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 ( 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: The Arboretum at Flagstaff for locally adapted plants. (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 For gardening questions, call the Master Gardener Hotline, 774-1868, x19, or visit MG Web site: