Wednesday, February 27, 2008


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

A vegetable, bland of taste, and pale,

A tabula rasa which can be writ

With herbs and sauces, even steamed in ale.

A cabbage bud, a flower plain, made fit

For haut cuisine, a transformed un chou-fleur

By lemon squeezed, roasted walnuts, a dash

Of salt, a feast for any epicure

With buttered flavors of chicken, a cache

In a dish delectable of taste, if not

Une pièce de résisitance, un bon mot

In a cookpot, a toothsome polyglot

And a gustatory light fandango.

At a school reunion that once plain girl

Is now a knockout kicking up a swirl.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/18/08)

The aroma of a freshly picked sage leaf is a great way to begin the day, and the taste of freshly picked chopped dill leaves in a paste of olive oil and garlic over a baked fillet of salmon is a great way to the end the day. Scent and taste are the gifts of an herb garden along with the sight of a variety of attractive plants growing in a garden of rocks. Although touted today as seasonings, herbs are still useful in medicine and for their aromas.

Many of the most popular herbs nowadays originate in the lands around Mediterranean Sea, and it’s important to remember their heritage when planting them in a garden. Generally, they like a well-drained, light, loamy, slightly alkaline soil and lots of sun, and they dislike the harsh climes of the Colorado Plateau. Several sunny hours and protection from winds will do quite nicely. This generally means that an herb garden will do best on the southside of the house and close to the house, like the kitchen door. Avoid those low places into which the cold likes to sink.

Dill, parsley, sage, chives, thyme, garlic, savory, marjoram, mint, basil, oregano, rosemary, fennel, and tarragon are most of the herbs found in a backyard herb garden amongst the rocks. Happily, in Flagstaff we have plenty of rocks in all kinds of colors, textures, and shapes to help retain the warmth of the day’s sun during the evening hours, keeping the garden Mediterranean.

Some herbs, like dill (Anethum graveolens), do quadruple duty. Its seeds are spices, its leaves herbs, and, as a carminative, it helps settle the stomach. Indeed, the name dill comes from the Norse dylle, meaning to soothe. The seeds are more strongly flavored than the leaves, both having a sweet, grassy, tea-life aroma and flavor. Finally, the whole of it is a graceful addition to both a flower and vegetable garden, towering elegantly and delicately above the garden. When glistening with dew after an evening’s rain, it makes for an epiphanous moment. Reaching a height of three feet, it gives the feeling of a leggy colt, and, as such, should be planted to the rear of a rock garden or scattered randomly throughout a garden.

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. Since it’s willowy, it should be planted in small clusters, each one helping the others to stand up, or with stakes.

Dill should not be grown near fennel because dill and fennel like each other and tend to hybridize.

Used with fish and shellfish, cottage and cream cheese, and tomato juice beverages, dill weed, that is the leaves, is a favorite in the cuisine of the Middle East where it is used to season meats and vegetables, such as lamb and spinach. 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.

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 could well be used while listening to politicians, television commercials, and corporate pitchmen in the employ of oil, insurance, and drug companies.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) as distinct from dill is a perennial. A bush-like, woody evergreen shrub with a piney-woody flavor, it prefers it dry and suffers with too much watering. It does very well amongst rocks and on borders and likes a warm environment with shade, but not under the trees. Happily, sage can survive Flagstaff’s winters.

A good companion for many plants, including rosemary, cabbages and carrots, it is said to repel insects and could well be planted throughout a garden although it doesn’t like growing near basil, cucumbers, and squash.
As a perennial, it is best replaced every few years. While it can be grown from seed, it is more useful to buy a sage plant from a nursery. For those who strive for horticultural authenticity, sage can be propagated from cuttings.

When picking the leaves, it is best to take only a few at a time. As with many human beings, sage leaves become “more so” with a stronger flavor as they age while the younger are less sure of themselves with a less committed, lighter taste.
The culinary and medical uses of sage are manifold from stuffing to gargle. It reduces perspiration, soothes sore throats, and flavors sausage, poultry, and fish. Its essence is even used in perfumes. While dill is a quadruple threat, sage is quintuple, seasoning, medicinal, aroma, attractiveness, and insect repellant. No wonder Martin Luther said, “Why should a man die while sage grows in his garden?” Indeed, its Latin name Salvia officinalis is the root of our word salvation.

It’s a good thing to have a friend growing amongst the rocks, on the borders, and throughout the garden. Like a good friend, it can survive a little neglect, pretty much take care of itself, make life a lot more pleasurable and dinners memorable. In short, sage is reliable.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

Monday, February 11, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D. Ph.D. (2/11/08)

Murphy’s Law, named after the aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy, Jr., reads “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.” In other words, someone will always let a slice of bread fall to the floor, buttered side down. While originating in aerospace engineering, Murphy’s Law is applicable to gardening, especially to growing tomatoes and that an annoying plague on tomato plants, early blight with its circular lesions, cankers, and fruit rot.

Murphy developed something else equally as important, called “defensive design,” a way of avoiding disasters that aren’t necessarily inevitable.

Defensive design in gardening begins with sanitation. As in the bathroom and kitchen, the first line of defense against disease is picking things up and washing things off. The spores of the fungus hang out unseen in plant debris, even over the winter, so it’s always pick-up time in the garden.

They also stay in the soil of a diseased plant. Another aspect of Murphy’s defensive design is rotating crops, a practice beneficial for many reasons. Tomatoes should be planted in different beds each year for at least three years. If containers are used, clean the container thoroughly and change the soil every year. Soil can be sterilized with hot water or by covering the soil with black plastic sheets or black plastic bags over the containers for a couple of weeks. However, it’s safest to change soils.

The next defensive design is air circulation. Space the tomatoes far enough apart so that air circulates within the vine. Non-productive branches, branches without blossoms, can be pruned to increase air circulation in the plant. A word of caution: too much pruning will expose the fruit to sunburn.

Overheard watering, such as sprinkling, will likely foster early blight spores and burnt leaves. Dusty leaves are allowable in defensive design sanitation.

Early blight comes about because of conditions favoring the fungus Alternaria solani. In Flagstaff, those conditions are the monsoon season, July through September, when the winds circulate from the south and southeast rather than the west and northwest, bringing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California. In other words, Alternaria solani like it moist and hot. Sadly, blight strikes only after gardeners have watched a tomato plant come to maturity. Grief happens.

Tomatoes are best planted early during the dry season so that they have time to develop and thus can more likely resist infestation. If beginning with seeds, make sure that the seeds are certified as disease-free. If seedlings are purchased from a commercial nursery, choose disease resistant varieties and inspect them with a fine-tooth comb. Commercial nurseries like hospitals are hotbeds of disease.

If old tomato plants are used in compost, make sure that they aren’t blighted. It may be wise not to use that compost to enrich the soil where tomato plants will be grown again, just in case spores were undetected.

Since the Alternaria solani are invisible to the naked eye, early blight can only be detected with magnification or after it’s begun. The signs are brownish black bulls-eye circular lesions on the older leaves, and as the blight grows the tissue around the spots may turn yellow. If the affliction is advanced, the stems will be girdled with the cankers and the fruit will rot with freckled and spotted lesions. This means daily inspections.

If these defensive designs are breached, then treatment is possible, such as sulfur dust or the fungicides chlorothalonil, commercially named Bravo and Daconil, and azoxystrobin, known as Quadris. As with any pesticides, read the labels and follow the directions exactly.

Sometimes, defensive designs don’t work and the slice of bread hits the floor buttered side down. At the first sign of infestation, cut, prune, and send the blighted leaves, stems, and fruit to Environmental Services, remembering the times when ripe dusty tomatoes were plucked warm from the vine on sunny afternoons and eaten, bent over with chin-dripping juice.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Friday, February 08, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/8/08)

Sadly, some deny zucchini a fair

Time to shine in gastronomy’s domain.

They disdain such facile veggies as fare

For the crude when they’re suited for champagne.

Sautéed in olive oil, oregano,

A touch of salt, they’re a palate’s delight,

For frittatas a cuisine apropos.

So productive are they, they’re deemed a blight

By some, cheap by others, though they’re held dear

By those favored with discernment and taste.

Sautéed, fried breaded, they’re without a peer.

Even baked in bread zucchini is graced.

Friend, come not asking for my tomatoes

While at my zucchini you flare your nose.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Sunday, February 03, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/2/08)

While watching our three-legged aging yellow lab, Roxie, find a place to defecate, I calculated the time I’ve waited for dogs to relieve themselves. Roxie’s slow, given her age and missing leg, so I had plenty of time. After cruising by the Psalmist’s limit (90:10) of “three-score and ten” or “even by reason of strength fourscore,” I figured I had totaled three months on “defecation watch.”

Meine Überfrau had commissioned me to supervise Roxie while she finished dressing and putting on makeup. Roxie was faster, so I waited again. Backing the car out of the garage, I mumbled “waiting for women and dogs.” When we hit the street, I was shot with a rejoinder, “Well, what about the time you lost us in that crime-ridden neighborhood in San Diego while you were looking for that fancy restaurant in La Jolla? Just how many times have you gotten us lost? By the way, do you know where we’re going?”

I replied, “Life’s an adventure into the unknown, just like Lewis and Clark.” Before I finished, Gretchen fired, “Well, at least, they had the good sense to ask Sacagawea for directions.”

Gardening in the High Country requires a Sacagawea who knows the territory, like the National Weather Service. The first one is: Don’t Fight the Seasons. Don’t even rush them. They have a way of winning. After hints of warming, people stream to the nurseries, wanting to break winter’s bleak grasp with colorful plants, unaware that “one swallow a summer does not make.” Generally, the last date for a frost in Flagstaff is June 10. Bet on it! I’ve lost good money betting against it.

Also, it’s not only a question of the last frost when the air temperature reaches 32°F., but also the last hard freeze when the soils’ surface freezes. The average date for the temperature to dip to 28°F. is May 28.

Now, gardeners don’t have to sit on their thumbs until June 10 if they keep in mind May 28. Some flowers and vegetables tolerate cold. Pansies, violas, and delphiniums tolerate the cold quite well, even a fleeting hard freeze. Planting tulip, daffodil, and crocus bulbs and iris rhizomes in the fall is a sure fire to enjoy pre-freeze colors in early April. Once the tulips and daffodils are spent, wildflower seeds can be sown in the same beds for flowering during the summer and fall.

Onion sets can be planted by the middle of March after the ground
has thawed. Cole crops like kale, kohlrabi, and broccoli love cool weather and tolerate frost well, and, surprisingly, spinach, sugar snaps, and lettuce do, too. Kale is even sweetened by frost.

Also, early spring is a good time to clean out the garden of last fall’s debris and set out NoLo and carbaryl bait to zap hatching grasshoppers.

Then there are tomatoes. A voluptuous and savory treat, frost kills them. Sadly, the answer lies in plastic, that particularly offensive gift of industrial chemistry, to stave off winter’s death rattles. Mini-portable greenhouses, walls of water are a circular series of connected plastic flutes which when filled with water are advertised to protect a tomato seedling down 16 F.

Five-gallon, black plastic containers are excellent pots in which to grow tomatoes because the black absorbs the day’s heat. While the fastidious and fashionable disdain their appearance, they help keep tomatoes warm during the frosty evenings.

Tomato blossoms only set when the evening temperature is above
50°F. Funereal shrouds of black plastic debris bags hung over wire-caged tomato plants help hold in the days’ heat, especially if the plants are next to the house’s radiant heat. Gardening cloth, sold at nurseries, looks better than black plastic, costs more, and works as well. An attractive possibility is double-duty, old-fashioned, heat-producing Christmas tree lights hung on the wire tomato cages, lit for a colorfully spring evening’s delight.

Flagstaff’s growing season is 103 days. As the Psalmist said, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom (90:12)” so that we don’t plant flowers and vegetables before their time.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008