Tuesday, November 07, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (November 5, 2006)

A couple of months after a killing frost, Gretchen and I were the guests of Diane Scantlebury and her husband, Todd, at their Tickaboo Ranch for a lunch of fresh salad greens, soup, and corn bread. The buttercrunch bibb and red oak leaf lettuces, chervil, nasturtium flowers, white cucumbers, and sweet gold, yellow pear, and Greek Thessalonika tomatoes all came from her hydroponic garden. The salad was topped with pecans from her neighbor’s Willowbrook farm. A deliciously rich and healthy soup was made of roasted butternut squash, sweet onions, and fresh sage. Along with the soup and salad she served slices of a delightfully-textured, freshly baked cornbread. True to farming culture we ate in her invitingly warm kitchen with window frames of punched tin and a large, wood-fired pot bellied stove set against a wall. It was a lunch to remember with all the varied and complimentary colors, textures, and tastes. The recipe for her soup can be found at http://oldfartskitchen.blogspot.com.

As we ate, I kept being reminded that I was in the process of shutting down my garden with the advent of winter, and that meant no more fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs. As a grandson of the soil, I remember my mystically-inclined grandfather telling me to cooperate with nature. He put it theologically. “Work with what God has given you. Don’t go off on some fool’s errand trying to improve the Lord’s work.” Now, oddly enough, a widower, he grew various herbs on his kitchen window sill which he cherished as gifts from God.

As Gretchen and Diane chatted merrily away, I was relieved from making thoughtful comments and was free to chum my mind for new ideas as my taste buds explored the lunch. It struck me that a hydroponic garden was simply a high-tech extension of a south-facing window sill. I had before suggested to Gretchen that we could use our dining room with its great south-facing sliding doors as a winter garden for some tomatoes, lettuces, and herbs. The suggestion wasn’t received well.

When the chatting died down after lunch, there was a brief conversational lacuna in which I could ask Diane about developing a home-made hydroponic garden. Like a true-believer she jumped at the chance to tell me how to go about it. Almost everyone is evangelical about those things in which they believe, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Diane “Standin’ on the corner” in Winslow with the Eagles handing out hydroponic tracts. She made a believer out of me.

The equipment is simple and inexpensive, things like a Rubbermaid storage container, a pump for fish tanks, some hose, fluorescent lights, and so forth. It’s no biggie. Even klutzes can hack it. There are several web sites for amateurs on means and materials. Just write hydroponic on your browser. I’ve started collecting the material and hope to be up and running later in the winter. My mouth waters at the thought of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs all winter long. You’ve got to keep your eye on the prize.

Of course, there are the usual problems which beset every gardener, such as blights, diseases, etc. However, the advantage is that the garden is enclosed and the remedies can be administered effectively.
As with all gardening, hydroponic gardening requires attention. As my grandfather was accustomed to say, “All God’s vineyards need tending. Just remember your garden is a trust from the Lord.” I never imagined as a boy the divine irony in which in my 80th year I’d be tending my garden in a garage. As William Cowper wrote long ago, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/17/06)

The benefits of gardening are many, beauty, fresh air and food, physical exercise, but perhaps the greatest is therapeutic. The emotional and psychological problems with which we are all beset are internally head-bound. They may have originated in external impressions and events, such an abusive childhood, a betrayal, a failure, an exclusion, a rebuff, a physical wound or limitation, an affliction, or maybe even an off-hand remark, but we archive them in our memories where voices from the past keep echoing down the hallways of our years. It’s called down time.

The up times are when we are called out of our archived memories by physical sensations in the present, such as, the aroma of a rose, the feel of a baby’ skin, a breath of fresh air, the taste of a good cheeseburger, the pain of a stubbed toe. The therapeutic secret of gardening is sensory attention. We are drawn out of the remembrances of things past into the existential moment. It’s also the reason that so many gardeners, like fisherman, are happy fanatics.

It is perhaps what William Blake had in mind in “Auguries of Innocence.”
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Effective psychotherapy is not so much about insight as it is about transformation, our transformation from being a victim and survivor into being a prevailer and a pilgrim. It means no longer driving by the rear-view mirror but through the windshield. Transformation turns old memories into new promises. Such is the paradigm of gardening.

For many, autumn is a postlude to summer and a prelude to winter, but for a gardener it is getting ready for spring. It means raking leaves, pruning perennials and trees, and pulling out dead annuals and putting all that refuse into a mulch pile where winter will silently turn it into compost. It means cleaning up the leavings of the past and turning them into nutrients for the future.

We change not so much by advice and insight, but by osmosis in which we absorb the process of change from others. A maimed veteran will more likely triumph over his or her disability if he or she is in the company of disabled conquerors. Being with transformative people is transformative in itself. Change is more likely caught than taught.

Just as psychotherapy is more about transformation than insight so it is more about process than issues, those processes by which we can transform our issues. Gardening is parsing the paradigm of the seasons of change. Paradoxically, the most productive season is winter in which the soil is given a rest to recuperate from the hustle and bustle of spring, summer, and autumn. Winter is a time to get ready for change, fruition, and harvest.

As we work through the seasons we see seeds transformed into plants, buds into flowers, blossoms into fruits, saplings into trees, and refuse into creation. As gardeners, we are part and parcel of the transformation. Everyday, each season, is a day and season of change, a change that seeps into our spirits through the dirt under our fingernails.

The therapy of gardening is more than a sanctuary or a refuge, it is a transformation by which gardening becomes a personal paradigm for parsing our archived memories into anticipations and fruitions.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Monday, October 16, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/4/06)

Skye Sieber knew what she wanted when she landscaped her yard. She wanted beauty, specifically a beautiful yard. She also wanted a yard with authenticity, one that was a fit for Flagstaff and faithful to the Colorado Plateau. For her efforts she received an honorable mention in Flagstaff’s recent Xeriscape Contest. As a daughter of the Mountain West she was already aware of the scarcity of water. However, she liked lush beauty which meant she wanted an abundance of foliage and flowers which needed little water. She discovered that the best way to create such a yard was to go native.

One of the first things she did was sign up for the Master Gardener Course so that she could find out how to create a lovely yard in Flagstaff. She listened to the people at the Arboretum and several of the commercial nurseries. Skye soaks up information.

As an environmental planner for the Forest Service in Flagstaff and active in the community, she is a woman with little time to spare for her garden. She wanted a lush, low maintenance, drought-tolerant, authentically Southwestern yard. She created one, not ex nihilo, but by evolution out of dirt, rocks, ground glass, flagstone, plants, and grass. As with most gardeners in Flagstaff, she began with the tohu wabohu (Genesis 1:2) of a developer’s detritus.

She didn’t set out with a completed design in her head. Hers was not a graph paper, T-square, and triangle design. However, she knew what she wanted. The design gradually unfolded in her mind’s eye as she began working in her yard, taking horticultural courses, and bending the ears of knowledgeable people. She terraced her front yard because she had a pile of dirt left over from putting in an additionally driveway. Using the volcanic rock she and her husband Todd gathered with a Forest Service permit from A-1 Mountain, she built a three-tiered series of terraces dominated by a humming bird mint (Agastache) complete with bees and hummers.

Her front yard is rife with color and texture, both in the plants and rocks. A “hell strip” between the driveway and walkway is planted with a colorful variety of Artemisia, cat mint (Nepeta cataria), and a few native plants.

Authenticity of design means as few straight lines as possible. Nature does not believe in straight lines, and neither does Skye. As with most houses, hers and Todd’s is a series of right angles and rectangles, but her yard strolls as though she were mimicking nature. The terraces in the front yard are curved and asymmetrical. The plantings in the rectangular hell-strip don’t march lock-step but appear random.

The backyard was designed with people in mind as well as beauty. A path winds amongst various plantings, passing, as it goes, an arbor, a small meadow, a couple of chairs, some penstemon and natives, and onto a bench. In the back of the yard in ascending raised beds are tomatoes, vegetables, and herbs.

Of course, a part of authenticity in Southwest gardening is collecting rainwater and composting. Tucked unobtrusively here and there are water barrels and bins. Behind the house are two handmade wooden frames topped with bent plastic pipe. When covered, they portend fresh greens during the winter months.

Without spending vast sums of money, but jamming her head with information, and using lots of imagination Skye evolved a design and brought it to fruition. She created a yard which is not only faithful to the Southwest, but which also as a thing of beauty is a haven for the human spirit.
Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2006

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/16/06)

As the delights of summer gradually wind down and the baleful beauty of autumn looms, the promises of a distant spring tantalize the High Country gardener, especially a garden salad garden of greens freshly picked moments before they are washed, tossed, and eaten. In short, it is never too early to plan and anticipate, the seed catalogue being the gardener’s harbinger of hope. While Eugene O’Neill was right about The Iceman Cometh, eventually The Iceman leaveth.

Lettuce, the basic ingredient of a garden salad, is easy to grow and can be seeded well before the widely predicted last frost in June. Surprisingly, while lettuce looks delicate, as with many delicate appearing beauties, it is hardy. As a cool weather vegetable it is a fit for Flagstaff. A great favorite is the loose-leaf Black Seeded Simpson (Lactuca sativa), a beautiful lime-green, loose-leaf, sweet-tasting lettuce with broad, crumpled, frilly leaves. First developed by a Mr. A. Simpson in New York in 1864, it is an all-American heirloom lettuce. In salads, as in all food, appearance makes for good taste, and Black Seeded Simpson visually invites the palate with flavorful promises.

Coupled with the succulent beauty of Black Seeded Simpson is the exotic elegance of Lollo Rossa, an Italian heirloom. A magenta-hued Mediterranean beauty, mild and sweet with a green interior edged in red, it is beguiles the eye with savory anticipations. Another good red leaf for a salad are the young leaves of the English heirloom beet, the Bull’s Blood (Beta vulgaris). Its leaves, as with its fruit, are deep maroon, sweet and dusky. The leaves can also be used in bouquets as a delightful backdrop to light-colored flowers. The fruit gives a salad, a hauntingly deep, rich color and taste.

Completing the lettuce roster is the Forellenschluss or the speckled trout lettuce. An Austrian heirloom, its broad, smooth chartreuse leaves are splashed with dusty red specks. Crisp and sweet, it is a delight to the eye as well as the tongue.

No delicious garden salad would be complete without cherry tomatoes, both red and yellow. The Siberian heirloom Galina (Lycopersicon lycopersicum) is yellow with a sweet, complex favor. Bill McDorman of Seeds Trust writing in Mother Earth News claims it is “arguably our most flavorful tomato.” Complementing the Galina is the Hybrid Sweet Baby Girl F1 which has been touted as the “world’s best tasting red cherry tomato.”

For carnivores a few thin strips of julienne delicatessen ham and Swiss cheese might garnish the salad. Croutons made of ciabatta bread add a nice chewy crunch to the salad. Lightly toss with a dressing of olive oil, a pinch of sugar, and balsamic vinegar. Two good dressings (Gretchen Anne’s and Hazel Marguerite’s) can be found at http://oldfartskitchen.blogspot.com.

A salad such as this would fetch $25.00 to $30.00 at fancy eateries in Sedona, Scottsdale, and West Los Angeles. However, in Flagstaff with some well-composted soil and a little elbow grease it would cost about $15.00 in seeds, not for just one salad, but for a whole summer of such salads. Bonne jardinage. Bon appetit..

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Sunday, August 20, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/19/06)

A few miles across Interstate 17 from Montezuma’s Castle a dead-end road leads through a waste of barren limestone hills to the turn-off to Tickaboo Ranch. At the turn-off a sign points to a gravel lane which passes by a large plexiglass-clad building on its way to a white ranch house set under a canopy of large trees. In front of the ranch house are a few cars, a battered farm truck, a rusted farm implement in a patch of weeds, and the beginning of a foot path leading around the house. The other side of the house is lush and verdant, reminiscent of a Middle Western farm. The path leads from the desert’s sere past a vast expanse of a shaded lawn, a pump house, a well-used wheel barrow, clumps of green grass, a tangle of forgotten wire fencing, a tractor, to a hedge row, an irrigation ditch, a small foot bridge, and a large green field on the banks of the Verde River.

Diane Scantlebury, the head honcho at the ranch, is accomplishing what the Sinagua people at Montezuma’s Castle tried to accomplish over six hundred years ago, sustainable agriculture, only hers is high tech in a plexiglass-clad building.

She is quick to point out that Tickaboo Ranch is also part old tech with a truck farm flourishing in the rich silt of the Verde River’s flood plain. There she grows tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, herbs, and melons for a local farmer’s market. The high tech part is in the hydroponic greenhouse, set transitionally between the barren limestone hills and the verdant spread of the old tech truck farm. Diane describes the difference as that between a model T and a supersonic jet. “Things happen in the greenhouse overnight, sometime faster than that. Stuff grows faster and dies faster. You’ve got to be vigilant. There’s nothing slow about hydroponics in a greenhouse, like lickety-split.”

The interior of the hydroponic green house resembles the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with savory and aromatic herbs cascading from the ceiling. High near the ceiling are the controls that manage the heat, the water flow, and the nutrient mix. Most of the hydroponic beds are vertical rather than horizontal. Containers of herbs are fastened to poles with nutrient-laden water dripping down one to another from pipes along the ceiling. Every which way there is something to savor and sniff at tongue and nose level.

The temperature in the greenhouse varies from one end to the other, depending upon the plants’ needs. The air near the entrance is warm and moist and gradually cools toward the far end as the produce goes from Genovese basil, to nasturtiums, and finally on to lettuce. The lettuce is grown in horizontal beds of water. On top of the watery beds are sheets of pressed plastic foam. Small holes in the sheets house the lettuce. For the most part the herbs in the green house are sold to high-end restaurants and grocery stores throughout northern Arizona.

Diane makes it very clear that she is running a business, not some pie-in-the-sky operation. Profit is the bottom line, but it’s not the motive. Raised on a family farm in northern Iowa she wants to reclaim for her children that which she relished as a child, but she wants something else, something in short supply in modern life. Perhaps, her purposes are best summed up in the Ute word for friendly, Tickaboo, friendly to the land and people. Rather than living by the compromising codes of modern corporations, she strives for an authenticity made possible through sustainable agriculture. She wants to work her own land.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/31/06)

Just as a watched pot never boils so a watched tomato never ripens. The virtue most important for gardeners is patience. Staring doesn’t work. Tomatoes aren’t easily intimidated. Sometimes those beautiful hard, yellow globes seem to hang on the vine ad infinitum. Tomatoes ripen by warmth, not sunlight, so the wait is for warmer temperatures which can be a difficult wait in the High Country. Nature, as with its Creator, has its own purposes, and they may not be the gardener’s. Gardening is not instant gratification.

However, some things can be done to assist the ripening and make the gardener feel useful. Tomato vines do a lot better, as with nearly everything else, if they are given the right care, such as a few light feedings during the growing season. Tomatoes don’t do well on a diet of fat fast food. The diet should be lean on nitrogen. Nitrogen causes the tomato vine to blimp out without producing many tomatoes, resulting in a high maintenance trophy which hangs around looking lush but doing nothing.

Regular watering avoids the feast and famine of wet and dry cycles which stunt the vine and thwart fruiting. It is important to avoid getting the leaves wet when watering because the sun might scald the leaves and wet leaves are an invitation to disease. Tomato vines are liquid feeders so dry fertilizers should be well watered-in.

Pruning the vines helps with the harvest. The principle in pruning is the same as it is in training athletes, an efficient use of energy. If runners wave their arms, they impede their speed and waste energy. A lot of excess branches drain energy away from producing fruit. Non-producing branches near the ground look messy and siphon off energy.

The purpose of pruning is to open up the tomato vine so that warm air can circulate within the vine to prevent moisture-borne diseases and to ripen the fruit. Also, one of the purposes of the leaves is to shield the delicate flowers and fruit from direct sun light. Pruning should not produce a skinny vine, but rather a vine open to the air and clothed enough with leaves to protect the fruit, something like sensible clothing.

Sometimes it is useful to think of a tomato vine as an adolescent in matters of nutrition, dress, cleanliness, and growth. Vines don’t do well in messy surroundings. Keep the space clean and picked up because filth is an avenue for disease. A sour smell is never good whether from tennis shoes or rotting leaves and fruit.

Ripening occurs, as with adolescents, in spurts. All of a sudden, wham, bam, overnight a tomato turns from hard yellow to red luscious. When it’s growing, it’s a hard yellow. On reaching full size the tomato turns green and begins to ripen because of an internally produced gas called ethylene. In the twinkling of an eye a sweet, docile child can turn into a defiant adolescent because of those internally produced hormones. When the fruit turns half green and half pinkish red, the tomato stem is sealed off from the main vine. From then on the ripening takes place either off or on the vine. Waiting for the tomato to turn red on the vine is not a vine ripened tomato because the tomato matures of its own inner dynamics. Sometimes it is better to harvest tomatoes in this “breaker stage” to prevent splitting and to control the ripening process indoors.

Tomato vines are the gardener’s babies. Staring, intimidation, and cursing don’t produce children in which a parent can take pride. If they are well cared for and loved to a fault, eventually they will do well. However, eventually everything is in the hands of an Unseen Power who has no name and over whom a gardener has no control.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/10/06)

Mulch merits a good word. As the plain friend of the high country gardener, it doesn’t have a rose’s beauty, a gardenia’s aroma, or a tomato’s taste. It can’t whistle like the pines. It doesn’t even feel good on bare feet like cool, soft, damp grass on a hot summer’s afternoon. Mulch’s problem is akin to that of a garage floor. Few people notice it. No one ever says of a garage floor or mulch, “Look at that beauty!’” “What a gorgeous color!” “Just smell the aroma!” “It’s to die for!”

However, mulch is worth its weight in gold. Not only does it keep the soil warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot, it also keeps the soil moist and suppresses weeds. And under special circumstances it can even steep tea.

Mulch isn’t even second banana to all the first bananas and luminaries in the garden’s show. Nurseries pile it in big plastic bags out by the parking lot along with the steer manure. It’s never sold alongside elegant delphiniums or massed pansies. It’s stuck out by the gutter just like a garbage can. It needs a good word.

Although the word mulch sounds organic, it is more than that. Versatile mulch can morph into rocks, plastic, wood and bark chips, anything that will cover the soil to protect it. Some people like to live in a rock pile, mulching their whole yards with rocks to save on water and keep down the weeds. Strawberry fields are mulched with plastic. The problem with rocks and plastic in the yard is that they reflect and hold the heat. A landscape of rocks is the thermal equivalent of living in a granite canyon on a hot day down in the Valley of the Sun.

More versatile mulches are chips, sawdust, vintage manure, duff, bark, pine needles, leaves, and compost. Plastic and rocks are very useful in special circumstances, but they do not add nutrients to the soil as do the other mulches. They simply cover the joint.

Weeds are the trial of every gardener. Suppressing weeds is a biggy, and mulch is the best available weed suppresser. Chips, bark, pile needles, and sawdust take a long time to turn into nutrient rich mulch, but they cover the ground well. Moldering duff and leaves decompose and release their nutrients faster. Vintage manure and compost are winners in the decomposition race, but compost is the richest. Every time vintage manure and compost are watered, they gradually steep a nutritious tea, not fit for human consumption, which seeps into the earth enriching it with natural nutrients.

Pine bark, chips, and sawdust may carry the bark beetle insects and should be sterilized in a sealed black trash bag for a couple of weeks before spreading them as mulch. Poisoning the earth with weed killers is an example of the dictum that human beings are the only animals who foul their own nests. Steer, chicken, and horse manures are best used when they’re at least four years old or composted. The weed seeds will be killed and the animal waste won’t be “hot” or harsh.

As a triple threat, any mulch will suppress weeds, warm or cool the soil, and save on water. However, mulch of vintage manure or compost is a quintuple threat. It suppresses the weeds, cools or warms the soil, supplies nutrients, saves on water, and enriches the soil with organic matter. By the way, aged elephant dung hands down is the best. So go for it!

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Friday, May 12, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/12/06)

As with all high maintenance trophies, tomatoes expect luxury, especially the luxuries of food and bed. Tomatoes do not do well in beds of hard Coconino concrete (sandstone), with mattresses of volcanic rubble, or on ticking of red clay. They thrive in the best of soils which means soil amended with compost or imported. Even imported soil should be amended. The compost can be store-bought or home-made; however, home-made is best. Sometimes, store-bought compost has fillers, such as sawdust. Also, often the imported soil isn’t much good, either. Just because some guy has a dump truck full of dirt doesn’t mean the dirt is any good. Dirt has lineage, ancestry, and genealogy like anyone else, and its origins and history should be checked out.

If tomato plants are going to be bedded in the ground, it should be warmed for several days beforehand with a blanket of clear or black plastic. If in a container, the container and the soil in it should be heated for several days beforehand by enshrouding it in a black or clear plastic bag to destroy any lingering bugs and to welcome the tomato plant with a warm bed.

Tomatoes also like to be well and carefully fed. No mess hall fare or chow line, certainly no MRE’s or K-rations. A high nitrogen fertilizer will help start the plant off well, but as soon as the plant is off to a good start, the best fertilizer ratio is low on nitrogen (N), high on phosphorous (P), and medium to high on potassium (K). Too much nitrogen will produce a beautiful trophy which does nothing except hang around the garden looking beautiful sans tomatoes. Although harder to manage, natural fertilizers are better rather than chemical as a means of keeping friendly mycorrhizae (fungus roots) in balance around the plant’s roots.

In Flagstaff and on the Colorado Plateau short-season
varieties of tomatoes do best because the growing season is so short. This sadly means that a lot of old favorites from back home are chancy in the High Country, especially those coming from soft, sultry climes. Many tomato varieties, like the Vamp of Savannah, like it “nice and warm,” but in the High Country Vamps can be hazardous to a gardener’s emotional well-being. Tough trophies do best. Vamps “tease them and thrill ‘em,” but then “torture and kill ‘em.”

Early Girl Hybrid (FV) and Big Boy Hybrid are popular short-season varieties. Several Siberian tomatoes, such as Galina, Market Miracle, Glasnost, and Perestroika are short-season. Seeds for these Siberians can be obtained from Seeds Trust in Cornville, AZ, at www.seedstrust.com or (928) 649-3315. Siberia is an excellent training ground for the High Country. Nichols Garden Nursery at www.nicholsgardennursery.com or (800) 422-3985 offers two short season varieties, SunSugar Hybrid (62 days) and Sweet Baby Girl F1 Hybrid (65 days.)

Nurseries offer a limited number of varieties. Seeds offer more variety. Seeds can be started indoors in peat moss, vermiculite, or potting soil six to eight weeks before planting outside after the danger of frost is past. Any south-facing window sill will do. However, if picking tomato plants from a nursery, choose sturdy, dark green plants. Avoid leggy plants and be sure to check for insects, looking on the underside of the leaves. Nurseries as with hospitals often incubate maladies.

A big advantage to growing tomatoes in Flagstaff and on the Colorado Plateau is few diseases. The harsh weather (low humidity, wind, and frost) does bad things to pests as well as tomatoes. For the few fungi and sucking pests nicotine spray or insecticidal soap can be effective. The various worms can be picked off by hand. High maintenance trophies don’t like bugs crawling over them.

The prices of growing tomatoes are great, but when successful, the fruit of the vine is worth the work, worry, and anxiety. It is luscious to eat, piquant to taste, beautifully shaped, wonderfully colored, and chock full of human nutrients.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith (2006)

Sunday, April 16, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next tomato beds, fertilizer, bugs, and varieties.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Sunday, April 02, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Monday, March 27, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/19/06)

During my internship at UCLA’s Neuro-psychiatric Institute one thing became clear to me. Most of the stuff that really counts is unseen and unheard. In psychodynamic terms the stuff that really counts is in the unconscious. In horticultural terms it’s in the mycorrhizosphere.

The mycorrhizosphere, the soil around a plant’s root, is where the mycorrhizae do their thing, good or bad. Mycorrhizae are literally “fungus roots.” NAU’s Prof. Nancy C. Johnson, a leading researcher in mycorrhizae, calls them “symbiotic associations” or cooperative life-sustaining systems in which both plants and fungal communities around the plant’s roots can benefit. They’re akin in psychodynamics to unconscious associations.

Mycorrhizal associations affect a plant’s ability to acquire mineral nutrients from the soil. When mutualistic, that is, cooperative, the plants gain nutrients with help from the fungi, and the fungi gain carbohydrates from the plants. A balanced relationship of mutual gains for the plants and fungi is something like a functional family in which everyone gets what they need to thrive. However, sometimes a family loses its equilibrium, becoming dysfunctional, when some members are given special attention, good or bad. Plants often need specific chemical nutrients, such as nitrogen or phosphorus, for plant growth or flowering and fruiting. When added to the soil, the balance in the relationship between the plants and their fungal partners can be inadvertently changed with some plants deprived of what they need to thrive.

New Year’s resolutions don’t often work because the unconscious mind subverts the conscious mind. The conscious mind wants to lose weight, but the unconscious mind craves cool, soothing ice cream after a buzz saw day. As a professor once said, “The mind’s like an iceberg, ten percent shows, but that unseen ninety percent calls the shots.” So it is that gardeners should pay mind to those symbiotic associations beneath the garden’s surface.

Paradoxically, it turns out that repeated use of chemical fertilizers can create colonies of parasitic mycorrhizae just as repeated broken resolutions can breed a sense of defeat. It’s called the Law of Unintended Consequences which means that chemical fertilizers are not, as advertised, always horticulturally friendly. Prof. Johnson and her students are discovering that the ratio between available phosphorus and nitrogen may affect the outcome of fertilization. Mycorrhizae seem to be more mutualistic when phosphorus is in shorter supply than nitrogen relative to the plant’s needs.

As common sense tells us, relationships are the key to life underground and in the unconscious. Salvador Dali graphically illustrated the unconscious associations in his early Surrealistic painting Persistence of Memory. Melting watches are set against the backdrop of a horizon in which sky and sea are fused in a timeless continuum. It may puzzle the conscious mind, but the unconscious understands a sense of time melting in the face of timelessness.

Great basketball players don’t deliberately think through their moves, calculating the physics of thrust, velocity, and parabolic curves. They seemingly shoot baskets on the spur of the moment, trusting their unconscious processes with their mutualistic associations of continuing practice.

Mycorrhizal fungi sleep in beds with the roots of a plant, intimately associated with and actually becoming a part of the roots as they help move nutrients from the soil into the plant. They also enrich of the soil with organic matter by building networks of thread-like mycelia, interwoven vegetative masses of tubular filaments resembling pieces of modern art or spider webs gone wild. When mutualistic they nourish plants as well as soils.

While our soil on the Colorado Plateau may be short on organic matter, it is rich with many different types of mycorrhizal fungi. Good gardening helps these underground allies stimulate their mutualistic, not parasitic, associations. This means reducing the use of inorganic phosphorus fertilizers and using instead more organic amendments and compost with ample nitrogen and less phosphorus to help the development of mutualistic mycorrhizopheres.

As Plato observed long ago, appearance is not always reality. Horticultural reality is, also, not always in the appearance, but often in the mycorrhizosphere where fertility is natural, not artificial, organic rather than chemical.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

Sunday, February 19, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/19/06)

When my wife, Gretchen, passes my composters, a sky-hook is attached to her nose. She makes comments beginning with phrases, such as "Why did you?" and "What on earth are you?" or the word "Ugh!" However, she likes the results. The other day she stamped her foot, flaired her nostrils, flared her red hair, and cougared her green eyes when she demanded that I give her some compost for her flower barrel. The final accolade came when she said, "You know, this stuff of yours really smells sweet."

At first my composters got out of hand and really stunk, but now that I’ve gotten the hang of things they don’t stink anymore. Early in my composting career I used too much nitrogen material. During those stinky times Gretchen called me "Fly Face" because of the flies hanging around the composters. She didn’t know she dated herself to 1960 when Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy was in vogue and General Eisenhower was President. "Fly Face" was a criminal with flies circling his face.

Last fall, things came to a head when I began composting on top of the ground. The bins were full, and I wasn’t about dispatch my tomato and zucchini vines and sunflower stocks to the cruel machinations of Environmental Services. I dug shallow trenches on the vacant vegetable beds, dumped in garden clippings, coffee grounds, and tea leaves, and covered them with soil. Soon they were cooking, slowly.

Then Gretchen remembered that her beloved grandmother, Flo, a Kentuckian who plugged rattlesnakes and rodents around her house with a shotgun, dropped kitchen scraps on a pile in her back yard. Grandma Flo had a great vegetable garden. Aha! Now, since it was good enough for her Grandma, it was good enough for me. However, I wouldn’t recommend Grandma Flo’s method unless one craves a rodent-feeding site.

So by messing around I found a slow-cooker way to compost besides hot bins from the city. It was trenches on vacant vegetable beds. Even in winter microbuggies toil away in hot bins sending up clouds of steam and yielding mature compost about every three weeks. The trenches filled with yard clippings crock pot all winter long, yielding their goodies in the spring.

More sophisticated, slow-cooker gardeners build three-sided bins, usually of concrete blocks or spare lumber. They toss organic material in the bins, turning it now and then, producing great compost in the spring, summer, and fall.

An indoor form of composting is called vermicomposting or worm casting which is not fly-casting. First, get a wormery, either home-made or store-bought. The home-made variety can be made from a small plastic container with the approximate dimensions of 14 inches wide by 21 inches deep by 9 inches high. Drill a couple of holes in each side and cover them with a screen. Duck tape holds the screen in place. Since the worms like it dark, keep the lid.

Next, shred newspapers to three times the side of the container. Then in another container dampen the shredded newspapers and put them in the bin, making sure the dampened newspapers aren’t soppy and matted. Watch for puddles on the bottom. Now, that the wormery’s beds are made, it’s ready for guests.

The best guest worms are red wigglers (eisenia foetida), not earthworms. They can be purchased on the Internet or by phone through the mail. One Internet site is www.happydranch.com. Two pounds or two thousand worms are best for the size container mentioned above.

The worms must be fed to get castings. In and out. They like minced left-over vegetables and fruits. No meat, dairy, fat, salt, or citrus. Small amounts of coffee grounds and soil are good for the worms’ gizzards.

Worms like air so the wet newspapers should be fluffed now and then. Keep the wormery away from vibrating contrivances. The temperature is best kept between 68-72 degrees as in a garage or under a sink.

After a few months, harvesting the castings is a cinch. Move all the material to one side of the womery, add fresh newspaper to the other side, and feed on the new side. The worms will migrate to the new side and the castings can be harvested from the old side.

Composting with worms is a sure-fire hit with small children. Most children like the squiggling, wiggling things. They like growing things, too. In addition to home entertainment, the worm castings are very rich and are useful for enriching the soil, especially in window sill gardens.

Now, that we are in a fearful drought, compost is the way to go. By adding organic matter, the soil retains moisture effectively as well getting fertilized.

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2006

Sunday, February 12, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/1/05)

My wife thinks I’m crazy. She may be right. Sometimes she is although not as often as she thinks. The reason for her diagnosis (obsessive-compulsive) is that I dug up my four sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) plants, potted them, and took them in the house. Gretchen doesn’t understand that craziness is often a sign of genius. As a matter of fact, she elicits sympathy from her friends all while clipping off sweet basil leaves.

One sweet basil went in the garage on a wall next to the den under a grow light, another next to a south-facing, sliding glass door in the dining room, and the other two on the south-east-facing window sill of my study. All of them are flourishing.

Next, I potted a dill (Anethium graveolens) about five feet tall. Gretchen thought I had really lost it with the dill. First, I put it in the garage under the grow light. Then I moved it into my study where my wife has no decorating and design authority which has not prevented her from voicing her opinions and making occasional clean-sweep sorties.

However, seeing it’s airy elegance and grace, she allowed me to put it in the dining room next to the sweet basil. She even harvested some of the dill seeds for the tomato juice she was making from our excess tomatoes with her mother’s vintage Foley Food Mill. The sweet basil and dill are additions of beauty, aroma, and vitality to a winter’s room, especially set against brown fields autumned of green.

Next, I potted my parsley (Petroselinium crispum) and set it on my window sill. However, since it’s a biennial in it’s second year, I don’t hold out much hope for it’s future. Then I took an already potted mint (Mentha piperita) in the house. However, it suffered a couple of nights outside in the cold under 32 degrees. I’m now nursing it back to flourishing health. Next, I potted the chives (Allium schoenoprasium) where it sits next to my printer. Finally, I potted the cilantro (Coriandrum satrium) and brought it into my study. It’s doing well. I had to stop my transplanting, containerized project because I ran out of window sills permitted by Martha Stewart Redux.

What did I inadvertantly do right? We have a humidifier sitting in the dining room apparently supplying enough humidity for plants, humans, our three-legged dog Roxie, and various spiders. Also, in the garage I carelessly left an open bucket of water. The plants get enough humidity and sunlight (real and fake). The ones in the dining room are doing best.

They were doing so well that I suggested to Gretchen bringing the three containerized tomato plants from the garage into the dining room. She replied, "I’m putting my foot down on that one. No!" I didn’t see her foot hit the floor, but I did see a throbbing jugular and flared nostrils, hear a high-pitched voice, and see her green eyes turning cougarish. I dreamt that night of turning the dining room into a greenhouse and the garage a dining room. I kept my dreams to myself aware that genius is often unrecognized.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (1/30/06)

After a triple bypass and retirement Gretchen and I moved to Flagstaff, a new house and yard. When I shoveled the dirt, my heart sank. I felt the same way the Friday my drill instructor shredded my weekend pass when I was 17. Rather than a hot date, I policed a barren parade ground for cigarette butts. On maneuvers, I had suggested to Sgt. Staatz, an irascible, surly, sour, harsh, saturnine battle-tested SOB, that his infantry tactics were wrong based on my high school ROTC courses. Eventually, I become a Sgt/Maj, Special Troops, becoming in part that which I earlier despised, an experience both disquieting and humbling and, also, an experience not uncommon.

Sullen and surly, my yard was volcanic detritus dumped by the contractor on top of native clay. Patches of clay showed through the debris, like concrete patches in peeling linoleum floors. My yard had the cast of that barren parade ground. As Yogi Berra said, it was deja vu all over again.

Sharpies with toothpicks stuck in the corner of their mouths happened by selling dirt and rocks from a dump truck. I wasn’t inclined to buy either dirt or rocks. My soil was up to me.

I knew good soil. While studying for my doctorate at the University of Chicago, I served a country church amongst the corn, cattle, swine of Illinois. Sadly, at the time I was too busy with Plato and Saint Augustine to treasure black loam and peat bogs.

The forest floor behind our house is covered with slowly decomposing pine needles. After raking off the top layer, I mined the old bottom duff. Knowing the trees needed duff as much as I wanted it, I raked the top back.

For texture, I began mixing my soil using volcanic ash for lightness, clay for heft, and old pine needles for body. Sadly, I had no silt. By divine providence I encountered Hattie Braun, Chief Master Gardener, and Ellen Ryan, Flagstaff’s Head Composting Honcho. Their message: composting is essentially returning to the soil that which it has given us, making it rich. I bought two composting bins from the city. Eureka! Now, I began making my soil rich.

Key to the science of composting is the 3-1 ratio by volume of carbon to nitrogen. Charts about the 3-1 ratio in organic materials are easily available. Nitrogen, commonly called green, inspires microbuggies to work on complex carbon compounds, called brown, making them available as simpler nutrients for the plants. Precisely measuring the ratio of carbon to nitrogen is difficult with a shovel. Horse manure, kitchen scraps (no meat), brewery barley mash, clippings from the garden (no dog poop), dumpster diving treasures, buckets of coffee grounds, and the like, make measuring approximate. Science becomes an art with a palette of three senses, feeling, smelling, seeing. No tasting and hearing.

Tiny microbuggies mining the carbon deep in the compost pile work up a sweat, steaming the pile. Without nitrogen the microscopic critters will quit as the pile goes cold. Too much carbon without enough nitrogen "slow walks" the composting as the microbuggies loaf. Too much nitrogen which is volatile paradoxically causes a loss of nitrogen, resulting in smelly ammonia and buzzing flies.

Microbuggies need moisture, but beware of the dreaded extremes: wet and soggy. Wet will drown the microcritters. Nitrogen materials tend toward moisture while carbon materials tend toward dryness. Also, water is heavy, seeping down the pile, making soggy bottoms and dry tops. Turning the pile is a cure for soggy bottoms. If the pile is wet, it’ll sour and draw flies. Sour stinks with the sweet rank of putrefaction, not the rich aroma of decomposition. A good rule-of-thumb for measuring moisture is the feel of a washcloth firmly wrung out, moist but not wet. Usually, the organic stuff thrown in the composer will supply enough moisture, but if it’s dry, add a little water. If it’s wet, add some dry stuff like vintage horse manure.

The microbuggies mining deep in the compost pile need oxygen so the pile has to be turned now and then to get them fresh air. A pitch fork is best for stirring up an aerated whing-ding composting microbug-o-rama.

Good compost smells like newly turned earth in the spring, looks like dark loam, and feels like crumbles. As with martial arts, composting draws on nature’s energy rather than assaulting it with chemicals.

Raised beds rich with dark lustrous soil, producing bounties of vegetables and flowers, are composting’s rewards along with a sense of presence at the creation.

By the way, the generic scientific names for these microorganisms are aerobes, thermophiles, and bacteria.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Monday, January 30, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/5/05)

The design of the gardens at the Tozan Tea House begins with tea, more accurately, the experience of drinking tea. First, there is the tea bowl, then the kiln to make the tea bowl, then the tea house in which to drink the tea, and the finally the garden embracing the tea house. For the Japanese, the experience of drinking tea is not just consuming a pleasant beverage, as in having a "cuppa", but an experience of rootedness and connectedness within oneself, a getting one’s bearings, a regaining of one’s temper after having lost it.

Coffee is for energy, tea for composure.

Since the tea is served in a bowl, rather than a cup, drinking tea is a two-handed experience. Unlike the cup which is kept at a distance and raised to the lips as though it were a foreign object akin to a knife or fork, drinking tea from a bowl requires that people draw the bowl to themselves, warming their hands, encompassed in the experience.

Now, to an American eye the garden at the Tozan Tea House is not yet developed, but to a Japanese eye the garden is already there in the way the land lies, the grasses, the bushes, and the trees, and, oh yes, the rocks and critters. Rather than impose a foreign, geometrical grid on the land, a Japanese design draws its form from the lay the land. Much as a wise parent rears a child, the gardener cultivates the land’s gifts, drawing out rather than an imposing upon.

The design’s purpose is lucidity. Form and economy are the means used to accomplish the lucidity. The lines of the design reflect the contours of the land, not merely replicating them, but enhancing them, using the old principle of compare and contrast, rather than duplication and contradiction.

Since Japan is a group of small, heavily populated islands, land is used economically, drawing from it, rather than replacing it. Unlike the Western experience in which land is thought inexhaustible, as in a housing subdivision in which the land is cleared and regimentally planted, the Japanese conserve the land knowing it is finite. The tea house’s garden is indigenous, the tea house and its garden reflecting the land’s contours, flora, and fauna. Instead of being a beautiful picture painted by the designer at which people look, the tea house garden is an experience.

William Temple, the late, great Archbishop of Canterbury, in his commentary of the Gospel of John wrote of lucidity, "To life steadily and to see it whole." Seeing life steadily and seeing it whole is the heart of the experience of tea at the tea house and its garden.

The garden is brain-child of Dr. Don Bendel, professor emeritus of ceramics at NAU and his alter ego, the late Yukio Yamamoto, master potter of the Tozan Kilns in Japan.

Located at the bottom of a hill just off Lonetree Road on the NAU campus, the first step into the Tozan Tea House’s garden is a few paces from the giant, wood-fired kilns where the tea bowls are fired. The garden encloses a rising path past the ceramic studio where the bowls are thrown. The path then crosses over an earthen and wooden bridge and on up to the Tozan Tea House.

Since the Tozan Tea House is set on a rise, it offers vantage from which people can see not only the trees, but also through them, and beyond them to the forest.

The lintel of one of the doors into the Tozan Tea House is low which by tradition was for the use of the samurai warriors. They could not get through the door with their swords forcing them to leave their swords outside. Similarly, a Navajo was once asked why the entrances into the hogans were so low. The Navajo replied, "So that when people enter our homes, they must kneel." Such is the tea house. No body armor. No pretenses.

The quiet experience of the garden at Tozan Tea House is necessary for lucidity. Since the garden is at peace with the land, people can be at peace with themselves and gain that lucidity to see life steadily and to see it whole.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005

Sunday, January 29, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/20/05)

Beauty is often touched by tragedy, such as in the building of the Tozan Tea House and Garden. The tragedy was the death by leukemia of Aaron Macy, a promising young ceramics student at NAU who was coming of age as a potter. His father, Douglas Macy, a well-known landscape architect in Portland, Oregon, grieving his son’s death, wanted to memorialize his son with a legacy of beauty. At the suggestion of Don Bendel and Jason Hess of NAU’s ceramics department, he agreed to supervise the construction of the Tozan Tea House and Garden in his son’s memory.

With the 1989 blueprints of Hirotomi Ichikawa, the famous Japanese landscape archictect, already in hand, Douglas Macy began the cultural and horticultural translation of a tea house and garden from Japan to Flagstaff. Funded by Betty Peckard and other donors from Japan and America, the project lurched ahead over the years.

Serendipitously, Brad Blake and Phil Patterson from the NAU Research Greenhouses, discovered the project and offered their services in securing plants apropos to Flagstaff. As with any good translation, the garden’s design and plantings had to be faithful to the original as well as to the new. Now, some cognoscenti are likely to say, "Something’s going to be lost in the translation," as though there is no plant indigenous or adaptable to Northern Arizona that would quite do the trick as well as a plant native to Japan. However, often as not, something is also gained in translation. So it is with the Garden of Tozan Tea House.

One of the principles of Japanese landscaping is using plants native to the site. Thus, the Tozan Tea House Garden is not a tit-for-tat, literal translation, but rather a faithful adaptation. Happily, much of the garden’s land is undisturbed so that the garden is covered with native ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), pinyon pine (Pinus eduliis), and Gambel oak (Querius gambelii). The understory includes various penstemons and wildflowers along with native grasses, such as mutton grass (Poa fendleriana), muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillariis), and spike muhly (Muhlenbergia wrightii).

The land immediately around a Japanese tea house is planted with grass. The land around Tozan Tea House which sets atop a knob has been planted with Arizona fescue (Festuca arizonica). A hedge customarily flows in parabolic curves through the grounds of Japanese tea house garden as though to draw the eye beyond a tight defensive circle of fear and to shield it from the distractions of the huly-burly. Since hedges are not native, a hedge cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lucidus) was used. A low water plant, it hails from Siberia, Eastern Asia, and the Caucacus, a hardy horticultural immigrant for the Colorado Plateau. Finally, along Lone Tree Road a line of New Mexican Locusts (Robinia neomexicana)and Riles Roses (unknown) from the NAU campus will buffer the garden.

A good translation always begins literally, but then transcends into style. The gain for Flagstaff is not in the plants, that is, in the content, but in the style or process. Ultimately, reality is in process, not content. How a thing is said is more important than what it said. The Tozan Tea House and Garden give everyone the opportunity to see the familiar in a new and different way, to see life steadily and to see it whole, to take the parabolic curve beyond the perimeters of paranoia into the journey of freedom, to travel into the outer reaches of inner space.

The Tozan Tea House Garden is Japanese in essence in it’s form and economy, and Southwestern in it’s horticultural language. It offers the lucicidty of simplicity, as in Occam’s Razor and Robert Browning’s "less is more," remembering that profusion leads to confusion. The Garden also offers that lucidity in the beauty of the Colorado Plateau.

The Tozan Tea House and Garden are located on Lone Tree Road, south of Pine Knoll Road and the right hand side of the road.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005

Monday, January 16, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/22/05)

The spice of life is closer than most of us think, as close as window sills, backyards, patios, decks, balconies, or garages. It can be in pots, planters, window boxes, tubs, plots, under grow lights, and hydroponically in water. It’s in our herb gardens.

"Variety’s the very spice of life\That gives it all its flavor" wrote William Cowper, an 18th century English poet, sometime lunatic, marginal theologian, and avid gardener. A variety of herbs spice our food from eggs to babybacks. Of course, fresh herbs are spicier than dried, commercially-packaged herbs, just as living human beings are more piquant than mummies and a lot less expensive. One of the delights of an herb garden is picking the herbs, rubbing them between our thumbs and forefingers, and savoring the aroma.

While most people don’t grow their own vegetables, they can easily grow their own herbs. As for growing herbs, there are three kinds, perennials, biennials, and annuals. As with children they are better off in separate beds in different bedrooms. Annuals mature in one season and then die. Their beds should be replenished each year with compost and other organic material to lighten the soil. Fertilizer should be used sparingly. Highly fertile soil produces excessive foliage with poor flavor.

Biennials live for two seasons, coming of age the second year. Their beds can be renewed every two years. Perennials return every year. Their beds cannot so easily be renewed. The whole bed has to be dismantled, digging up everything and replenishing the soil, and then replanted. Renewing a perennial bed is arduous and should only be undertaken every few years.

Annuals and biennials tend to be more shallowly rooted than perennials. The perennials’ roots explore the earth more deeply in search of moisture and nutrients than annuals. Annuals like moist, not wet, soil and perennials good drainage which means that the best beds, as all beds, are raised off the garden’s floor.

Most herbs come from softer climes, such as the Mediterranean Basin, which means that herbs on the Colorado Plateau like warm beds, such as beds of rocks which hold the heat during cool nights. Happily, on the Colorado Plateau there are plenty of hot rocks.

Not only are there perennials, biennials, and annuals, there are many classes of herbs, culinary, aromatic, ornamental, and medicinal. Our first concern is oft-used culinary herbs, such as the popular biennial parsley (Petroselinium crispum) and the perennial sage (Salvia officinalis).

Other commonly used culinary herbs are the perennial chives (Allium schoenoprasum), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), oregano (Origanum vulgare), lovage (Levisticum officinale), peppermint (Mentha piperita), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).

Widely-used annual culinary herbs are sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), dill (Anethum graveolens), sweet marjoram (Marorana hortensis), cilantro/coriander (Coriandrum sativum), cilantro the leaves and coriander the seeds, fennel (Foeniculum dulce), and summer savory (Satureja hortensis).

Rosemary, a tender perennial, does not winter well on the Colorado Plateau and is best potted and taken in the house when cold weather looms. Also, peppermint is a control-freak with no sense of boundaries and is best restricted in a pot. If not, for all of its aromatic and gustatory charms, it will take over and become a noxious weed.

Esthetically, herb gardens are best encased in rock gardens. Better yet, herb gardens as rock gardens are best set on slopes of land. Slopes allow for good drainage with different degrees of moisture from top to bottom. The result are gardens delighting the eye as well as the nose and palate.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/10/05)

Now that the spade bounces off the dirt with a ping, there’s no denying winter has set in. In addition to skiing, it means the time has come to trick Mother Nature a smidge, not so that she’d notice, but enough to plant an herb garden indoors. Some people wait for spring to plant, but with a little bit of luck we can not only get to the church on time, but also have an herb garden while ice is still on the pond. If a greenhouse isn’t available, horticultural tricks can be played on south-facing window sills. If there aren’t south-facing windows, then west-facing or east-facing will do with help from florescent and/or grow lights.

Unless there are an endless number of sunlit window sills, the first step for indoor gardening is selecting a few cherished herbs. Some cherished annuals might include sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), dill (Anethum graveolens), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), and parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Coriander doubles with seeds (coriander) and leaves (cilantro). Fresh cilantro and parsley are relatively cheap in the market so probably aren’t worth the effort except for cilantro or parsley freaks. That leaves the pricey fresh sweet basil and dill herbs. They are best started with seeds.

Some cherished perennials are chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and mint (Mentha piperita). At first they don’t take up much space on the window sill, but mint likes to spread. Happily both can be divided. Chives are propagated either by seeds or cuttings, but mint is best by cuttings. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and sage (Salvia officinalis) are woody, requiring too much space for a sill. Both are propagated by seeds and cuttings. Cuttings are faster.

Herbs like temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees F, a nightly hazard for window sills. Next to a window pane temperatures might go below 50 degrees F. The trick is to protect them or move them away from windows at night. The daytime temperatures are best kept at 65 to 70 degrees F.

Potted herbs require good drainage or else the roots will rot, the plants wilt, and the pots stink. Avoiding this calamity means holes in the bottom of the pot along with a basin to catch the runoff. After a few minutes pour off water in the basin to avoid root rot. A good soil for drainage is part potting soil and part perlite. Herbs should be thoroughly watered when the surface of the soil is dry. Light watering often kills plants. The herbs should be fertilized with weak fish emulsion once a month. If a day is warm, letting in a little fresh air now and then helps make the herbs think they’re outside. Winters require patience. Tricked herbs grow slowly.

Most herbs require at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. The window sill has to catch as much of the sun as possible from early morning to late afternoon. Happily, the intense sunlight in Flagstaff is a plus, but again sometimes a florescent or grow light helps. Mint, rosemary, and parsley require less light and can be placed at the edges of the sill.

Pests are best treated with insecticidal soap on both sides of the leaves. The herbs can still be eaten when the insecticidal soap is washed off, but if a systemic poison is used, the result is poisoned and poisoning herbs. Culinary homicide is a big time no-no. If a plague of white flies or the like occur, dump everything in the garbage pail pronto.

Harriet Young, retired adjunct professor of political science at NAU and chair of the Coconino County Democratic Committee, sticks #2 pencils in her pots, as do the Cajuns, theorizing the cedar in the pencils offends pests, just as it does moths.

Since the air indoors during the winter is dry, a squirt bottle of water is helpful in creating humidity by misting around the herbs but not on them. Tricking Mother Nature is always tricky, and sometime fatal, but the hazards of indoor gardening are so trivial that the gustatory delights of fresh herbs make the risks worthwhile. The alternative is hunkering down until spring.

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2005
DEBBIE GROSSHAUSER, a Walking Green Thumb

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/9/2005)

Debbie Grosshauser’s a walking green thumb. A tall, slim, fair-skinned attractive woman with three small children, she transformed her front yard from a hole in the ground into a garden sanctuary. With occasional help from her artist husband, visiting relatives, and a rock-hauling day laborer, she developed a beckoning rock garden with a small lawn and a inviting bench.

Beginning with a bleak moonscape akin to a miniature Meteor Crater, she’s been creating her garden gradually, not creatio ex nihilo all at once, but, more dauntingly, slowly out of a contractor’s leftover antimatter. Put simply, she made lemonade out of a lemon.

Her secret is creating by evolution, not by the fiat of a pricey professional landscaper. She said, "You know, you can tell a professionally landscaped garden. It looks like all the other professionally landscaped gardens. They must all follow some kind of geometric formula rather trusting their creativity. God didn’t make geometrical landscapes." Creatively, Debbie didn’t speak and it was so. Rather, she’s been working at her garden piece by piece over several years with the result that her garden reflects her image.

She said, "As I was working away on my rock terraces, a neighbor who moved in about the same time I did came by and told me triumphantly that her garden was just about finished. I thought, ‘poor woman.’ The joy of gardening is in the gardening. Happily, it’s never finished."

Debbie’s intelligent design has evolved as her garden has evolved. In the beginning, when she and her husband moved to Flagstaff from Helena, Montana, she bought some plants at the Arboretum’s plant sale. They were still staying in a motel at the time awaiting the completion of their house. "I just wanted some beauty in that dismal mess the contractor left us." After planting her horticultural treasures, she went down into her front yard pit and found herself envisioning a terraced rock garden.

Ironically, she’s grateful for Flagstaff’s longer growing season compared to Montana’s. When she hears Flagstaff’s horticultural whiners complain about Flagstaff’s short growing season, she rolls her eyes because Helena’s is about a month shorter with ground freezing in October and thawing in June. She said, "I had such a beautiful garden there that I was anxious to make one here. I missed it’s beauty and the pleasure of gardening."

Her colorful garden has evolved as she has moved from annuals to perennials, especially water-wise perennials. She says, "Most people don’t realize the beauty and drama of drought-tolerant plants. Take, for instance, a Russian sage, it’s so bright, easy to grow, and arresting. You can’t miss it. " The myriad of flowering plants cascading down the rock terraces of her front-yard garden puts the truth to her statement.

She doesn’t mind transplanting. She said that good gardeners have to transplant for several reasons. Evolutionary gardening allows for mistakes which fiat gardening doesn’t. First of all, the plant just may not work out. "Like an eraser of a pencil, sometimes we have to admit we made a mistake. We just may find that as our gardens evolve, plants will do better and look better in different places."

Debbie is not only an evolving creator, she also collector of plants. She cruises the local nurseries, looking for new plants. As a collector, she finds the personalities of her friends in her collections, each new plant calling to mind a friend. As she tends to her garden, she is also working amongst friends.

Although her front yard was mass of rocks, she brought in more. Of course, finding rocks in Flagstaff is a cinch, but bringing more rocks into a already rocky yard is a mark of creative genius. It allowed her to develop a sense of sanctuary as she evolved her front yard from a pit into a semi-circle of cascading terraces.

At first, gaining access to her front yard sanctuary was a little rocky, but then on a visit from Texas her father-in-law pitched in and with a little concrete put in a series of rock steps down into her garden.

The one dead end creation in her evolutionary gambit was her Cro-magnon irrigation system which her father-in-law also helped put in, apparently thinking he was irrigating a field of sorghum in Texas. A Rube Goldberg contrivance of above ground hoses with sprinklers and soakers, it needs help every time she waters. Of course, as the plants grew, they blocked the sprinkler’s irrigating circumference and lost water by evaporation. From now on, she plans to irrigate with various deep percolation systems with different systems for different beds depending on the plants’s needs.

In addition to her father-in-law, her mother, Margaret, a veritable weed-picking machine and another walking green thumb, occasionally flies in from Montana to visit Debbie and her family and to help clear out the yard.

As inviting as is her front yard, Debbie wanted to make the path to her backyard also inviting. Her husband, Peter, along with her father-in-law, borrowed a truck and picked up a load of flagstone from an outfit in Ash Fork for a pittance. With the flagstone Peter is gradually making a welcoming path of stairs along the side of house down into the backyard.

A great deal of her creativity as been in identifying the various micro-climates in her yard. Her front yard faces to the southwest and it receives sun all morning long and well into the afternoon. The backyard is lower than the front with the cold sliding down into the back yard. The rock in the terraced rock garden helps warm the soil. Also, the backyard receives less sun as well as being shaded by pine trees. All of these considerations have affected the types of plants she uses in her beds and in her front yard sanctuary garden.

A graduate of the Master Gardener’s course, Debbie’s evolving garden isn’t finished by a long-shot. From her backyard deck, she sees a partially developed safe playground for her three small children and envisions beds where they can grow their own flowers and vegetables.

Beyond that, using compost and kitchen scraps to enrich the soil, she plans to develop new beds to enhance the backyard’s beauty. Also, she has far-reaching plans to develop a vegetable garden and even to raise vegetables amongst the flowers. "Why should we separate vegetables from flowers. The leaves of beets are beautiful and a bed zucchini with their lovely leaves just seems to float in the air. As a matter of fact, one of my plant friends is a zucchini."

As a gardener, rather than a being Debbie is a becoming.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005


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

A touch of class, a hint of civilization, a love story, and a tragedy, these are the themes entwined in the tale of the McCormick Rose, a cutting of which graces the bottom of the steps into Old Main at the North Campus of 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 McCormick Rose at Old Main is the granddaughter of the grande dame original McCormick Rose. It 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 front door of the Governor’s Mansion in Prescott. The Class of 1934 planted the third generation cutting at Old Main. As one of the three campus roses of the Alumni Rose Collection, it is also a part of the Arboretum at NAU, which will be offering rooted great granddaughter cuttings or fourth generation McCormick Roses for sale through its gift shop in the Autumn of 2005.

The McCormick Rose began its journey in Margaret McCormick’s trousseau luggage 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 muleback to the Pacific Coast where they and the cutting again boarded a steamship for Acapulco. Richard and Margaret spent a couple of days touring the deserted city (the French Army had chased the Mexicans out of their city). 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. Needless to say, the McCormick Rose has demonstrated itself a hearty cultivar and flourishes today after years of benign neglect in Prescott, at Old Main, and at 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 long cabin with dirt floors and windows without glass. Happily, Margaret was the first First Lady and was given carte blanche on improvements, furnishings, and decorations. She had furniture made from pine logs.

The McCormick Rose was but a symbol of the civilization and class Margaret brought to Prescott. She transformed the rude log cabin into a frontier mansion where she made a home for Richard and herself, an office for him, and accommodations for guests. She threw levees, entertained quests, 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. Well-loved, she touched the frontier settlement with her charm.

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 in the forest near the mansion. Her grave was 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."

So when is a rose a rose? When it has a story to tell.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/12/05)

Gardens and gardening appeal to many people for various reasons. Some like to work the soil and watch things grow. They like flowers, vegetables, herbs, trees, and bushes. They like to sniff the roses and herbs, eat ripe tomatoes off the vine, prune bushes and trees, feel well-worked soil drift through their fingers. They like physical work in pleasant surroundings.

Others not only like to work the soil, they also love of the beauty of a garden. They feel as though they are painters with a palette, limning textures and colors, designing beds and walks. For them gardening is an art in which the gardener gives voice to the mute melange of soil, water, sun, and air. For garden artists design is the heart of gardening. They appreciate the shape of a bush, the dangling tendrils of a climber, and the colors of leaves, flowers, and stems . They even cherish the rocks, their shapes, patinas, and colors.

The reason is simple. Gardens and gardening are therapeutic. They’re good for the soul. They draw the mind away from the hurly-burly of everyday life. They allow people to regain their temper for having lost it. The physical sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing beckon them to those simple pleasures of the senses. The deep purple of an eggplant, the fragrance of a rose, the songs of birds, the architecture of a tree, the shape and texture of rocks, all draw the mind away from persoal internecine conflict to the immediacy of beauty. The beauty of a garden soothes the savage breast lurking in everyone. Without it, people are often Shakespeare’s "Poor Brutus, with himself at war" who "forgets the shows of love to other men."

One of the great pleasures in life is sharing rewarding experiences with those for whom we care. Gardens offer those communal experiences. Beautiful gardens cause passersby to stop and chat and bring friends together to share their delights. Gardens bring an ease of communion.

Still others experience gardens as sanctuaries, places set aside in which the mind can not only find peace and ease but also take flight on journeys of the spirit. The curved lines of walks and foliage free the mind "cribbed, cabined, and confined" by the boxes and straight lines of society. As people embrace the discrete sensations of beauty, they often touch the fringes of eternity. The physical pleasures of the garden release the heart and mind as the garden sacramentally becomes an "outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace."

For many gardeners, gardens and gardening can become "moveable feasts" of the imagination. They can simply close their eyes, breathe deeply, and recreate in their mind’s eyes the feel of soil, the color of flowers, the shape of a branch, the aroma of life. As their spirits take wing and fly to the "uttermost parts" of the imagination, they journey into the outer reaches of inner space.

William Blake in his "Auguries of Innocence" said it best:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2006

Thursday, January 12, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (1/06/05)

Sweet onions, as with Caesar’s Gaul, are divided into three parts, not by taste, but by parts of the country. Some are southern and are called short day varieties. They have the longest growing season, the shortest days, and are planted early. Some are northern and are called long day varieties. They have the shortest growing season, the longest days, and are planted later in the spring. The third group of onions is the intermediate day variety which includes most sweet onions except those suited for the deep south.

Flagstaff is smack dab within the boundaries of the intermediate day variety, but laps over into the short day and long day varieties. As with most gardening questions in Flagstaff, onions leave the high country gardener in a quandary. We can try almost any variety of onion except the deep south kind such as the Vidalia, a Georgia peach. The Walla Walla from Washington State works in Flagstaff but may not be as big and lustrous as the ones in the market. With a dollar or more a pop, smaller may be just fine. So what else is new?

The intermediate day sweet onions are all hybrids and descendants of the common onion (Allium cepa.) Our sweet onions descended from seeds of the Bermuda Hybrid onion brought to Texas from the Canary Islands in 1898. The hybrid sweet onions most suitable for the intermediate territory are the Candy Hybrid, the TX 1015-Y Supersweet H., the Cimmaron H., the Italian Red Torpedo H., the Stockton Red H., and the Walla Walla Sweet H. Bermuda onions are seldom grown commercially because of their low yield, but a Bermuda Crystal Wax H. may do well in Flagstaff.

Sweet onions aren’t sweeter than other onions. They have no more sugar content. They are less pungent because their sulphur levels are lower. For instance, the sulphur level of the soil in Vidalia, Georgia, is low. Thus, the fertilzer used in the preparation of onion beds is important.

Sweet onions can be grown from seeds, sets, and plants. Seeds are the least expensive and most unreliable with slow, sporadic growth. Sets are small onion bulbs that have been grown, harvested, and stored over the winter and then marketed in the spring. Sweet onion sets are difficult to obtain. Try haranging your local nursery.

Plants are onion transplants grown in the South in the winter, bundled in bunches of 50 to 100 plants, and shipped to garden centers in the North and West in the spring. They can be obtained from growers directly through the Internet by clicking on "sweet onions" or the name of the hybrid. They are the easiest, most reliable, and most expensive to grow. If ordering plants from the growers, the winter months are the best time to order them.

The soil for all types of onions, as with all soil suitable for vegetables, should be composted or amended with organic matter such as seasoned, vintage manure. Onions require a more fertile soil than most vegetables, and the soil should be prepared with an application of 10-10-10 or 10-20-10 balanced fertilizer. During the growing season a 21-0-0 onion fertilizer should be used. Ample water is important for all stages of growth.

The nice thing about onions is that they can be started as soon as the soil can be worked. Rather than hanging around while waiting for frost’s last icy blast, the high country gardener can plant about a month earlier than the average last frost. Onions are hardy down to 20 degrees which is good news for those who suffer the vagaries of spring temperatures in Flagstaff.

Raised beds are best for onions and just about everything else in Flagstaff. The rows should be about 10 inches apart with the plants 3 inches apart, 1 ½ inches deep. Every other one can be pulled for green onions leaving the remaining onions to mature.

Now is the time to order the plants. Plants can be ordered, to name a few, from Dixondale Farms, P. O. Box 127STK, Carrizon Springs, TX 78834, Piedmont Plant Co, P. O. Box 424, Albany, GA 31702, and Brown’s Omaha Plant Farms, P. O. Box 787. Omaha, TX 75571.

Sweet onions are easy to grow and great to taste.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006