also flourish in friable or loose soil and that means lots of compost and manure. If the soil is clay, it's best to dig in sand or volcanic cinders. Making a virtue out of a necessity, cinders in Flagstaff are readily available and are more nutritious than sand.

Since we are in a drought and onions need lots of water, the prudent way to plant onion sets is in a trench, ensuring plenty of water carefully conserved, not watering the whole bed, just the trench. Also, they should be watered regularly.

A week or so after planting, they should be side-dressed with a high nitrogen fertilizer and regularly thereafter.

The sets can be planted five inches apart so that around June 15
spring onions can be harvested by plucking every other onion. The remaining onions can be left to grow into magnificent globes, much to be enjoyed later in the summer and into autumn.

Think of onions as cuisine brighteners for dingy taste buds.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

Thursday, December 24, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (1/12/10)

Visiting The Prelude Show of the Artists' Coalition at the Coconino Center for the Arts last year I felt as though I were on an excursion through alternate realities. Artists, like gardeners, are often slightly off the grid, and, therefore, entertaining, interesting, and often lit with insight.

Artists see things differently from the way most people see them, putting things together in fresh ways. While they don't create ex nihilo, out of nothing, as does God, as human beings, they fashion variations on God's creation. Creating in their minds' eyes, their vision remains unknown unless crafted. So art as an artifact is a craft as well as a vision.

On a journey of discovery, I tried to see what they saw as well as how they saw it. Some were angst, some libidinous exuberance, some remembered sorrows, some the joy of elegant form, and many private ironies. So it is with gardeners because they, too, fugue on themes divine.

Some appear as junkyard gardeners, their gardens littered with broken pots, leaking hoses, piles of compost, over-grown vines, and old benches. Amidst the chaos, isles of beauty appear, flowers seldom seen, cascading planters hanging from trees, tables laden with extravagant plants, and small, carefully tended plots of rocks, flowers, vegetables, and grass, all configured to see the ordinary extraordinarily. A garden is a Weltanschauung, to use Emmanuel Kant's word, a way of looking at life and the world, and these apparently chaotic gardeners use the beauty of their plots as means to survive in their worlds "without form and void."

Then there are gardens, carefully tended, architecturally crafted, everything in its place. Grass carefully clipped, flower beds fashionably curved, as places of ease and contentment, these gardens invite an afternoon snooze, a picnic with wine and bread for two, reading a favorite book, a place of safety. Fashioned out of chaos, these gardens are achievements, where gardeners aren't merely surviving, but prevailing. No absurdities, inconsistencies, and unintended consequences, they're predictable and reassuring without tumult or turmoil. As the ancient Hellenic cult temples set in the chaos of Greek history, their art is in the elegance of the form where chaos stops at the property line.

Some gardeners don't seek to impose order on chaos or seek refuge amidst the chaos, but seek rather to protect themselves against the chaos. Buttressed by a no-man's land of gravel and fences, they resemble moated castles, defended against a hostile chaos without. Plots of beauty behind the fences, never seen save for those who live within, may be exquisitely beautiful, inner gardens of beauty, akin to medieval monasteries in which a faith under assault was protected.

Other gardens, which are usually near the end of the road, are neither examples of imposing order with everything in its place and a place for everything nor fleeing from disorder in which everything means nothing. Rather, they're examples of looking for patterns and rhythms in the natural world, contours in the chaos, such as communities of plants, such as pines, oaks, and penstemon. At the end of the road, they are leaving the disharmonies of urbanity behind them to find a harmony with the natural world. The silence of the forest and woods where there are no straight lines and jangling noises, where boulders aren't removed but used as pivots of design, offer a sense of fusion with the creation instead of an alienation.

Last, a no garden at all, the weeds and refuse of "I don't care," "what's it to me?" and "so what?" Nihilistic, a belief in nothingness, they're the art of the irresponsible the punked-out grunge garden, mumbling an inchoate "whatever."

Of course, all gardens are works in progress, never complete, never finished in which the gardeners' art is either disintegrating or unfolding, as gardeners reveal themselves as their gardens evolve. They may appear disorderly, but as any experienced gardener knows, failure is as much a means to accomplishment as success and, often as not, a better tutor. Of course, these gardens are all of us who are becoming rather than being and in becoming do it in the dirt.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/22/09)

In a time when apocalyptic thinking is in vogue with dire threats of global warming, asteroid attacks, nuclear holocausts, desertification, coastal flooding, climate change, financial collapse, and terrorism, a "Doomsday Vault" near the North Pole seems appropriate. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the biggest and coldest seed bank in the world. Located just below the North Pole in Spitzbergen, Norway, it's large enough to contain four and a half million seed lots from all over in the world, stored at -0º F.

As a seed bank, it's insurance against a catastrophe which would wipe out food production world-wide. Fundamentally cold storage, it's a high-powered, super-duper refrigerator dug into the side of a permanently frozen mountain with a refrigeration unit to assure a -0º F. temperature.

Another Noah and the Ark operation, only with seeds rather than animals, the Millenium Seed Bank in Sussex, England, cold banks seeds from wild plants throughout the world just in case the wild plants are wiped out in a climatic Armageddon.

Surprisingly, Northern Arizona has a seed bank, too, not dug into Mt. Humphries, but cozily sitting inside NAU's Research Greenhouses. It's actually a maximum, industrial-sized, stainless steel refrigerator kept at -10ºF, supervised by none other than Brad Blake and Phil Patterson. They're saving seeds of ponderosa pines and several other trees in the mountains of the Southwest, preparing for the next catastrophic wildfire, parasitic infestation, or some as yet unknown plague. A bank without tellers or loan officers, the Research Greenhouses' refrigerated seed bank does, however, offer insurance on mortgaged futures.

Apocalyptic thinking differs from prophetic thinking in that it offers no hope, only mayhem, catastrophe, and destruction as in lethal injections, the Beast of the Apocalypse, Noah and the Ark, and Avatar. Prophetic thinking doesn't predict the future but rather offers hope for the immediate future, maybe even long-term, as when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "I have a dream." His theme was "redemption follows repentance," instead of a nightmarish "Burn, Baby, Burn."

Brad and Phil travel the Southwest gathering pine cones from ponderosa forests for their refrigerated Ark, taking along with them an arborist to climb trees. Their seed bank contains ponderosa seeds from various and varied places in the Southwest as well as other pines, such as Chihuahua, Apache, and Southwestern.

The trick is to reseed a forest after a wild fire with seeds from trees native to the devastated land. If the forest near Strawberry or Happy Jack were devastated by insect or fire, it could be best reclaimed by seeds saved from that locale. The ponderosa pine can be found high on the San Francisco Peaks, the plains of Kansas, and the shores of California. However, ponderosa pine seeds from the shores of California wouldn't do well on the San Francisco Peaks. The principle is that all reforestations are best local.

Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North would've survived if he had been transplanted to Savannah, but it would be doubtful if Tin Pan Alley's Vamp of Savannah would've survived on the shores of Hudson Bay in Arctic Quebec.

Brad Blake is American royalty, tracing his ancestry back Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Plantation by way of the plains of Kansas and the steppes of Arizona. Phil Patterson, MacTavish thrifty, is a flame-haired, jolly tall drink of water of Scot's descent. Both are savvy, keepers of the forest.

Now, not all of their work is tending to their apocalyptic refrigerator. Much is prophetic as in "If you don't replace all those invasive water-sucking Saltcedar trees (Tamarix ramosissima) along our streams and rivers, you're shrinking our water resources during a drought." Repent to be redeemed, going native and save water. They grow native and adaptable plants for restoration projects throughout the Southwest.

A pet project of theirs is the development of an aspen genotype garden on the NAU campus, the better to protect our aspens groves from drought or herbivores. They purpose to acquire genetic information to provide adaptability to the larger genome to help aspens cope with climate change.

Also, they provide research facilities for the faculty and students at Northern Arizona University.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith (11/18/09)

A touch of class, a hint of civilization, a love story, and a tragedy are themes entwined in the tale of the McCormick Rose, a cutting of which graces the steps into Old Main at NAU. The first McCormick Rose was brought as a cutting by Margaret Hunt McCormick, the bride of Richard McCormick, Arizona’s Second Territorial Governor, to Prescott in November 1865. A French Boursaid (Rosa gallica), an ancient French hybrid, this pink rose was the first cultivated rose in Arizona.

The rose at Old Main was a cutting of the McCormick Rose at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott which was in turn a cutting from the original rose planted by Margaret McCormick by the front door of the Governor’s Mansion in Prescott.

The McCormick Rose began its journey in Margaret McCormick’s trousseau as she and Richard made their way to Arizona. First, the cutting accompanied them by steamship from New York to Jamaica and thence to Aspinwall at the Isthmus of Panama. Next, the cutting went with them overland on mule back to the Pacific Coast where they and the cutting again boarded a steamship for Acapulco. Richard and Margaret spent two days touring the deserted city, the French Army having chased out the Mexicans. Finally, the cutting went with them to Los Angeles.

After a few days rest in Los Angeles, they and the cutting took a stagecoach to Yuma where they boarded a steamer for a trip up the Colorado River to Ehrenburg. Then as Margaret described the last leg of the journey, it was “two ambulances, six government wagons, and two private baggage wagons” crossing the Mohave Desert to Prescott. The McCormick Rose, a hearty cultivar, flourishes today at Old Main and Cline Library.

Prescott had barely become Prescott at the time. Before that it was a single hastily built, ramshackle log cabin on the banks of Granite Creek, called Fort Misery by John Goodwin, the First Territorial Governor. The Governor’s Mansion to which Richard McCormick brought his well bred, well educated, New Jersey bride was a log cabin with dirt floors and windows without glass. Happily, Margaret was given carte blanche on improvements, furnishings, and decorations, having furniture made from pine logs.

The McCormick Rose was but a symbol of the civilization and elegance Margaret brought to Prescott. She transformed the rude log cabin into a frontier mansion, making a home for Richard and herself, an office for him, and accommodations for guests. She threw levees, entertained quests, and bade visitors and strangers welcome. Margaret wrote of her “own dear home” to her friend Emma in New Jersey, “We danced in the house” and “served cold roast beef & veal, pies & cakes in variety, almonds, raisins, jellies, coffee, lemonade, & wine.”

A considerable horsewoman, Margaret accompanied Richard on many of his trips throughout the Territory, becoming acquainted with many of the pioneers, impressing them with her grace.

Prescott at the time was a jumping off place for what Richard McCormick called a “terra incognita”, an unknown and unmapped land, a land fit for only “daring trappers and adventuresome gold seekers.” The log cabin Governor’s Mansion was a mansion only in comparison to the tents, shacks, lean tos, and wagons making up the rest of the settlement.

In another letter to her friend Emma, she wrote that she “was never so happy in her life,” and that Richard “acts much more the ‘lover’ now, than he did before we were married.”

On her return from a trip with Richard to San Francisco, she gave birth to a stillborn child. Thought to have been recovering well, she suddenly lapsed into a violent sickness and died one day short of her 24th birthday. She was buried with her stillborn child in her arms under an oak tree near the mansion, her grave strewn with wildflowers.

The Prescott Arizona Miner in May 3, 1867 wrote that Margaret was “a greatly loved woman,” whose death had “cast gloom over the community,” adding that “no woman in the Territory was more happy.”

Cuttings of the McCormick Rose, a poignant touch of Arizona's pioneer history, are available at the NAU Research Greenhouses (523-9100 or 523-9103).

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/5/09)

Diane von Furstenberg, the doyenne of New York's high fashion designers, said in an address to budding designers, "The more you can grow yourself naturally, the more you can control your destiny." While speaking to the high fashion industry in New York, she could just as well have been speaking to the gardeners, down and dirty, in anti-fashion Flagstaff, about growing their gardens naturally.

The correlation between natural and destiny is simple. Years ago when rafting down the Tuolumne River, I asked the rafter, a graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley, about the principles of rafting. He said, "You can't fight the river. It's too powerful. If you try, you'll get dumped. It's not quite like going with the flow, more like reading it and using the current." It might be called The Von Furstenberg Principle, using the current.

Modern industrial agribusiness, on the contrary, has used the same principle of exploitation as used by the coal mining and the oil drilling companies. Exploiting natural resources as though they were inexhaustible, unaware that earth is a limited sphere, they're legacy children who've never replenished their heritage, but have simply used it up, inevitably leaving themselves without resources, barren and sterile.

Sustainability, on the other hand, uses the model of replenishing, putting back as much, if not more, than is taken out. It might be called reinvesting in nature. Rather than exploiting the earth, it seeks to renew it in part by recycling and nourishing.

The introduction of too much synthetic fertilizer has resulted in soil salinization, as in California's Coachella and San Joaquin Valleys where vast tracks of land have become sterile. Too much salt in the soil is toxic because it hinders the ability of plants to take up water. In short, they die of thirst while being watered.

Salinization is not only a product of synthetic fertilizer itself, but also of water. Some of Flagstaff's golf courses are already suffering recurring bare and brown spots and dying trees. Watered, as they are, with reclaimed water, the courses are slowly being salinized because reclaimed water is saltier than spring water. With repeated usage the soil inevitably becomes salt toxic resulting which might result in courses of Astroturf with cell towers for pine trees.

What happens in agribusiness and on golf courses can also happen in pots on the deck or vegetable and flower beds in the yard. As Thomas P O'Neill, Jr., the late Speaker of the House of Representations, often said, "All politics is local." So it is with sustainability. It's local as well as global.

Dirt is not an infinite resource, as the farmers in the Coachella and San Joaquin have found out. With synthetic fertilizer blowback, garden soil can be turned sterile. It's best enriched using compost, animal manure, and organic fertilizers, such as blood and bone meal. Only horse, cattle, and chicken manure are useful because dogs, cats, and human beings eat their fellow animals and thus are likely to carry pathogens or nasties in their feces.

The purpose of sustainability is not only to grow our own food and cook it slowly, but also to rehabilitate the earth for those who follow us.
Industrialization has not only overtaken agribusiness, it also dominates the fast food industry which is nothing more than assembly line food.

Sometimes, advocates of sustainability sound like Luddites, followers of Ned Lud who at the end of the 18th century destroyed machines in reaction to industrialization. More than Ludditism, sustainability is a solution, not a reaction.

The irony of sustainability is that it requires both the high tech of rehabilitating water and the low tech of fertilizing the soil with organic material. The high tech is the sophisticated technology capable of rehabilitating water. Rehabilitation requires vast amounts of electricity which, in turn, requires sophisticated technology of using the sun and wind to generate enormous amounts of electricity. Paradoxically, the ravages of 19th and 20th centuries industrial exploitation will be redeemed by a 21st century Von Furstenberg Principle, a high-brow technological rehabilitation of finite water supplies and a low-brow fertilization of soil with animal waste and organic refuse.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/20/09)

After Patty Hooker, my dental hygienist, finished scraping, polishing, picking, and excavating debris, I asked her if she thought plaque were a moral issue. Appearing surprised, she claimed she'd never thought about it before. Patty bears an unnerving resemblance to Sarah Palin, a discomfiting experience for a gnarled, cranky old Democrat. I was puzzled about her surprise, plaque being the raison ďêtre for dental hygienists.

I assume guilt about my plaque because, as Patty explained, plaque amongst other things is the result of bad dental hygiene. Throughout my life, in one way or another, a woman in authority has been my hygienic nemesis. My great aunt Marie Aslaakson, a hygienic warrior, who resembled a Norse berserker with battle axe in hand, would often jab the air with her wooden spoon, proclaiming "Cleanliness is next to godliness."

My junior high school, home room teacher was the school's "mental hygiene" enforcer. "To dream the impossible dream," she set about in a high-pitched, nasal shrill to cleanse the minds and hearts of boys under hormonal assault while in the throes of puberty. "Nasty boys."

Reclining in Patty's dental chair with various nozzles in my mouth while she picked, poked, and scraped, I thought about my garden's plaque. Guilt.

Now, Patty, a charming and delightful woman, has become another woman in authority. Smiling, her blue eyes dancing, she disputed any connection between morality and plaque, smugly asserting scientific impartiality, all the while asking me if I flossed regularly.


It's those damned pine needles. Can a person love pine trees and hate dry pine needles? If they're not grabbed adroitly, they stick in that small crevice between the nail and the finger. Not only that, Jeff Lowenfels, a noted horticulturalist, during the recent Garden Conference in Flagstaff said that the pine needles should be left where they've dropped as a matter of sustainability, another moral authority. However, the Fire Department says they're a fire hazard, and the Home Owner's Association threatens fines if they aren't raked up and packed off.
Scylla and Charybdis.

Happily, Kayla Smith, a neighborhood teenager, happened by looking for work, an unusual occurrence. An avid pine needle raker, she took the bull by the horns of the dilemma and raked up pine needles thus avoiding both the FFD's disapproval and the HOA's fines.

Now, that the scraping was over, I was free to pick, poke, and floss, digging up gladiolus corms and dahlia tubers. Please don't say "bulbs" because if you do, gardeners of the snooty sort will look askance, flaring their nostrils as though they'd whiffed a foul odor.

I've concluded that if something takes a lot of work, time, and care in the garden, it probably doesn't belong there. As a result, I've committed to bulbs that don't mind our winters, like daffodils (bulbs) and bearded irises (rhizomes). They thrive with occasional care, especially the daffodils. Loni Shapiro and Hattie Braun know a lot about bulbs so I'm going to ask them for easy and unusual bulbs.

Sadly, there is more to garden plaque, called pruning and clipping, the nip and tuck of gardening. Of course, there is a difference of opinion about pruning, whether in the fall or in the spring. I'm a fall advocate, unless I don't get around to it, and then I'm a spring advocate. Situation ethics.

If it's roses, cut off old, weathered, unproductive canes and prune thin shoots and then prune the productive canes about a thumb nail above an outfacing bud. Prune the interior shoots that cross one another, leaving room for air circulation inside the bush.

If it's a tree, pay attention to the tree's architecture to achieve a well-balanced effect. When pruning a branch, leave a little knob of the branch on the trunk. Don't bother with salves and anointments over the cut. Trees have learned to take care of themselves. Don't whack or hack. Shape. Trees aren't proper targets of anger.

A reminder: enjoy the aspens amidst the pines and the maples and oaks while brushing and flossing, scraping and pruning, getting rid of horticultural plaque and feeling self-righteous.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/30/09)

In his sonnets, when Shakespeare summoned "up remembrance of things past," he longed for "the lack of many a thing I sought." (30). He was speaking of the Dark Lady, the elusive paramour he swore was "fair" and "bright," yet was "black as hell, and dark as night" (147).

Such has been the sorry tale of many tomato paramours with anticipations of luscious, full-fleshed, lip-locked ecstasies right off the vine but who instead got the cankered mold of late summer blight. Just as Shakespeare was "frantic-mad" and "past cure" (147), the tomato paramour, too, grieves for those tomatoes once sought, turned "black as hell" and "dark as night." However, there are lessons to be learned. In today's limited lexicon, Shakespeare had the "hots" which often produce undesired consequences, such as "buzz off," "yuck," or the Black Lady's, "not you" (145).

After lavishing their tomatoes with love and affection, care and tender-mercies, tomato paramours may suffer betrayal, caused by their hots for "too much of a good thing, such as, commercial, synthetic fertilizer with too much nitrogen. The result is luscious foliage, miraculously grown with little or no fruit, a passion unconsummated. As they say, read the label, with its three dead giveaway letters.

They are N-P-K: N for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium. The best ratios for tomatoes are 5-10-5, 5-20-20, or 8-16-16 with nitrogen the lowest. The reason is simple: nitrogen stimulates the growth of the plant, phosphorous the production of fruit, and potassium overall plant health. Ironically, much of commercial synthetic fertilizer is counter-productive to tomato plants because it's nitrogen heavy.

The best fertilizer is compost which isn't primarily a fertilizer. Paradoxically, synthetic fertilizer doesn't do any good and may even do harm if the soil isn't chock full of mychorizzae. They are fungal facilitators clinging to plants' roots which enable the roots to take up nutrients from the soil. Compost is a source of and stimulates the development of mychorizzae as well as providing natural nutrients.

Long before tomatoes are planted, the soil should be prepared with lots of compost and organic fertilizers. They need nutrient and organically rich soil before being planted, as well as, being watered regularly and deeply.

The cankered mold of late summer blight which has swept the East
and Middle West is best fought by preparation. Three years should pass before using the same soil, or the soil should be sterilized. The fungus, Phytophthora infestans, a water mold, may remain in the soil from years past. It's been studied as a tool in biological warfare.

The easiest way to sterilize the soil is to put it in a black container enshrouded in a black plastic bag and let it sit in the sun cooking for several weeks. Safe soil is more easily controlled in containers. Finally, plant premium seeds because they don't carry the fungal spores which are carried by air and ground on fruit and plants. The fungal spores that caused the blight in East and Middle West were probably carried on plants from the South.

Since late summer blight occurs chiefly in hot, humid climates, it isn't "a clear and present danger" in Flagstaff, save sometimes during the monsoon, by humidification from overhead watering, or importation. Tomatoes like dry leaves and regularly well-drained wet roots. In addition to clean soil as a bulwark against soil borne fungal attacks, tomato plants should be widely spaced so that air can circulate freely to ward off air borne infestations.

A frequent complaint, in addition to lack of fruit, is blossom end rot, an affliction aptly named, because dark spots of rot slowly consume the tomato at its blossom end. No lip-lock fruit. More like yuck. The culprit is a lack of calcium as the fruit sets caused by too much nitrogen and uneven watering. The remedy: throw away the fruit and deep water.

Painful are the remembrances of tomatoes past which were "lov'd not wisely, but too well" (Othello, V, 2, 344). Growing tomatoes from seeds in clean soil, compost, and balanced organic fertilizer, with regular, well-drained deep watering are the ways to love tomatoes well and wisely.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/23/09)

"When a plant does well, I propagate it, like those lilacs along the fence in the backyard. They all came from one lilac out front. Now, that lilac's dead, but all those out in the back are thriving legacies with beautiful blooms."

A tour through Grant and Nancy Gerver's garden is a tour of propagation from bearded irises to lilacs. A nurse at FMC, Nancy says, "I'm just a farm girl. I like to get my hands in the dirt and make things grow." Indeed, her garden is a potpourri of plants, all with histories, coming from other places in her garden.

Raised on a farm on Whidbey Island in the far reaches of Washington's Puget Sound, the island metaphor runs throughout her garden. A series of islands, islands of grass, ponds, flower beds, and gazeboes with no hard-edged rectangulars, gives her garden a sense of peace and ease.

Of course, some rectangles are allowed, a vegetable garden, a half basket ball court-cum-outdoor dining room with table and benches, and off the back door a shed and a deck with a hammock under great spreading trees, but they're off to the sides of the yard where they don't intrude.

At first glance, the back yard seems random, that is, until the visitor feels the pull of that line of sight, the draw of the islands, stepping stones leading one to the other. Islands of grass surrounded by graveled paths lead the eye to scattered isles of bedded flowers and then to three isles of ascending ponds of water knit together by waterfalls all the way to a small rustic gazebo set under an overhanging tree.

The line of islands isn't straight but a soft S curve, a subtle pattern giving both a sense of ease and power. A straight line is power spent while an S curve is power latent without stressed hard edges.

An island to read, think, chew the rag, sip a glass of wine, "two for tea and tea for two," and survey the whole of the garden, the gazebo is both the end of a journey and the beginning to see the journey from the other side. A retrospective, a looking backward gives the pilgrim opportunities to see what was not seen at first sight and what things look like the other way around.

What was not seen from the gazebo is another garden, again all
islands, with one big oval bed with smaller oval patches, as though they were satellites.

Nancy cautioned that the garden isn't finished, that "there's a lot to do," but, indeed, there's always lots to do in a garden. There were some weeds, ovals that weren't complete and drifted off, but such is the case with any gardener's garden. Never finished, it is always a work in progress with things that need to be done. The best way to die is to be finished and complete.

As a graduate student toiling on my doctorate at the University of Chicago, I took a seminar with the famous theologian Paul Tillich who was at end of his career. I'd read nearly everything he's written and anticipated a fascinating seminar. Not so, I was bored by a great man who was merely tidying up his ideas and had stopped breaking new ground a generation previous.

Later, I took a seminar from Anders Nygren of Uppsala of Agape and Eros fame. Far older than Tillich, he was still plowing unfurrowed fields and drew me along on his intellectual journey scrutinized by his single, monocled eye.

Nancy Gerver's garden isn't modeled from a leftover landscaper's grid. Born of her private visions, sui generis, it's still a developing and growing place of peace and curiosity. Over to the left, unnoticed in her line of islands and pools, is a statue of Saint Francis holding a small pond of water. Once belonging to a neighbor of hers now dead but whose memory she cherishes, it is one end of an axis with the gazebo, holding those remembrances of things past, allowing the mind to follow the S curves in life, finding the other sides of reality.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/12/09)

I first saw Bev MacAllister one evening across a crowded room at a fluorescently lit meeting of the Master Gardener Association. I felt an affinity. She sparkled, especially her eyes. She celebrated her age with joy, doing something for someone else without profit or aggrandizement. She develops vegetable gardens at our local fire stations, enabling firefighters to grow and eat their own fresh vegetables.

Age has given her the time and experience to manufacture a model of Ernest Hemingway's "built-in shockproof crap detector," the better to cope with that salient feature of modern culture. It isn't lying so much, as Harry G. Frankfurt writes, but someone who "doesn't know what he is talking about" (On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005.)

Of its four commonest forms, pomposity, fanaticism, inanity, and authority, she's dispatched them long ago. She's not intimidated by political, corporate, academic, ecclesiastical, or professional pomposities. Well-educated, she glides by on the other side of the street. A pragmatist, she holds her beliefs deeply, especially about organic food and modern medicine, but disparages the fanaticism of ideologically-driven bigots with "daggers in their smiles."

Inane, she's not. No sympathy for yesterday's hackneyed platitudes and clichés. As in Kansas City, her mind "is up to date," ready to separate the sheep from the goats. Balancing the equilibrium between spirituality and skepticism, cynicism doesn't begrime her mind while she gracefully "cuts the crap." Spiritual without religious authoritarianism, she's secular without scientific absolutism.

Bev's "crap detector" liberates her from that "salient feature" weighing heavily on many people, leading them to waste their lives in mistaken certitudes followed by confusion, anger, and depression, unaware of the world around them.

At peace with herself, knowing her own shortcomings and foibles, Bev takes herself for what she is. She doesn't fiddle with her self-image and is free to look outward. An existentialist, her life is now.

Bev's passion, along with organic gardening, is the welfare of firefighters, especially their cuisine, cuisine being the cornerstone of health. Ill-fed, decrepit firefighters are not a good thing. Problematically, firefighters do their own cooking at the firehouse but aren't required to pass a culinary course before becoming firefighters. My son, in his early years as a firefighter and paramedic in Los Angeles County, frequently called for culinary suggestions on easy-to-fix, meat and potatoes recipes. Swiss chard hasn't been a regular on firefighters' fare which is precisely where Bev enters the scene of Flagstaff firefighting.

She does three things. She helps them grow vegetables at the firehouses, takes them vegetables from her garden and from wherever and whomever she can, and teaches them how to cook them. This is not easily done because most Americans are alienated from their senses, particularity their sense of taste after generations of fast-food. They've yet to pull a carrot from the ground or taste a tomato off the vine. Their exclusive spice is salt.

Bev is up to the task. "I don't baby sit them. I just give'em a chance to experience growth and harvest, especially finding that freshly picked vegetables taste better." While her micro task is gardening, vegetables, and cooking, her macro task is an expansion of life's experiences.

Funding the operation herself with support from Viola's, she uses containers in the firehouse gardens. "That way," Bev said, "they can move them around, like the hot peppers. They were startled at the difference in taste between the store bought and fresh hot peppers from the garden. Now, they're going to bring the containers of hot peppers into the station and grow them in sun-lit windows for the winter."

Her Firefighter's Swiss chard recipe is 2qts of washed Swiss chard, 2 chopped large garlic cloves, 1tbsp tamari. Cut stems into 1" pieces, simmer 5 minutes in ¼ cup water, covered. Add sliced leaves and diced garlic to pan and more water, if needed, bring to a boil, simmer covered 8 minutes. Add tamari, toss, and eat.

Bev not only sparkles, she's joyful. A happy warrior in the battle for good organic eats, she stands culinary guard for the first responders.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/26/09)

On a summer's eve at dusk, meinie Überfrau called me to watch two baby skunks at play. They nosed around in our flower garden, tumbling and wrestling, when suddenly a squadron of squawking ravens flew overhead. The skunks scooted beneath our deck.

Best appreciated from afar, I've always had an affinity for skunks because their spray smelled from afar recalls vacations as a child. I knew we were out of the city and on our way when I smelled skunks.

Parenthetically, a client once told me that she relished diesel exhaust because it reminded her of Parisian diesel buses during her student days.

What to do? Everyone has friends and relatives best kept at a distance, having suffered their spray in times past. Email keeps them at bay. How to save the skunks, the better to relish their odor from afar? After rebuffs from several governmental agencies, Arizona Game and Fish gave me the telephone number of Dan Caputo of Arizona Wildlife Consultants.

As with everything else, it's in the mindset, that is, how to think about the problem. Dan's mindset is training, as in training a puppy, training elk, deer, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, and other unwelcome critters to keep a distance.

This is best done by making them uncomfortable. Dan says it's giving wildlife a sense that the garden is "not a safe place."

If gardeners want to keep those gorgeous elk and deer and ugly javelina from mowing down their tulips, a shot or two of cougar urine would make them feel unwelcome, indeed, threatened. Electric fencing works, but it's iffy with children. Coyote urine does the same for squirrels, skunks, raccoons, and other small varmints.

In addition to the deer and elk's senses of smell, their sight is acute, giving them a heightened sense of motion which means motion sensors during the evening and early morning feeding hours. Once the alarms are sounded, beating pots and pans, flashing lights, and streams of water makes them feel unwelcome. It would me.

The ammonia of a malodorous cat's litter box offends one and all. Rags, soaked in ammonia, placed here and there in a garden will do wonders to discomfit wildlife.

Sight and smell can be used to freak out skunks. In addition to some shots of coyote urine and ammonia soaked rags, a windsock emblazoned as a hawk puts out the unwelcome mat. Cayenne pepper also irks them.

Squirrels' vulnerable senses are sight and sound. Banging pots and pans and water hoses makes squirrels feel unwelcome. Now, of course, not all squirrels are the same. Flagstaff's flagship squirrel, the Abert's, isn't as destructive as the antelope ground squirrel and the rock squirrel. The latter two relish the fruits of a garden as I discovered when I watched a rock squirrel savor a Sasha's Altai tomato on our deck and then leisurely sun itself as it digested my tomato. I was so charmed by its insouciance that I couldn't bring myself to chase it away.

On the contrary, Dan said, gardeners shouldn't train wildlife to hang around the garden. Feeding them is like throwing out the welcome mat, especially for the deer and elk, it's training them not to forage for themselves and, thus, not survive.

As for gophers, Dan suggested galvanized grates. A friend of mine urinates down their tunnels but makes no claims for efficacy other than emotional relief as in "There! Damn you." Apparently, no re-education program has, as yet, been developed for prairie dogs.

Persistence and perseverance are Dan's watch words. Training wildlife is not a one shot job. Also, trapping and releasing is just a Bandaid. The animals will either come back or others will take their place.

Sadly, Dan pleads ignorance about harvesting cougar and coyote urine, suggesting instead Googling the internet for a source.

With a passion for wildlife Dan knows whereof he speaks. Raised in Flagstaff, he graduated from NAU with a degree in biology and was for ten years a wildlife manager and biologist with the Department of Game and Fish, responsible for the area from Flagstaff to Camp Verde. His
telephone number is (928) 864-6768.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Friday, August 14, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/14/08)

My father, a residual Victorian, often advised my two older brothers at the dinner table on social manners with women. He said, "If a woman's beautiful, tell her that she's intelligent because she won't hear that often and would like to hear it. Also, if she's intelligent, tell her she's beautiful because she'll want to hear that, too."

My mother, a bit more modern, graduating from Oberlin College in 1908, a smile at the corners of her mouth, said, "And, Tom, tell the boys what to say when a woman is both."

He paused, long enough to dig himself out of a hole, and said, "Well, Hazel, as with you, I'm speechless." She smiled in triumph. It was then I learned that women are the superior of the species.

The danger in either/or thinking is that it doesn't encompass everything. There are a lot of both/ands. Nicolas de Cusa wrote, "coincidentia oppositorum," the union of opposites. A medieval philosopher, ecclesiastic, and theologian, he said that the rigid Laws of Thought of either/or and nothing else were inadequate. Life included more than either/or and both/and. Upward isn't possible unless there is a downward although virtue is possible without vice while vice is impossible without virtue. Sometimes a virtue is a vice as when the poor steal bread to feed a starving child.

Which brings us to a garden's design. Vegetables and flowers don't have to be planted in different beds. Front yards don't have to be either Kentucky blue grass or gravel. Gardeners can mix opposites. A front yard can be turned into a vegetable garden. Even conventional Southern California water authorities have begun to advocate replacing grass with vegetable gardens. If people are nuts about gravel, they can run gravel paths amongst the vegetables.

Gravel heats the front yard. Spending a summer's afternoon in a field of boulders teaches anyone that rocks mean heat. A vegetable or flower bed is far more cooling than ground up rock. Gravel is global warming's friend.

Also, flowers can be placed amongst the vegetables. The yellows of blanket flowers (Gaillarida pinnatifida) and firewheels (Gaillardia pulchella) make an eye-catching accompaniment to the red leaves of beets. A few dill plants, slim and graceful, towering above such a bed set it off as though it were a still life painting.

The purpose of Kentucky blue grass is turf, providing a field on which people can walk, run, jump, and play. Not many front yards are used as turf. Gravel front yards, in addition to heating the property's atmosphere, make the inhabitants look unwelcoming and forbidding, something like a military disciplinary barracks for the miscreants, the AWOL, and the deserters.

If householders are too slothful to plant flowers and vegetables in their front yards but want something green to avoid heating up their property, several native grasses are gifts. In the first place, they use little water which is why they are called "native grasses." They remain green, and require an annual mowing with a weed whacker in the late spring after their seed stems drop their seeds.

For shady parts of the garden, red fescue (Festuca rubra) works well. A green sod, rather than a clump grass, it tolerates a wide variety of soils and requires only 18" inches of water a year. If uncut, the grass lies down in swirls.

Sheep fescue (Festuca ovina) is a perennial bunch grass, rather than a sod. A green native, it is found in forest clearings and rocky slopes. Tolerating various soils, it can be grown in part and full sun, requiring only 12" of water a year. When densely planted it forms peaks and swirls. A variation of sheep fescue is blue fescue which can be used as a lawn or as an ornamental. It is really quite beautiful.

Arizona fescue (Festuca arizonica) is another bunch grass that cohabits well with ponderosa pines. Blue/green, bunches can be planted close enough together to give the effect of a lawn. It cannot be used as a turf but covers the earth quite well.

Going native in the grass is a virtue and beautifully intelligent.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008