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 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