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