Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/14/08)

My fifty-five year old gold crown fell out while munching on a taco at the Tamale Pot. When discussing a replacement with my dentist, J. Thomas Montfort, he asked "Do you want gold again?" I replied," I'm not sure it's smart to invest in gold at 81, you know, the cost/longevity ratio."

Then he asked, "How long do you expect to live? How about your ancestors and relatives?" Taken aback, I realized that many died of cancer in midlife while several lived into their nineties. After I related these chronicles of death, he said, "Well, you've probably passed the dangerous period. How long do you expect to live?" "I'd like to hit 96, the Methuselah factor, as our financial advisor says."

Eyes twinkling, he said "Well, then, let's go for the gold." After a pause, he asked, "What're you going to do then?" I replied, "Recalibrate."

Then I remembered Hans Vaihinger's Die Philosophie des Als Ob, in which he pointed out that we really don't know much of what we claim to know, but act als ob, as if, we do. In theology it's called faith. Philosophically, it's called presupposition. Since I don't know, I decided to live als ob I'm going to hit 96.

As in dentistry, so it is in gardening. No matter a gardener's personal time-line, it's time to go for the gold, als ob, and recalibrate the garden which is best done in winter when the garden's naked of foliage with its shape and design revealed.

If a garden hasn't changed over the years, it's probably time to look at its design all over again on the assumption the gardener might've learned something as time passed. One of the advantages of age is that one picks up new ideas along the way. The old hymn reads, "New occasions teach new duties, and time makes ancient good uncouth." Winter gives our curiosity, the most useful of our emotions, an opportunity to take a hard look at our garden's design and imagine a garden more beguiling.

An effective garden in some way or another resembles nature, and nature is asymmetrical. The Grand Canyon is not a straight-line, immense concrete trench as if it were designed by the Bureau of Reclamation. If it were, it would be ugly. A tree is not perfectly balanced any more than a face. As a matter of fact, walking is an exercise in sustained imbalance. The trick to an interesting garden is a design that resembles nature as much as possible. In other words, rethink all those perennials standing in file as though they were sentinels on guard, and along with that those front yards dismally coated with gravel. Front yards shouldn't resemble the perimeters of military disciplinary stockades.

Nature is neither rectangular nor straight line. Its contours are unexpected and, thus, interesting. Curiosity is drawn by the unknown, not the known. A symmetrical, evenly balanced garden is static because it doesn't lead the eye. If a line doesn't lead the eye, soon enough the eye will stop following the line. A landscape is not done by the numbers, but with the mind's eye.

The latent power of an S curve intrigues the mind more than a straight line. In contrast, a straight line is power spent and leads only to an end, a conclusion. Life, as with a garden, is an unfinished experience. In short, T squares, rectangles, and graph paper tend to restrict the imagination and issue in homeostatic gardens, gardens without movement.

Walking along one of Flagstaff's many trails is one of the best ways to draw inspiration for a garden's design, taking note of nature's contours, its unexpected twists and turns. Since we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, mimicking its design is a valuable way to envision a garden afresh.

Indeed, following the contours of nature, our imaginations can take wing and fly to the uttermost reaches of our innermost space, as we go for the gold, fashioning our gardens anew als ob. Many are the roads to Elysium, but the fairest, as Sir Francis Bacon said, is round about.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Monday, December 01, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/1/08)

The Bill Gates of vegetables, kale is kind of nerdy and really rich, rich in nutrients, not money, nutrients being more important to the good life than money although money is pretty good, too. Not only can kale deliver on the nutrients, but, being a skinny nerd, it can deliver the goodies with low calories. It doesn't have the beauty of ripe, red tomatoes, dangling from the vine, waiting breathlessly to be plucked, the elegant beauty of cosse violetto pole beans casually leaning against a trellis, or the seductive grace of red bell peppers peeking out behind the folds of their foliage, beckoning come hither. No, kale's the workhorse of the vegetable kingdom, a no-nonsense vegetable, a real donkey.

The usual question people ask about kale is: "What can you do with it?" Similar questions are often asked about nerds, "What can they do other than fix computers? How do they fit in?" Not as easily as tomatoes, cosse violette pole beans, or bell peppers, but, as with Bill Gates, fitting in or not, you'll sure want them at the table. Nutrients count.

Not to be too harsh about kale, its leaves are attractive. Russian kale has a nice broad reddish leaf with odd holes here and there and frilly edges, but as a vegetable it doesn't have nearly the charm of forellenschluss, an Austrian heirloom lettuce whose coloring resembles the back of a speckled trout. Unlike a kilted Highlander, Scotch kale is a ruffly, monochromatic, rather dull-colored affair; however, as with the Red Russian, it's jammed with nutrients. Attractive for kale, it has nothing of the charm of lolla rossa lettuce, bright red and frilly.

Tuscan kale, the Italian heirloom, is long and slender, and is thought by many foodies, such as Martha Stewart, to have a more delicate and sophisticated flavor than the others. The leaves of the double-duty Portuguese walking-stick kale grow at the end of a long stem or pole which is lots of fun for children and those who want to grow their own walking sticks.

All these differences aside, kale is das Wundergemüse. The first is that it's easy to grow. As with me, any damned fool can grow it. Also, as a cool season vegetable, it can be seeded early in the spring and harvested late into the fall after the first snowfall.

Resistant to most insects and bugs, it does fall prey to aphids, the enemy of most leafy things. At first sight, the aphids should be attacked with the hose, washing them off the underside of the leaves. If that doesn't work, attack them with insecticidal soap using a hose attachment. Be sure to wash off the soap before eating. Don't try poisons. Eating poisoned kale is unwise and cancels out the benefits.

Planting dill here and there in a bed of kale is a good defense because dill attracts ladybugs and green lacewings which crave aphids and aphid larvae. Also, the tall dill plants towering over the kale makes for a rather attractive and graceful vegetable bed.

Now, what to do with dieses Wundergemüse? First, cut out the stems. Then steam it, cut it up, and put it on pizza. It's sweeter than spinach. Also, shards of kale do well in soups, such as chicken and beef barley. Good Eats!

As a veteran foodie with a triple by-pass to show for it, I was a long time in coming to kale, but as a gardener, it's so easy to grow that I've looked for ways to use it. Being super nutritious and low on calories is a big plus, especially if one wants to avoid a repeat by-pass.

Finally, there's kale with garlic and dried, sweetened cranberries. Steam two pounds of kale (preferably Red Russian) in 1/1/2 tablespoons of salt, a teaspoon of dill weed, and 4 quarts of water, drain. Sauté a couple of minced garlic cloves in olive oil until fragrant (30 seconds). Combine kale, garlic, and cranberries, and heat for 4-6 minutes. "Bon appétit!"

A word of wisdom attributed to Bill Gates: "Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one." So eat lotsa kale and get rich.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/13/08)

Meine Überfrau bought a Shop-Vac the other day. Delighted as a child with a new toy, she spent the day vacuuming her studio and the garage, even the rectangular crevasses in the concrete. This was a far cry from the glamorous sophisticate I married more than twenty years ago, who, as a flight attendant in the glory "chateaubriand and champagne" days of TWA first class, flew across the world like most people walked across the street. Not so now. Now, it's Shop-Vac Mamma. Happily, I can eat off the garage floor after having been kicked out of the house for tracking compost on the carpet.

One of SVM'S favorite words is "thoroughly" as in "thoroughly clean," while mine are "slipshod" and "slapdash," preferring the minimal expenditure of energy in an energy crisis. Just enough to get by without doing anything more than is absolutely necessary.

When I was a boy, my parents spoke of "good stock," not so much in relation to cattle or trees, but to people as in "good family." A runner-up was "hard worker."

Gardens require good stock and hard workers, especially at
autumnal clean-up time when Shop-Vacs aren't much use around the backyard. When the air turns crisp, it's hand work and hard labor with the only reward being "thoroughly clean." As SVM likes to say, "Any job done worth doing is worth doing well." The tools are clippers and rakes.

Next comes, "A place for everything, and everything in its place," a kind of horticultural mise en place. On the other hand, I like to file and store things on the floor and vacant table and desk tops. That way I can still see where I left them, no "out of sight, out of mind." In the autumn of the year, with SVM it's not only "thoroughly clean," it's also "put away." I leave out the shovel and the rake so that I don't waste precious energy putting them away and getting them out, like shoes left on the floor. But for the winter's garden, it's stick them all back in their place if you have any, and if you don't, make places. Also, roll up the hoses and store them in the garage.

Now, comes the fun part of autumnal gardening, pulling out the annuals, clipping and shaping the perennials, fighting over pruning the trees, raking up the pine needles left from the last wind storm, storing the pine needles in black plastic bags beside the curb for the guys from Environmental Services, and generally sweeping up debris. Gretchen, a true Teuton, approaches all this cleaning and straightening up with bustle and gusto. When I lag, she remonstrates with a question, "Just what do you want, a skanky yard?"

"Heaven forbid." A skanky yard? So I drag myself, trailing MS. CLEAN, like a school boy trudging his way to school, clipping, raking, getting bits of debris stuck inside my boots, expending precious energy in the name of cleanliness and orderliness.

Then came the disaster. Red/green color blind, I dumped yard debris in the green trash barrel thinking it was brown. Well, the guy from Environmental Services stopped in his tracks, climbed up on his truck, yanked out the offending bag of pine needles, lectured us in front of friend and foe, threatened us with fines, and drove off leaving me with a bag of pine needles and a profound sense of shame. Only in sustainable Flagstaff can the garbage man induce guilt.

Not that I'm paranoid, but I swore I heard tittering in the neighborhood.

The final phase of autumnal gardening is "getting ready" for spring five months ahead. It's mulching plants and trees, turning compost in the soil, spading in blood meal for the onions, raking in bone meal for the daffodils, and seemingly endless chores. Finally, after this busiest of seasons in the garden, snow blanketed the yard with the promise of rest for me as well as the earth.

Alas, in a fin de saison lust for tidiness, Gretchen announced, "You've got just four days to pick up your study before I come in and clean it up thoroughly."

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008


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

The reassuring thing about dill for high country gardeners is that it can be grown near the Arctic Circle. Although native to Eurasia and the Mediterranean basin, as a hardy herb it wandered north to Norway where it found its name, dill coming from the Old Norse word dylle, meaning to soothe or lull. Not only that, as gravlaks it became one of the great triumphs of Norwegian culinary arts, in addition to cod fish balls, lutefisk, and akevitt. Lutefisk is fish cured in lye, and akevitt is an 80 proof alcoholic drink, distilled from potatoes or grain often with dill seeds. It's about as subtle as a jack-hammer.

Gravlaks, the triumph, is salmon cured with salt, sugar, and dill weed. A weight is placed on the salmon, gradually squeezing out the water and allowing the spices to seep into the salmon. The Vikings originally buried the salmon and spices in sand above the waterline where it fermented. Neither fermented nor smoked, gravlaks is cured.

A close variety is lox, a gift of the Ashkenazic Jews of Central Europe which when served on bagels with cream cheese, onion, and capers is a gastronomic delight close in ecstasy to eggs sardou.

But back to dill (Anethum graveolens) which does quintuple duty in the garden. In the spring its leaves are herbs, and in the autumn its seeds are spices. When dried, the leaves are called dill weed. Medicinally, it helps ease the stomach and quells flatulence, hence the Old Norse dylle. The seeds are more strongly flavored than the leaves, both of them having a sweet, grassy, tea-like aroma and flavor.

As a graceful addition to a flower and vegetable garden, towering elegantly and delicately above the garden, when picked it can be used in flower arrangements as well as the kitchen. Bespangled with dew after an evening's rain, an elegantly graceful dill plant is an epiphany. Reaching a height of three feet, it should be planted to the rear of a rock garden or scattered in clumps randomly throughout a garden. If planted singly, it should be supported.

Finally, it helps vanquish aphids by hosting beneficial insects whose larvae feast on the aphids.

Betraying its origin, dill likes a well-drained, light, rich soil and lots of sun. Dill should be planted in sunny locations where it's protected from the winds. A big plus for dill is that it’s easy to grow, and year after year dill, as a volunteer, will keep popping up all over the garden. Dill shouldn't be grown near fennel because they will hybridize in a kind of botanical incest.

A cool season herb, dill can be planted a couple of weeks before the last frost. Since it is so easy to grow, it can be seeded early, and if it is allowed to seed itself in the fall, dill will pop up in the garden when ready. A light feeder, all it needs is a little 5-10-5 organic fertilizer.

Used with fish and shellfish, cottage and cream cheese, and tomato juice, dill weed is a favorite in the cuisine of the Middle East where it is used to season meats, especially lamb, and vegetables, such as spinach, hence eggs sardou. Germans use dill in potato soup, and the Greeks season grape leaves with dill weed. Dill is also used in rice pilaf. Needless to say, the seeds are used in dill pickles and in curing corned beef. Also, a sprig of dill can perk up soups, salads, and main dishes otherwise threatened with tedium.

Dill seeds have been found in the tomb of Amenhotep II. The ancient Hebrews used it for tithing. During the Middle Ages, dill was used to ward off witches, and nowadays a sprig worn on the label would do quite well while listening to politicians, television commercials, and corporate pitchmen in the employ of oil, insurance, and drug companies.

A recipe: chop dill leaves and mince garlic, mix in a paste of olive oil, salt, and pepper, rub over fillets of salmon, and bake for fifteen minutes. 'Tis a rich feast that won't coagulate the blood.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/10/08)

As a 17 year old soldier attached to the Headquarters of the Army's Alaskan Department, I belonged to a unit that amongst other things tracked criminals and saboteurs in the unmapped Alaskan wilderness long before it became a state. On patrol we always used the legendary "Alaskan Scouts" as mushers because only they knew the lay of the land.

As an 18 year old buck sergeant in charge of a squad, we once tracked a soldier whose sobriquet was "Mad Dog Romanov" because he'd beheaded his wife with an ulu knife and sabotaged a remote military installation. After five days, we brought him back to Fort Richardson.

Our swagger stick lieutenant, hallucinating in the whiteout of a sub-artic winter's night, in a panic shot off a flare. A shard landed on my back, beginning a string of operations throughout the years to remove recurring benign tumors, leaving a hole in my lower left back the size of a saucer, causing me to tilt to the left. On our return the lieutenant was dispatched to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, later becoming a corporate attorney.

Wanting to give us a treat, the cooks made cherry jello laced with
canned beets. The shock to my nervous system still lingers, a pity because beets are a marvelous vegetable.

Some misguided souls consider beets plebian, believing that things grown underground are Cro-Magnon. Of course, so are the patrician truffles which aren't even roots, but fungi.

The simplest way to eat this nutritious vegetable is to roast it, like a potato, only cover it with aluminum foil in the oven. After that it's easy. Pierce it with a fork, slip off its skin with a paper towel, and slice it. Some dash it with combination of butter or olive oil and salt and relish a savory vegetable. Jam-packed with powerfully nutritious compounds, vitamin C, beta-carotene, folic acid, and two different anti-oxidants, beets have received the imprimatur of the New York Times with the imprint: "The New Spinach."

The slick thing about beets is that their leaves are tasty and nutritious, too, with vitamin A, folic acid, potassium, and iron. As for the sniffy crowd who disdain beets, they might be displeased to discover that the fancy bagged salads in the market contain beet greens which are actually various shades of red.

The beet world has expanded from the old, reliable Detroit Red,
which is actually from Canada across the river from Detroit. For all those who love beets, the bestest beet of all is the English bull's blood beet. Dark red, it's leaves are great in salads, and its roots, especially when young, are a delight with a sweet depth of flavor.

In addition to the bull's blood, the fancy Italian beet, chiaogga, is also an heirloom. With its concentric rings of pink and red, it's a great treat to the eyes and tongue sliced in salads and as a side dish.

For those who want a milder, sweeter flavor with a different color there is Burpee's Golden beet. In addition to the bull's blood, Detroit Red, chiaogga, and Burpee's Golden, there are many heirloom and hybrid varieties. Almost all of them can be harvested within 50 to 60 days which makes them useful in Flagstaff's short growing season. As a cool season vegetable, the seeds can be planted about a month prior to the last spring frost.

As beets have become more fashionable, most commercial nurseries now stock seeds of many varieties, one popular package includes bull's blood, chiaogga, and Burpee's Golden.

Beets don't require a green thumb. Black and brown thumbs do well if they follow directions. The first direction is good humus, compost enriched, well-aerated soil, the kind of soil that flows through a gardener's fingers. A balanced fertilizer rich in nitrogen does best. Finally, hand weed and water regularly. Resembling Grape-Nuts, beet seeds aren't actually seeds, but fruit containing several seeds so several plants may come from one fruit which means thinning.

With the New York Times' imprimatur, beets are no longer plebian, but are now patrician, savored by both the cognoscenti and those who like good eats.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Thursday, July 31, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/31/08)

An infrequent visitor to Las Vegas, I drove there last spring to collect meine Überfrau and her gems from a gem show. While there my left knee gave way, and I had to be carted about in a wheelchair. My knee had been iffy after I fell on the ice in November while picking up coffee grounds for my composter at the Campus Coffee Bean.

Gardening with a malfunctioning knee is difficult. Kneeling is useful in gardening as well as in praying, two closely related activities. In late March, I was reduced to putting in my sweet onion sets while lying down near a patch of snow in the thawing mud behind an Oregon grape holly. I became adept at slithering through the mud as an infantryman. Seeing me prostrate, the artist across the street, Peter Grosshauser, ran over to check on me. "Are you sure you're all right?" "Yeah, I'm just fine. I just can't kneel anymore." "Okay, I'm just glad you're not dead."

Then, the nurse next door, Linda Paul, who resembles a non-sappy, straight-talking Doris Day, standing atop a bank, arms akimbo, said, "Just what are you doing lying down in that cold mud?" I replied, "Putting in my onion sets." "Why lying down?" "I can't kneel any more." "See here, Dana, I've watched you hobble around all winter long. It's time you saw an orthopaedist, like tomorrow?" "Yes'm."

Hearing the commotion, Gretchen, a fausse Valley Girl from the Illinois prairie, appeared at the door and said, "Grody to the max."

Not much gardening can be done while lying down which is a pity because lying down is comfortable, but the real issue is onions. Onion sets can be planted long before the last frost amidst patches of snow and mud after the ground has thawed. That's a real plus for Flagstaff's short growing season, like three months. Happily, I had prepared my onion beds the autumn previous.

Onions like a humus-laden soil rich in nitrogen and plenty of water which means that the soil in raised beds should be prepared in the autumn with lots of compost, blood meal, and a balanced fertilizer. High nitrogen fertilizer should be applied a couple of weeks after the sets have been planted and bi-weekly thereafter. Since water is dear, the best way to plant them is in a trench. In that way, they get plenty of water with none of it wasted.

Planting them in March means that the gardener will have onions the middle of June just about the time of the last frost. Not only will the gardener have them early, but they will be far and way better than anything "boughten," so mild they can be eaten like a tomato just off the vine only just pulled from the ground, washed and trimmed. Make sure your lover eats onions, too, else it'll be "a cold night in a hot town tonight."

Onions mature by the length of sunlight in a day which means onions can be categorized as long day, intermediate day, and short day varieties. Vidalia onions are short day, growing well in the South. Walla-Walla are long and intermediate, but best as long in the North. Flagstaff is intermediate, onions beginning to grow their bulbs with 12-13 hours of sunlight, March 19 being the beginning 12 hours of sunlight in Flagstaff. Like anything else onions do better where they fit in with the horticultural climate.

Onion sets are best planted 5 inches apart, but if a gardener likes green onions, they can planted 3 inches apart and every other one can be harvested early, leaving the others to grow into large globes in July and August.

If the local commercial nurseries don't stock sweet onion sets fit for Flagstaff, they can be ordered through the Internet, such as Brown's Omaha Plant Farms at http://www.bopf.com. It's best to order them in January for shipment in March.

I've had the best luck with the hybrids: Candy, Red Stockton, and Superstar. One year I became over-heated and planted 405 sets, not something I would recommend. Fanaticism has its penalties, but not a fresh sweet onion.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Monday, July 28, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/28/08)

While visiting one of my older brothers, David, nearly three decades ago as he lay dying of pancreatic cancer, the hospital dietician came by asking for his menu choices for the next day. For breakfast he wanted Rice Crispies with a sliced banana, milk, and sugar, a taste of childhood.

Now, David was no wimp. A Marine captain severely wounded on Iwo Jima, he kept a jar on his desk filled with shrapnel that had surfaced throughout his life. He'd been a military attaché in Rabat, Morocco. A professor at Caltech with the sobriquet "Dirty Dave," he was an avid sailor, a Fulbright scholar, an author with a style tasting of butter, a connoisseur of fine wines and cuisine, a college wrestler, a surfer, a marvelous chef, a gardener extraordinaire, and a wit, bon vivant, and raconteur. Five Nobel Laureates were guests at his sixtieth birthday party.

As he lay dying asking for Rice Crispies, my heart broke. I knew what he meant. In his embers, he caught that fugitive sense of timelessness given only to children, as Wordsworth said, "trailing clouds of glory."

The scene of an admired older brother being struck down in his prime by a ghastly inevitability has haunted me throughout the years, leaving me an abiding sense of accountability. Even the strongest amongst us need comfort, secular sacraments transmitting some sense of meaning amidst the swirl of the meaningless.

As with Dave, Rice Crispies will do it for me, but along with them a garden will do it, too, particularly the feel of soil. I can still see my father hold the soil in his hands, saying, "Aye, laddie, 'tis where it all begins and ends." It was the same with Dave in his Wellies inviting me to feel his garden's soil above the cliffs at Point Dume in Malibu.

The feel of soil running through one's hands is one of those secular sacraments which, as the Book of Common Prayer reads, is "and outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." The outward and visible signs of hands and soil give us those inward and spiritual graces, allowing us to move beyond the certitudes of what we know to those sometime fugitive things we believe, those fugitive things that make life worthwhile. We know the intangible only by touching the tangible, no longer as bystanders but partakers in the making of heaven and earth, surely a divine enterprise if there ever were one.

William Blake said it best:

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

Comfort is not so much a place of ease and retreat as it is a groundedness amidst the swirl of life's confusions and death's absurdity. Indeed, the word "comfort" comes from the same Latin root as "fortify." The feel of soil connects with us that timelessness of childhood.

Gardening begins with soil which is a thing different from dirt, the stuff God gives us. Soil is what the gardener makes of dirt, how the gardener shares in the process of creation. If one wants to find good gardeners, start out with feeling their soil. A love of soil is the mark a gardener. Everything else is secondary.

Other than a healthy garden, enriching soil saves water. Soil laden with organic matter makes the water-foolish garden less foolish and the water-wise more lush.

Alfred North Whitehead, the great mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, wrote in Religion in the Making, "Religion is what individuals do with their solitariness." The solitariness of which he wrote is that experience when the "earthly freight" of life weighs heavily upon us and when we can no longer run away into our diversions, when we hold "eternity in an hour" in the forests of our nights. The feel of soil enriched with garden's decay is one of those solitary sacraments, allowing us in touching the tangible to recall those fugitive intangibles.

Again, William Blake said it best:

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith (7/14/08)

Before my recent knee surgery, my surgeon, Dr. Torey Botti, suggested I take it easy after the surgery, just wiggling my toes and bending my knee. I assured him my favorite vice was sloth. However, it wasn't always so, when younger, I savored lust and gluttony, but as I've aged, lust's battery has run low. After gluttony lead to a triple by-pass, I didn't want to cardiac-K.O myself with one of those widely-advertised jump-starters. Besides, there are really neat substitutes. If not de facto, then en kardia.

Never big on greed, I've always thought that just making money was boring and that greedy people are dull and drink too much to escape their boredom. Jealousy and envy aren't attractive either because they're the only vices without a reward. Gluttony, greed, lust, sloth all have perks, but for jealousy and envy it's bile as in "it galls me." Elusively powerful, anger's an act of impotence, taking too much energy. Pride or hubris signal that inner dread of insignificance haunting us all.

With sloth you can drop your clothes on the floor right where you took them off. You can put off to tomorrow what you don't want to do today. With age, sloth loomed as an attractive vice, idle work seeming a waste. Slothful gardening husbands one's energy. So what if I want a beautiful garden? Hardy, water-efficient perennials.

I asked Joannie Abbot, the high energy landscaper at Foxglove Landscaping who has done the well-nigh impossible, making gasoline service stations attractive. If there were ever an incongruity, it’s gasoline, steel, and concrete mixed with Shasta daisies, delphiniums, and hollyhocks, an English cottage garden Interstate close on Milton and Butler.

First, she suggested yarrow (Achillea millefloium), named after the mythical Achilles who used it to staunch his soldiers’ wounds. Not only hardy, they’re indestructible in a potpourri of colors, gold, mustard, lemon yellow, reds, and pinks.

Attractive to butterflies and lady bugs, two friends gardeners want in their gardens, they, also, make beautiful displays in the garden and in the house as cut or dried flowers.

Yarrows, as with lots of friends, have to be watched, not because they're going to pilfer the joint, but because they'll take over the garden if not curbed. Like the Energizer Bunny, they just keep going, surviving Flagstaff's inhospitable climate and fierce winters, coming back with a springtime vengeance. Useful as a ground cover and for holding banks from erosion, they spread both by their roots and seed. A word of caution: they might cause skin irritation, so wear long sleeves and gloves.

Russian sage (Peroviska atripilifolia) survives Flagstaff’s winds, cold, and sere with flying colors. Of course, it should. It's a native Afghan. When it comes alive in the spring, it slowly sends up its shoots, beginning as blue-lavender and turning brighter in a splendid, almost neon purple. Spreading readily by seed, it may pop up all over throughout the years. As with yarrow, it grows almost anywhere, but prefers, as with yarrow, a well-drained soil. It grows large so leave plenty of space. Bees love Russian sage so it's wise to put it at some distance from the house, the deck, and the patio.

Next is an ancient from Asia Minor, one of the oldest cultivated plants, the old-timer hollyhock (Alcea rosea,) a triple threat as an annual, biennial, and an oxymoronical short-lived perennial. A prolific self-seeder, it can take over a garden, but that's the price of having a plant that can take care of itself. Hollyhocks come in many colors, red, black, pink, white, and blue. Water-wise with roots clear to China, they attract hummingbirds, are a little messy, but are a slothful gardener's dream. Besides, a slothful gardener has no business objecting to a messy plant, especially if it's beautiful. As with yarrow, they look great in the yard, tall and vibrant, and in the house in vases.

There you have it, a bright, colorful, water-wise garden that requires little attention and is far more winsome than gravel, even Sedona pink. By the way, Dr. Botti was successful, I got my shovel foot back.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Saturday, June 28, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (6/20/08)

Meine Überfrau's grandmother, Flora Ickes, was a Kentuckian and frontierswoman who once blew the head off a rattlesnake slithering into her kitchen. She grabbed the family shotgun from the kitchen wall and blazed away. Thrifty, as were frontier folk, she saved a roll of short lead pencils with a note attached, "Too short to use." She'd been raised on a farm where little, if anything, was ever thrown away under the rubric, "You just might be able to use that someday." Someday, she believed, someone might find a use for lead pencils too short to use. She practiced sustainability before anyone ever heard the word.

She pumped water out of the cistern, stored perishables in her spring house, and didn't much cotton to things "boughten." She also had a large pile of kitchen scraps and yard clippings in her yard a far piece from the house. Since the word "compost" hadn't been invented, she composted without knowing it. As a result, her vegetable and flower garden flourished with peonies the size of sunflowers. On her back stoop, she fed hoboes dinner topped off with a bottle of Dad's Old-Fashioned Root Beer. Small and thin, she must've weighed about 90 lbs dripping wet. She bore and reared seven children. She probably would've paid no mind to flibbertijibbets with cell phones glued to their ears practicing "sustainability" by buying expensive hybrid cars, telling them "to get'emselves a horse." So Gretchen comes by her "onriness" with a genetic honesty.

Sustainability isn't new. It's been rediscovered. Farmers have been practicing it for years as with people who work the soil, including gardeners. It begins by saving table scraps and yard clippings. In short, give that disposal a rest and save a plumber's visit and bill. If a reader isn't a gardener, the next best thing is to give those scraps, coffee grounds, and clippings to a gardener who does compost, but be sure to chop them into small pieces. They're lots of composting gardeners around town.

"Sustainability" and "xeriscape" are pursed-lipped words. They're bleak, sounding too minimalist to catch the mind's fancy, but we're stuck with them. The "xeri" is xeriscape doesn't mean zero, but rather it comes from the Greek word "xeros" meaning dry, dried up, withered, or paralyzed. The x is pronounced as "ks," as in Alexander, and the e as in "hey." So xeriscape means a dry, withered landscape which doesn't do much to catch the mind's fancy either. Ironically, a host of plants native and adaptable to the southwest are colorful. What sets them apart isn't that they're withered but that they're "water efficient." They take water up and store it more efficiently than plants from wetter climes. So how about a water efficient landscape rather than dry landscape?

As for sustainability, it’s a life boat word, sounding too much like endurance, running in place, just keeping up, treadmill to oblivion. The real purpose of sustainability is renewal, as in not using up the earth's resources, but rather in renewing them. So how about renewability or even transformative?

Renewing is more than spouting theory and sporting bumper stickers. It's a matter of action, like kitchen scraps and growing gardens. Flower gardens add beauty. Vegetable gardens add health and taste and cut down on the use of oil. Home-grown vegetables and fruits taste better, cost less, and use less energy than the "boughten" kind. If people don't garden now, and they're able, it's time to hop to it.

The reason is simple. Flora knew she lived in a finite universe without endless resources, her house, the farm, and the general store for those few "boughten" items. So do we, only larger, but nonetheless finite. We've been living like "legacy kids," spending our inheritance as though there were no end to our resources. There is an end, as we are finding in fossil fuels, so it's time to renew.

My great aunt Marie Aslakson was, also, a daughter of the frontier, her father, Bjørn, a Norwegian immigrant sod buster who volunteered for Mr. Lincoln's Army in the 7th Minnesota Volunteers. When I left shards of spinach on my plate, Auntie's admonition still rings true, "Waste not, want not."

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Thursday, June 05, 2008

GROWING GREEN: the Right Plants in the Right Places

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. with Elaine Ferris

As members of The Westerners, a gang of western history buffs with low dues who eat very well once a month at Thornagers, share camaraderie, and listen to enjoyable speakers on western lore, meine Überfrau and I have learned that the pioneers in the High Country were a hardy lot. We’ve also learned from the Master Gardening Program that the flora and fauna of the High Country are also a hardy lot. After a spring of two snows, high winds, a heat wave, and record high and lows, it is clear why the natives of the High Country are hardy and why gardens need hardy plants.

The Arizona Native Plant Society and the Flagstaff Xeriscape Council are two organizations concerned with both beautiful and successful gardening in the High Country. Each one of them sponsors a competition for the most attractive gardens in Greater Flagstaff using both native and water efficient plants. Before last winter’s heavy snow pack, there have been years of drought. We live in a land where only hardy people and plants do well.

Last year's garden competitions were so extraordinarily successful that both organizatons are planning competitions again this year. Also, they’re anticipating that more Greater Flagstaff gardeners will be competing this year.

The best way to learn about gardening anywhere, but especially in the High Country, is to watch and listen to successful veteran gardeners. They are, as the military would say, boots on the ground. From their experience they know friend from foe and what works and what doesn’t. No palaver, theories, policies, hucksters, and ideologies, just experience in creating beautiful High Country gardens.

The competitions are aimed at demonstrating that the plants native or those adapted to the Colorado Plateau are better suited to High Country gardening than ill-adapted exotics. Also, sometimes forgotten, they are just as attractive. This also means thrifty use of water and wary use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Many gardeners in Greater Flagstaff are tempted to replicate gardens that thrive elsewhere, but the harsh climatic conditions on the Colorado Plateau won’t support such gardens. As a consequence, more and more gardeners are interesting in planting native vegetation, easing the need for pesticides, fertilizers, and water.

Native plants are more efficient at taking up and storing nutrients and water than plants "out of place." Commercial fertilizers needed for “elsewhere gardens” pollute the soil, sometimes making it sterile. Accumulating synthetic pesticides can also contaminate the water supply.

Native plants and beneficial insects are mutually adapted to benefit one another through pollination and protection against destructive insects. Pesticides kill many insects, including the insects needed for a healthy garden. Perhaps, most important to many gardeners, native plants once established need little to no maintenance.

Lovely gardens can be grown in the High Country without artificial fertilizers, excessive water, and pesticides. The Arizona Native Plant Society and the Flagstaff Xeriscape Council want to support those kinds of gardens. They are sponsoring garden tours after the competition so that people will be able to experience first-hand gardens using native and water efficient plants.

The competitions are on for 2008. Applications are available at Warner's Nursery, Flagstaff Native Plant and Seed Nursery, The Arboretum at Flagstaff, both public library branches, and the AZNPS website (www.aznps.org) and from the Flagstaff Xeriscape Council at (928) 213-4827. Entries should be received by July 1 for the Arizona Native Plant Society’s competition and July 11 for the Xeriscape Council’s competition so that garden visits may be scheduled and photos taken. Contestants for the AZNPS’ competition should be available to attend the awards meeting on Tuesday, August 19th. Both competitions will host a combined citywide tour on Sunday, August 24th. Contact either Elaine Ferris at (928) 527-3702 or Ellen Ryan at (928) 213-4827 if further information is required. Come and join us in the celebration of gardening in the High Country.

For planting preferences:

www.thearb.org/fabplantlist.htm. The Arboretum at Flagstaff for locally adapted plants.

www.wildflower.org (click "Explore Plants") Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Information Network, suggested native plants for areas of the U.S.

For Flagstaff Fabulous Plants brochure call the City of Flagstaff,
Water Conservation at (928) 213-4827.

(Elaine Ferris, a Master Gardener volunteer, is coordinator for the AZNPS Garden Competition. Dana Prom Smith, a Master Gardener volunteer, is coordinating editor for the Master Gardener Column. He can be contacted at stpauls@npgcable.com. For gardening questions, call the Master Gardener Hotline, 774-1868, x19, or visit MG Web site: highelevationgardening.arizona.edu.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/31/08)

When Ponce de León hit the beaches in Florida in 1513 on his quest for the Fountain of Youth, he didn’t know that a syringe filled with botox was waiting for him 494 years later in La La Land. In an attempt to “take time back,” as the advertisers claim, this injectable elixir of youth paralyzes the facial muscles thereby faking the appearance of youth, much like faded plastic flowers emerging from winter’s snow in a springtime graveyard.

As with gardening pesticides, botox is lethal, being one of the most toxic chemicals found occurring naturally. The scientific name for botox is a dead giveaway, Botulinum toxin. A satire on modern culture’s fix on youth and its propensity for poisons, botox is a toxin, one of the many poisons used in modern culture, ranging all the way from methamphetamine and nicotine to garden pesticides. They’re all offered as a solution to a problem, botox to the angst of aging, narcotics to the stresses of life, and garden pesticides to destructive insects. The result is that human beings wanting quick fixes are poisoning themselves, their food, and their soil. The word is intoxication.

The desire to remain young assumes that maturity is an affliction.
History is full of nations and individuals poisoning the enemies and their lands, such as Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors salting the fields of the people they vanquished, but never their own lands. The Romans allegedly salted of the wheat fields of Carthage after their victory in Third Punic War in 146 B.C. Carthage’s wheat fields were the Romans’ breadbasket and would’ve been lost to them if they’d salted them. Most historians believe the Romans were too smart to poison Carthage’s fields. Not nearly as smart, we’re turning our corn into fuel in the face of food shortages and poisoning our soil in an horticultural intoxication.

In addition to poisoning the soil, pesticides kill beneficial insects, such as lady bugs and green lacewings, the natural predators of destructive insects. The military has a euphemism for it, “collateral damage,” as in the famous Vietnam War phrase of “destroying a village to save it.”

The use of narcotics to avoid the demands and disappointments of life is a slow suicide. Some pesticides loose their power to kill in time, but some don’t and accumulate in a slow form of agricultural suicide. In fact, some agricultural fields have already been lost because of accumulated toxins. Botox is safe as long as the toxin doesn’t migrate to the rest of the body.

Several years ago an acquaintance of mine used a lethal systemic
pesticide on his roses, wanting to rid them of aphids, but he found that the pesticide had leached into a field near his orange trees. No more fresh oranges. He didn’t want to take the time and effort to use non lethal methods for knocking off the aphids, such as insecticidal soap or washing them off with the hose, both of which have to be repeated. He wanted a quick fix, a short cut, with a poison which migrated to his oranges.

The late Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., the longtime president and then chairman of General Motors was once asked the secret to his success.
He said, “Work hard. There are no short cuts.” So it is with gardening. Pesticides are shortcuts.

Botox offers the promise of living perpetually in the illusion an arrested adolescence through poison. Narcotics offer a flight from reality at the cost of a gradual suicide. Pesticides promise a healthy garden at the price of toxicity as though poison were an aid to health. Gardeners who pesticide their gardens are unique in history in that they poison their own soil in an environmental insult.

A son of the soil, my father always insisted that my brothers and I
take care of the animals first. So it is with gardening. Gardens don’t take care of themselves. Gardeners do. Rachel Carson wrote: “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides’ but ‘biocides’.”

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Thursday, May 15, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/15/08)

After we finished dinner, our waitress, addressing meine Überfrau, asked: “Would the two of you like dessert? I have a dessert menu right here.” Gretchen replied, “Oh, no, I don’t think I’ll have any tonight. Thank you.” When the waitress turned to me, I said, “Yeah, I think I’d like a slice of apple pie with a slab of cheddar cheese and some vanilla ice cream.” Gretchen put her hand on mine and said, “Don’t you think that’s a little heavy, D.P.? Remember you’ve got an appointment with your cardiologist next week. Why don’t you order something lighter, like lemon meringue? It’d be a lot better for you.” Fearing the doctor’s apocalyptic “hmm” as he reads my cholesterol count, I said, “OK, a lemon meringue.” The waitress asked Gretchen if she would like one, too, to which Gretchen replied, “Oh, I’ll just take a few bites of his.”

In the twinkling of an eye, I saw a flash of silver streak across my field of vision over to the lemon meringue, spearing lots of few bites. As a consequence, I was quite prepared for the doctor’s appointment, left, as I was, with a few tufts of meringue, bits of lemon filling, and shards of crust. With Teutonic cunning she claimed the moral high ground of abstinence while enjoying the indulgence of dessert. When I squeaked in protest, she said, “Honey, it’s what’s best for you.”

There’s lots of flim-flam in gardening, too, largely on television, all of them appealing to sloth, that is, the avoidance of the time and effort it takes to spade the soil. One of the most appealing is strips of bio-degradable material embedded with flower seeds and nutrients. The promise is that the slothful gardener will have a brilliant flower bed simply by laying down the strips and watering. Of course, the premise of the advertisement is that flowers have no roots so that they won’t need well-aerated soil rich with organic matter in which the roots can find a home. If a backyard is clay, decomposed granite, limestone, sandstone, basalt, or volcanic rubble, the gardener will end up with a garden of weathered organic looking strips covered by wilted greens, sine flowers.

This promised malaise applies as well to those advertisements for grass that will grow on concrete blocks as though there were a big market for concrete block lawns. Unbeknownst to television gardeners, grass for lawns needs soil into which the roots can penetrate or else they will peter-out. This means spading organic material, such as compost, into the soil to a depth of several inches in preparation for the grass seed. Without soil for its roots, like everything else, the grass will never thrive and will eventually die out. As in life, gardening requires depth.

Next in the flim-flam of television gardening are the Tomato Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Now, indeed, much of hydroponic gardening with tomatoes hangs the vines from above or upside down. Any traditional tomato gardener knows full well that tomato vines have to propped up inside cages, so letting them hang down has merits if they’re supported. The word “vine” is a dead giveaway. Also, hanging them upside down promises to avoid soil borne maladies.

However, cues to the flim-flam are such phrases as “very little effort,” “need almost no attention,” and “easy way to grow tomatoes.” Nothing about tomatoes is easy, requiring little effort or attention. If an advertisement is too good to be true, it is and thus a snare for those who want an easy-way-out garden. Beautiful gardens require work. Even not-so-beautiful, flourishing gardens require work.

Upside down tomatoes save on space, require lots of attention and about the same amount of work as do tomatoes growing right side up, and cost a lot more. Also, tomato vines are fragile and pendulous and need support. Just hanging, the branches have been known to break off if they’re successfully carrying lots of heavy fruit, like big, fat beefsteaks.

Paraphrasing the late John Houseman, “We garden the old-fashioned way, we work for it.”

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/25/08)

Our dog, Roxie, the existentialist, is neither a theoretician nor an historian. She doesn’t deal with first principles or precedents, instead she lives in the moment. As I scratch her ruff, run my hands through the soft hair around her neck, and cradle her head, her pink nose glows with a moist luminescence, twitching in the breeze. As she and I luxuriate in the moment, we talk “of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.” She's our therapy dog.

She has a few bad memories, the Dalmatian that attacked her after we adopted her and before that the car that struck her, depriving her of a front leg. Now and then, she whimpers in her dreams, but also in those same dreams she runs through the fields on all four legs. Other than that, her world is now which is also one of the blessings of gardening, gardeners being existentialists, too.

A dog’s low forehead is a dead giveaway. They don’t have much of a cerebral cortex. A consequence of our massive cerebral cortices is that we worry. We stew about our yesterdays and fret about our tomorrows. We worry so much that we forget to enjoy the now as in walking by a bouquet of roses without stopping to smell them.

As with Roxie, gardening is therapeutic. It brings us back to the present away from our indignations, worries, and ideologies. Getting down and dirty is not only good for the body, but the soul as well.

While Roxie isn’t a powerhouse cognitively, she has a lot more emotional intelligence than most cognitive powerhouses I know. She senses people up fast, sniffs out fraud, and listens for tone rather than content, knowing the real message is in how it's said not in what's said.

Physiologically, we return to sanity by activating our neurons digging in the dirt, and with that we increase our serotonin which brings us a feeling of well-being and a shot for the immune system. Not bad for a little work with a spade.

It all starts with dirt, like sticking a spade in it and turning it. Then it goes on to something else, to the pleasure of physical sensations, like taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight. It's downright impossible to walk by a Galina tomato vine, a Siberian, dripping with golden cherry tomatoes without popping a few in the mouth. Once the molars squish that orb and juice squirts onto every taste bud in the mouth, the saliva begins to flow, carrying with it a tingling taste of acidity along the sides of the tongue and a soothing touch of sweetness on the tip, then one has had an existential moment.

Those existential moments are also therapeutic moments when feeling with our senses, we are drawn out of our caves dark with regret and indignation. There's always something keeping us back in our dismal recesses where we survive as victims in the shadows of life. The sensory delights and physical pleasures of gardening in the sunlight beckon us out of and beyond those eclipsed Platonic caves, affording us the possibility of becoming prevailers over the past and pilgrims with a future rather than prisoners trapped in our shadowed malaise.

To smell a rose is to release anxiety. To bite into a fresh tomato is to relish the immediate. To spade the earth is to activate neurons and increase serotonin. And there's something else. It's in caring for something or someone else besides ourselves. Far better than the illusions of self-image and self-esteem, the key to a life lived at the full is in focusing on something outside ourselves. Our sense of ourselves and our dignity rests in the value of that to which we give ourselves.

Gardeners leave the world better for their presence, at least those gardeners who don’t blanket their gardens with pesticides. As an avocation, gardening enriches the world. Luxuriating in the moment, gardeners do well by doing good, believing as did Albert Camus that deep in our wintered spirits, there is within us “an invincible summer.”

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/22/08)

As I was watching Law and Order a few days ago, Meine Überfrau burst into the room, challenging me with the question, “Have you ever tried to find your inner child?” At the time I was trying to outwit the detectives on TV, guessing the culprit before they stumbled on him or her. She wanted me to flip the channel to Sponge Bob Square Pants. So engrossed was I in outwitting the screenwriters that my reply wasn’t satisfactory which meant she was able to reply on my behalf to her own question. “I bet you never were a child but an adult even when you were a child and don’t have an inner child to find today.” Wow, what a relief. I could go back to outwitting the screenwriters. Besides, Gretchen’s sentence was too complex for me.

From what I understand, childhood memories aren’t the same thing as finding that inner child. Since I had no inner child to find, memories will have to do. My fondest childhood memories are working with my father in the yard. Although he was a dentist, as a son of the soil, he always hankered for the soil. Coming from Scotland by way of Canada and North Dakota to Southern California, he was carried away with camellias, avocados, oranges, lemons, walnuts, and roses.

I remember mostly his devotion to the soil, almost as though he were on a quest for the Holy Grail. I especially enjoyed our trips into the countryside in his air-cooled Franklin looking for decomposed oak leaf mold and bargaining with farmers and ranchers over prices. As I look back now, I realize that he had the same problem with the dirt as we do in Flagstaff, only his was decomposed granite while ours is clay or crumbling sandstone. Although his theology would not allow for the idea of creation as a process rather than an event, composting gardeners can participate in the process of an ongoing creation. It’s called renewing the earth, only the creation is not ex nihilo, but of carbon, nitrogen, and worms.

Our dirt needs help to turn it into soil. Although the earth is not an entirely closed system with the sun supplying an enormous amount of energy, it doesn’t have endless resources, such as fossil fuels or water. We have the prospect of using up the irreplaceable which means conservation and renewal, the heart of composting. It is a way of giving back that which we have received, an act of thanksgiving.

Composting itself is simple. It’s basically piling things up for which one has no use, specifically carbon and nitrogen, like kitchen scraps, tea leaves, coffee grounds, grass clippings, non-woody yard clippings, horse manure, and so forth. Things to exclude are: dog and cat feces, fat, plastic, grease, and oil.

Actually, composting is at the bottom of the food chain and, therefore, it’s the most important, something like the foundation of a house. We compost those things we don’t want to eat, and rather than throw them away we can put them back in the food chain, aware that the earth is not an inexhaustible resource.

Now, the piles can either be in bins, cages, or old-fashioned piles. The trick is two-fold: get the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen, 3-1, and turn the pile with a pitchfork now and then to let oxygen in the pile to make it work.

My father used to tell me that we serve God in acts of kindness, both small and big, feeding the hungry, educating the illiterate, comforting the sorrowful, and then he would quote Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. Well, that’s about it with the earth. We’ve savaged it too long, and now we need to bind up its wounds. It is really no longer a question of kindness, but of necessity. As the Sergeant said to Duncan in Macbeth, “My gashes cry for help.”

The bumper stickers say, “Think global, act local.” Acting locally means composting. We’ve been like trust-fund baby wastrels. As in the Parable of the Talents, it’s time to invest our inheritance by saving our garbage.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008