Friday, April 17, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/18/09)

My grandfather, Brynjolf Prom, was a Norwegian ship's master who left the sea after his brother washed overboard during a Caribbean hurricane. Using his skills as a navigator in the late 1800's, he surveyed the route for the Great Northern Railway across the northern plains through the Rockies and Cascades to the Pacific.

I remember him vividly when he was about my age. On a family vacation to Lake Arrowhead, he watched me swim. I stayed in the shallows, telling him that I felt safer when I could touch bottom. Under a thicket of eyebrows his deeply set, steel-blue eyes fixed me with a laser-like gaze. The old Viking said, "Ach, Dana, you'll only be safe when you can't touch bottom, when you're beyond your depth, else you'll run aground and founder."

On hearing my account of the day, my mother said, "Poppa, you'll only be teaching Dana to swim, not circumnavigate the globe." He replied, "Well, do you want the lad to play in the shallows the whole of his life." At that she touched him on the arm, "No, I don't, but he's just learning." The next day under his fixed gaze I swam beyond my depth.

Gardening in the High Country is not for those who want to garden
in the shallows at gravel depth. It's for those who want to go beyond their comfort zones, who see challenges as times of opportunity, and adversities as occasions for ingenuity. If the growing season is too short, extend it. If water is scarce, save it. If the soil is inhospitable, enrich it.

Enriching the soil is a matter of depth, fertilizing deeply and organically. Generally, there are two types of fertilizer, organic and synthetic. Organic includes compost and manure, but only from grain-fed animals. Compost is best made at home in the yard. Commercial compost often has filler, such as sawdust, just like "store bought" meat balls are often heavy on bread crumbs.

Manure is best measured initially with the nose, not in the manure, but in smelling its aroma. Good manure stinks. As Samuel Johnson said to the woman who complained to him that he "smelled," "Nay, madam, give me leave to correct you: you smell, I stink." Chicken manure at first stinks big time but begins to lose some of its stink with the passage of time, as the uric acid decomposes into ammonia. It's expensive commercially, so count as a BFF anyone raises chickens.

The same can be said for steer and horse manure, horse manure being the most plentiful and least nutritious. In the High Country nearly everyone knows someone who has a horse or horses and a stall. Steer manure can be bought, but it's pricey. Cattle ranchers are harder to find than chicken keepers as BFF.

All manure should be vintage. Fertilizer, as with wine, should never be "served before its time." The reason is simple. Animal urine and feces are mixed together and need time to be leached. Wine softens as the tannins are precipitated, and manure matures as the harsh elements, such as salts and uric acid, are precipitated by rain, snow, and air. Desiderata: smooth wine and maturated manure.

Two expensive but useful organic fertilizers are blood meal and bone meal. Blood meal is high in nitrogen and useful for onions, grasses, and other leafy plants. Bone meal is great for bulbs.

And then there are the ambiguities of synthetic fertilizers. If used widely and often, they impoverish the soil, obliterating the microorganisms, such as mychorizzae, needed in a nourishing soil while dehydrating the soil with salt. Used sparingly, they can increase productivity, such as a synthetic fertilizer high in nitrogen makes for large onions, but, sadly, it makes for abundant tomato foliage with little fruit. Synthetic fertilizers are useful if appropriate to the plant and used frugally.

In the "Allegory of the Cave," Book VII of The Republic, Plato drew the distinction between appearance and reality, appearance being the shadows and reality in the sunlight. In gardening, appearance is in the sunlight while the reality is hidden deeply in the soil's darkness.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

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