Monday, June 25, 2012


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (6/17/2012)

One of our many recent presidential candidates has been described as “a narrow parenthesis of a man.” In contrast, Russ Wiedman is a polymorphous man, a man of many sides, a man of various roads traveled, a man of incomplete sentences and dangling participles. Perhaps, Robert Frost said it best, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ― / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

The key to his character is something he loves, the drums of west Africa and their polyrhythms. It’s not just one beat, but several all playing off one another in a tympanic harmony. The result is an auditory feast of many courses.

His brain may be too quick for his tongue with words tumbling off his tongue. Whatever he is, Russ is a polymorphic man, and one of his morphemes is gardening. As a matter of fact, one might say that Russ is an extreme gardener in that with few exceptions he eats only what he grows or catches, such as the fish he catches in Lake Powell.

He tried gardening out-of-doors and was reasonably successful at it, selling much of his produce to local markets and restaurants, but he found that it was inefficient, requiring too much water and time. So, using one of his other morphemes, he built a green house attached to the house he had already built for himself, and such a spectacular house it is. For the most part using material that others had cast off, he built a beautiful home with massive, polished pine logs the centerpiece.

A truly western house, it is furnished with hand wrought rugs and paintings and glass-encased chiffoniers filled with fine china. Some would say eclectic, but it’s more polymorphous with a theme holding it all together. Save for the fine china, the glue holding it together is that everything is made by hand. Russ is a hands-on kind of guy.

Obviously intelligent with bright, crystalline blue eyes, always on the lookout, he is quick to point out that he tried college and grew bored and dropped out. The reason is simple, he learns through his hands. Conventional education is eyes only. Out of the five senses, his primary sense is tactile. First, he feels things, and then he sees them, but it is almost as though he feels with his eyes, caressing the world around him with his optic nerves.

But back to his greenhouse. It takes up almost one side of his house, and it’s so efficient that it heats up the whole of his house in the cold days of winter. Always taking a road “less traveled by,” his garden has a difference, encompassing vegetables from around the world, such as perilla, a mainstay herb in Japanese cuisine and used throughout Asia. Rather than neat little rows of plants, his plots are set amidst wandering footpaths, bordered with rocks, something likes trails in the wilderness.

That dreary phrase, carbon footprint, was never spoken in our conversation, but Russ’ house and greenhouse are embodiments of living well while leaving few traces, much like moccasins on the forest’s floor. And that living well is part and parcel of a life “less traveled by.” Using his wits he has traveled to nearly all of the world’s outposts. He did not learn by reading about something or some place, he learned hands-on always leaving few traces of his presence.

After listening to Russ, I wondered what held it all together, other than his hands by which he also earns his bread. He made it very clear that he was not religious in the conventional sense of the word. I asked him if he had a sense of the Other, a Presence abiding. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “kind of spiritual.” Rather than being a scattered eclectic, his life is held together by a Presence abiding in all the polymorphs of life, a Presence best appreciated through hands and eyes with no clear distinctions between the physical and spiritual. For him life is, to use Rudolph Otto’s phrase, “A tremendously enchanting mystery.”

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dana Prom Smith edits Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun and emails at
Photographs of house are courtsey of Jim DeBusk and Russ Wiedman.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


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

Dear Garden Optimist:

Hello! My name is Louella Kardashian. My hubby, Longfellow, and I moved to Flagstaff from Phoenix to get back to nature. We wanted to get away from the concrete, asphalt, crime, and smog. He’s been talking about returning to the “forest primeval” for years.

Anyhoo, Longfellow made oodles of money in the low fashion industry, as he says, “givin’ ‘em what they want.” So when we wanted to get away from it all, we could afford it. We built a beautiful rustic, 4,000 foot log cabin with granite countertops, copper basins, plank flooring with Navajo rugs, central air conditioning, and with the same anti-intruder system that’s used in the White House. We built right next to the National Forest, you know, wanting the feeling of being close to nature. Just an old rusty fence and a few strands of barbed wire separated us from Longfellow’s “forest primeval.”

I had my gardener plant tulip bulbs, 400 of them right from Holland, along the drive leading up to our house. I’d waited all winter long for that lovely row of tulips to burst forth with new life in the spring. Well, wouldn’t you know, I went out with my coffee mug in hand, and they had all been mowed down, right down to the ground. Who would be mean enough do such a thing? My heart sank. Tell me, what am I to do? I’m losing my optimism and zest for life.

Dear Sunken Heart:

I’m sorry about your heart. Nature struck back. The elk and the deer mowed them down. Just think, you were feeding the elk and the deer, your friends and brothers. I’m surprised they didn’t send you a thank you note. Besides, just what made you think that nature wanted to be close to you, just a strand of rusty barbed wire away? Nature just might like some privacy, too, like being left alone.

Here’s some ancient advice! In about 400 A.D. Saint Ambrose wrote from Milan to Saint Augustine after Saint Augustine had moved to Rome: “When I go to Rome, I fast of Saturday, but here I do not. Follow the custom of whatever church you attend.” When in Rome, do as the Romans. When in the forest, do as the forest. If you don’t see tulips in the forest, it’s smart not to plant tulips.

If you want to bolster your optimism and charge up your zest for life, don’t fight the laws of nature, like Sisyphus pushing a rock uphill or Icarus flying too close to the sun. Sisyphus’ rock kept rolling back down, and the sun melted the wax on Icarus’ wings. Don’t plant flowers and vegetables just because you like them. Plant what the forest likes. Don’t be a city slicker. Fit in! It’s not a heavy idea.

Dear Garden Optimist:

I’m not at all happy with your reply. I’m sensitive, and you hurt my feelings because you really didn’t deal with my pain. You seemed to dismiss it. Besides, I miss my camellias, gardenias, and azaleas. Longfellow’s just as happy as a pig in a sty. He sits out there next to that nasty old rusty barbed wire fence breathing in fresh air. He smoked clouds making bunches of money. He still coughs a lot. Says it’s good for his health breathing in fresh air.

I don’t care what you say. I’m going to plant the tulips again. Those deer and elk aren’t going to get the best of me, not Louella Kardashian. I’m going to show them.

Dear Unhappy and Hurt:

I hate to rain on your parade, but the deer and the elk are going to win. I’ve heard from the shrinks that one of the best tests for insanity is repeating an action that failed the first time all the while expecting success by repeating the failure. Forcing your will on nature isn’t the way to garden. Nein über Alles nonsense.  There's no place for hubris in gardening.  Welcome to the high country. Cooperating with God is a smart policy. God is speaking to you through the elk and deer.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun and emails at

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


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

After my father died when I was eleven, I fell into a deep funk for several years. As I look back on those days, I realize that I felt I’d lost my identity. Although my mother was powerfully supportive, I thought of myself as an outsider without a place. My grades in school suffered. After one of many conferences with various teachers, my mother drove me home. At a stop sign she turned to me, took my hand, and said softly, “Dana, just for once instead of “potential” I’d like to hear the word “actual.”

The word “potential” refers to something that doesn’t exist, but what a devastating thing it is to hear that someone doesn’t have any potential. As with the word “mystery,” it is meant to covey something, but the substance is unknown. Mystery is a rather elegant word for saying: “I don’t know,” while potential means, “I hope he’s got it in him.”

Whatever it is, gardens are jammed packed with mystery, both potential and actual. Winter is the dormant potential, and spring, summer, and fall are the actualities. Planting seeds is an act of potentiality. When we see them sprout, it’s an actuality. All of it is, of course, a mystery. To be sure, the botanists have explained the mechanics, but no one has explained the mystery of the miracle when a potential becomes an actual.

One of the great actualities are hardy leaf vegetables, especially kale. If anyone knows what’s good for them, it would be kale. Happily, Flagstaff is an ideal place to grow kale because it is a cool season vegetable. Too often, we hear from nay- sayers about the onerous difficulties of gardening in Flagstaff. Well, kale proves them wrong.

Kale is a powerfully nutritious vegetable which should not be boiled but rather steamed to keep its nutritional values. It comes in two forms, the European and the Russo-Siberian. The familiar Tuscan or Dinosaur kale with its long narrow leaves and Scotch kale with its fluffy leaves are the most common varieties of the European kale (Brassica oleracea) which is thought to have originated in Greece in about the 4th century B.C. They come in three colors, green, purple, and red. The Russo-Siberian kale (Brassica napa) with its broad red leaf is thought to have originated in northern Europe and northern Asia. It was brought to North American by Russian traders in the 19th century. Both are hardy, but the Russo-Siberian, given its origins, is the hardiest, sometimes surviving temperatures as low as 0° F. For several years, I had a Russian kale that survived three winters and finally succumbed in a winter with little snow, but each year it was the first fresh vegetable in my garden as in early May. Kale can be grown in all the states, including Alaska.

There is no dispute about the great nutritional and cancer fighting qualities of kale, but there is about taste and texture which, oddly, improve after the first frost. Foodies and no less an authority as Dr. Andrew Weil favor the Tuscan kale whereas many others favor the Russo-Siberian kales for their sweetness, milder flavor, and tenderness. De gustibus non est disputandum. It’s probably the particular kind of gastric juices flowing through a person’s mouth at any given time. The French do not use kale, but then there’s no figuring the French.

Growing kale is easy and produces a tastier vegetable than the kale found in grocery stores because it is freshly plucked. The soil should be friable and composted, and the seeds should be planted ¼ to ½ inch deep and an inch apart, thinned eventually to 8 to 12 inches apart. Watch for aphids.

Of the cabbage family, it doesn’t form a head and thus can be picked very early for salads. It is probably most frequently used in soups or sautéed as a side dish although it does very well with cheese and eggs in frittatas. A very good recipe using kale is Above the Rim Tuscan Soup, which is available at

Another miracle, transforming a potential into an actual, is when kale is cooked and eaten. Good gardening and good eating.

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2012

This article was published 6/16/2012 in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Friday, June 01, 2012


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/12/12)

Question: My name is Fordyce P. Van Dusen. Recently, I moved to a horticulturally correct part of the state where the bent is expelling “invasive exotics.” One morning a woman with goggles, leather apron, work boots, and elbow length welder’s gloves appeared in my front yard pulling out my beautiful scotch thistles. Thunderstruck, I demanded to know what she was doing, and she replied, “What you should’ve done yourself. Pulling out invasive exotics.”

I’m a bit heterodoxical. My wife, Consuelo, calls me oppositional and anally retentive which is far better than anally explosive as is she. I want to express my individuality; however, I don’t want to give offense unnecessarily. What I’d really like to do is plant some non-native, foreign, exotic plants without bringing the wrath of the horticulturally correct down on my head. Can you help me?

Answer: I understand your problem. First let me say that since “invasive exotics” are a scourge and plague, you must forgive the horticultural correct their Torquemadian ways. As to your problem, from my back deck I can spy two deck-bound plastic palm trees. Another fellow, Bob Kratz, keeps his inside, bringing it outside during Aurilla’s great Christmas parties. Another was potted in reaction to the efforts of a horticultural code enforcement officer from his HOA. Jim Gore wanted something unique to set him apart from the ordinary. In a previous life in Big Bear, California, he planted his whole front yard in plastic flowers. He is a person of considerable accomplishment, a stevedore, a ski instructor, a biker, a car nut, and a contractor. His potted plastic palm works for him, and it might for you.

Question: No! I don’t want to shilly-shally around with plastic plants. I want to make a statement with something that’s alive.

Answer: I’ve an answer for you. A friend of mine, Alex Martinez, was born and raised in Tucson and misses his citrus trees. He, too, is a considerable person, a naval officer and school superintendent. So he developed a moveable citrus grove in his house using dwarf varieties placed strategically in sunny niches. He has several citrus trees, as well as two figs. He moves them outside when the weather is temperate and brings them back inside when it’s cold. Now, he’s investigating the feasibility of establishing a citrus grove on an island in the Bering Sea. He’s an indefatigable, type-A, personality, pushing boundaries.

The citrus trees are exotic, but not invasive. Unlike exotic invasives, if left to themselves, citrus trees will perish in our climate. Invasives thrive with neglect as weed warriors know.

Question: O.K., then let’s go for it.

Answer: First, you must have sunny niches in your house as well as your wife’s permission, a chancy affair. Then, you can buy dwarf varieties from commercial nurseries only in Arizona which has rigid laws forbidding the importation of citrus trees.

Meine Űberfrau was so impressed with Alex Martinez’s moveable citrus grove that she gave me a dwarf Meyer lemon for my birthday. Originally from China, it’s probably a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon. We have it in the dining room next to a sliding glass door near her geraniums. I have plans for a Satsuma mandarin orange in a sun-splashed bathtub in the upstairs bathroom next to her Boston fern and a tangerine in the front window. She suggested I should exercise self-control and moderation. Next an avocado.

When growing citrous exotics in containers, specific care is required. First, the soil should be slightly sandy and acidic, moist but not wet. They should be watered 2 or 3 times a week and everyday in the summer but never left in standing water. The ideal temperature is about 77°F. but not lower than 55°F. lest they go dormant. Heavy nitrogen feeders, they need a slow release, organic fertilizer with a ratio of 2-1-1- or 3-1-1. Their blossoms effuse elegant aromas.

The Spanish say, “Living well is the best revenge.” Yours could be giving freshly-picked, plump, juicy, non-invasive, exotic, home-grown Meyer lemons to the horticulturally correct during a winter’s blizzard. That is, if you care to share them.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

This article appearaed in the Arizona Daily Sun 6/9/2012.