Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/30/09)

In his sonnets, when Shakespeare summoned "up remembrance of things past," he longed for "the lack of many a thing I sought." (30). He was speaking of the Dark Lady, the elusive paramour he swore was "fair" and "bright," yet was "black as hell, and dark as night" (147).

Such has been the sorry tale of many tomato paramours with anticipations of luscious, full-fleshed, lip-locked ecstasies right off the vine but who instead got the cankered mold of late summer blight. Just as Shakespeare was "frantic-mad" and "past cure" (147), the tomato paramour, too, grieves for those tomatoes once sought, turned "black as hell" and "dark as night." However, there are lessons to be learned. In today's limited lexicon, Shakespeare had the "hots" which often produce undesired consequences, such as "buzz off," "yuck," or the Black Lady's, "not you" (145).

After lavishing their tomatoes with love and affection, care and tender-mercies, tomato paramours may suffer betrayal, caused by their hots for "too much of a good thing, such as, commercial, synthetic fertilizer with too much nitrogen. The result is luscious foliage, miraculously grown with little or no fruit, a passion unconsummated. As they say, read the label, with its three dead giveaway letters.

They are N-P-K: N for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium. The best ratios for tomatoes are 5-10-5, 5-20-20, or 8-16-16 with nitrogen the lowest. The reason is simple: nitrogen stimulates the growth of the plant, phosphorous the production of fruit, and potassium overall plant health. Ironically, much of commercial synthetic fertilizer is counter-productive to tomato plants because it's nitrogen heavy.

The best fertilizer is compost which isn't primarily a fertilizer. Paradoxically, synthetic fertilizer doesn't do any good and may even do harm if the soil isn't chock full of mychorizzae. They are fungal facilitators clinging to plants' roots which enable the roots to take up nutrients from the soil. Compost is a source of and stimulates the development of mychorizzae as well as providing natural nutrients.

Long before tomatoes are planted, the soil should be prepared with lots of compost and organic fertilizers. They need nutrient and organically rich soil before being planted, as well as, being watered regularly and deeply.

The cankered mold of late summer blight which has swept the East
and Middle West is best fought by preparation. Three years should pass before using the same soil, or the soil should be sterilized. The fungus, Phytophthora infestans, a water mold, may remain in the soil from years past. It's been studied as a tool in biological warfare.

The easiest way to sterilize the soil is to put it in a black container enshrouded in a black plastic bag and let it sit in the sun cooking for several weeks. Safe soil is more easily controlled in containers. Finally, plant premium seeds because they don't carry the fungal spores which are carried by air and ground on fruit and plants. The fungal spores that caused the blight in East and Middle West were probably carried on plants from the South.

Since late summer blight occurs chiefly in hot, humid climates, it isn't "a clear and present danger" in Flagstaff, save sometimes during the monsoon, by humidification from overhead watering, or importation. Tomatoes like dry leaves and regularly well-drained wet roots. In addition to clean soil as a bulwark against soil borne fungal attacks, tomato plants should be widely spaced so that air can circulate freely to ward off air borne infestations.

A frequent complaint, in addition to lack of fruit, is blossom end rot, an affliction aptly named, because dark spots of rot slowly consume the tomato at its blossom end. No lip-lock fruit. More like yuck. The culprit is a lack of calcium as the fruit sets caused by too much nitrogen and uneven watering. The remedy: throw away the fruit and deep water.

Painful are the remembrances of tomatoes past which were "lov'd not wisely, but too well" (Othello, V, 2, 344). Growing tomatoes from seeds in clean soil, compost, and balanced organic fertilizer, with regular, well-drained deep watering are the ways to love tomatoes well and wisely.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/23/09)

"When a plant does well, I propagate it, like those lilacs along the fence in the backyard. They all came from one lilac out front. Now, that lilac's dead, but all those out in the back are thriving legacies with beautiful blooms."

A tour through Grant and Nancy Gerver's garden is a tour of propagation from bearded irises to lilacs. A nurse at FMC, Nancy says, "I'm just a farm girl. I like to get my hands in the dirt and make things grow." Indeed, her garden is a potpourri of plants, all with histories, coming from other places in her garden.

Raised on a farm on Whidbey Island in the far reaches of Washington's Puget Sound, the island metaphor runs throughout her garden. A series of islands, islands of grass, ponds, flower beds, and gazeboes with no hard-edged rectangulars, gives her garden a sense of peace and ease.

Of course, some rectangles are allowed, a vegetable garden, a half basket ball court-cum-outdoor dining room with table and benches, and off the back door a shed and a deck with a hammock under great spreading trees, but they're off to the sides of the yard where they don't intrude.

At first glance, the back yard seems random, that is, until the visitor feels the pull of that line of sight, the draw of the islands, stepping stones leading one to the other. Islands of grass surrounded by graveled paths lead the eye to scattered isles of bedded flowers and then to three isles of ascending ponds of water knit together by waterfalls all the way to a small rustic gazebo set under an overhanging tree.

The line of islands isn't straight but a soft S curve, a subtle pattern giving both a sense of ease and power. A straight line is power spent while an S curve is power latent without stressed hard edges.

An island to read, think, chew the rag, sip a glass of wine, "two for tea and tea for two," and survey the whole of the garden, the gazebo is both the end of a journey and the beginning to see the journey from the other side. A retrospective, a looking backward gives the pilgrim opportunities to see what was not seen at first sight and what things look like the other way around.

What was not seen from the gazebo is another garden, again all
islands, with one big oval bed with smaller oval patches, as though they were satellites.

Nancy cautioned that the garden isn't finished, that "there's a lot to do," but, indeed, there's always lots to do in a garden. There were some weeds, ovals that weren't complete and drifted off, but such is the case with any gardener's garden. Never finished, it is always a work in progress with things that need to be done. The best way to die is to be finished and complete.

As a graduate student toiling on my doctorate at the University of Chicago, I took a seminar with the famous theologian Paul Tillich who was at end of his career. I'd read nearly everything he's written and anticipated a fascinating seminar. Not so, I was bored by a great man who was merely tidying up his ideas and had stopped breaking new ground a generation previous.

Later, I took a seminar from Anders Nygren of Uppsala of Agape and Eros fame. Far older than Tillich, he was still plowing unfurrowed fields and drew me along on his intellectual journey scrutinized by his single, monocled eye.

Nancy Gerver's garden isn't modeled from a leftover landscaper's grid. Born of her private visions, sui generis, it's still a developing and growing place of peace and curiosity. Over to the left, unnoticed in her line of islands and pools, is a statue of Saint Francis holding a small pond of water. Once belonging to a neighbor of hers now dead but whose memory she cherishes, it is one end of an axis with the gazebo, holding those remembrances of things past, allowing the mind to follow the S curves in life, finding the other sides of reality.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/12/09)

I first saw Bev MacAllister one evening across a crowded room at a fluorescently lit meeting of the Master Gardener Association. I felt an affinity. She sparkled, especially her eyes. She celebrated her age with joy, doing something for someone else without profit or aggrandizement. She develops vegetable gardens at our local fire stations, enabling firefighters to grow and eat their own fresh vegetables.

Age has given her the time and experience to manufacture a model of Ernest Hemingway's "built-in shockproof crap detector," the better to cope with that salient feature of modern culture. It isn't lying so much, as Harry G. Frankfurt writes, but someone who "doesn't know what he is talking about" (On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005.)

Of its four commonest forms, pomposity, fanaticism, inanity, and authority, she's dispatched them long ago. She's not intimidated by political, corporate, academic, ecclesiastical, or professional pomposities. Well-educated, she glides by on the other side of the street. A pragmatist, she holds her beliefs deeply, especially about organic food and modern medicine, but disparages the fanaticism of ideologically-driven bigots with "daggers in their smiles."

Inane, she's not. No sympathy for yesterday's hackneyed platitudes and clich├ęs. As in Kansas City, her mind "is up to date," ready to separate the sheep from the goats. Balancing the equilibrium between spirituality and skepticism, cynicism doesn't begrime her mind while she gracefully "cuts the crap." Spiritual without religious authoritarianism, she's secular without scientific absolutism.

Bev's "crap detector" liberates her from that "salient feature" weighing heavily on many people, leading them to waste their lives in mistaken certitudes followed by confusion, anger, and depression, unaware of the world around them.

At peace with herself, knowing her own shortcomings and foibles, Bev takes herself for what she is. She doesn't fiddle with her self-image and is free to look outward. An existentialist, her life is now.

Bev's passion, along with organic gardening, is the welfare of firefighters, especially their cuisine, cuisine being the cornerstone of health. Ill-fed, decrepit firefighters are not a good thing. Problematically, firefighters do their own cooking at the firehouse but aren't required to pass a culinary course before becoming firefighters. My son, in his early years as a firefighter and paramedic in Los Angeles County, frequently called for culinary suggestions on easy-to-fix, meat and potatoes recipes. Swiss chard hasn't been a regular on firefighters' fare which is precisely where Bev enters the scene of Flagstaff firefighting.

She does three things. She helps them grow vegetables at the firehouses, takes them vegetables from her garden and from wherever and whomever she can, and teaches them how to cook them. This is not easily done because most Americans are alienated from their senses, particularity their sense of taste after generations of fast-food. They've yet to pull a carrot from the ground or taste a tomato off the vine. Their exclusive spice is salt.

Bev is up to the task. "I don't baby sit them. I just give'em a chance to experience growth and harvest, especially finding that freshly picked vegetables taste better." While her micro task is gardening, vegetables, and cooking, her macro task is an expansion of life's experiences.

Funding the operation herself with support from Viola's, she uses containers in the firehouse gardens. "That way," Bev said, "they can move them around, like the hot peppers. They were startled at the difference in taste between the store bought and fresh hot peppers from the garden. Now, they're going to bring the containers of hot peppers into the station and grow them in sun-lit windows for the winter."

Her Firefighter's Swiss chard recipe is 2qts of washed Swiss chard, 2 chopped large garlic cloves, 1tbsp tamari. Cut stems into 1" pieces, simmer 5 minutes in ¼ cup water, covered. Add sliced leaves and diced garlic to pan and more water, if needed, bring to a boil, simmer covered 8 minutes. Add tamari, toss, and eat.

Bev not only sparkles, she's joyful. A happy warrior in the battle for good organic eats, she stands culinary guard for the first responders.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009