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

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