Monday, February 22, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/22/2010)

A slothful man, I'm always on the lookout for the easy way out. Meine Überfrau says, "You look like you're walking backward even when you're walking forward." Her mother, Iola Schulz, of innocent countenance and mischievous disposition, once said, "Dogs like Dana because his favorite position is prone." She died at 96 when she was ready, the peaceful death of the just. So, as a gardener, I'm alert to things that don't require much effort, like dill, a shirker's dream.

Another shirker's dream is snap beans. Once called "stringed beans," some genetic whiz has bred the strings out. Snap beans or green beans should be harvested while immature. If they are left to mature, the result is a fibrous husk and big, lumpy beans, a tasteless unpleasantness. Best is an edible tender husk and puny immature beans.

Part age, I just turned 83, and part sloth, I don't like to bend over. I don't know many people who do. It's an unnatural position because human beings are designed to stand up straight or lie down. My gym teacher, nowadays called a physical therapist, tells me I should squat rather than bend over. Now, squat is an ugly word. My drill sergeant in the army, a disagreeable carrot-top named Statz, was particularly fond of the word, often using it as a command. I once drove 250 miles out of my way to give him a piece of my mind only to find that he'd died of unnatural causes. When I became a drill sergeant, I, also, found the expression useful in humiliating recruits, the first step in learning military discipline.

"The squats" aside, picking immature beans is often unpleasant because bush beans grow underneath the leaves, a hangout for bees, grasshoppers, and spiders. If gardeners like to talk while gardening, agape, a grasshopper just might see an open mouth as a safe haven. Some gardeners wear gloves which are inconvenient. The trick is to find immature beans that grow on top of the leaves.

Happily, such a variety exists. "Maxi," a cultivar, can be obtained from and is a fine green French Filet, thin, straight, and tender which matures in 51 days.

Another bush bean which is worth a little back pain is the cultivar "Rocquencourt," another French Filet. A yellow wax bean of golden color, its full name is "Beurre d' Rocquencourt" (Butter of Rocquencourt.) An heirloom from one of the richest agricultural areas in France, it's probably a descendant of the first beans introduced to France from Algeria in the 1840's. Its flavor is worth the price of standing up a few times to stretch out the kinks, even some extra effort, while keeping the mouth shut.

The next bean is "A Cosse Violette Sans Fil" which means a purple husk without string. A beautiful plant with lavender flowers and purpled veined leaves, it is a trophy which produces long, purple beans. A pole bean, it's so attractive that it can be used on a lattice to shield a deck or patio, doing triple duty as shield, trophy, and vegetable. It is best steamed rather than boiled to retain the purple color.

Of course, there are the durable regulars, such as the Kentucky Wonder, also called Old Homestead, and Blue Lake, and, reliable they are, producing delicious snap beans, both bush and pole, all-American regulars. The two mentioned first are fancy French haricots verts.

Beans are easy to grow. The only inconvenience of the pole bean is erecting a pole which can be a teepee, a lattice, strings, a wire fence, or what-have-you. The "Cosse Violette" is worth the inconvenience.

Snap beans are best planted in a rich, friable soil, laden with compost and manure. They should be planted about 1½ inches deep, 3 to 5 inches apart, and covered with organic material, like straw.

Since snap beans produce their own nitrogen, a low nitrogen fertilizer is best, first dug into the soil before the seeds are planted, and then side-dressed every few weeks thereafter. They should be watered to about nine inches in depth, but the ground should never be sopping wet, just moist.

Se planter des haricots succulents et savoureux.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Susan Lamb

Gardens on the outskirts of Flagstaff are patient and persistent teachers. Most of them eventually manage to educate even the most stubborn of gardeners about how to cooperate with the local climate and just how little they can boss around nature.

My husband and I live at the edge of the ponderosa forest, on a south-facing slope above a meadow. Biologists call such a place an ecotone, “a transition area between two ecological communities with species characteristic to both.”

Where we live is not only a biological ecotone, it's also something of a cultural ecotone between human beings and the natural world. We have learned from our garden that what will grow here is definitely not up to us. The plants will mostly determine that for themselves, in collusion with butterflies and chipmunks in the daytime and moths and rabbits at dusk. Even the inanimate — the sun and the soil, the wind and the rain — have a much stronger voice than do we.

At first we tried planting what we wanted, based on what we found at nurseries and in catalogs. We put in cosmos, for instance, but chipmunks and ground squirrels ate them all immediately. Pansies and petunias met the same fate. Sudden frosts blackened most nursery stock and dry winds shriveled transplants grown in distant, muggy greenhouses.

The only plants that thrived in those early days were the ones whose seeds arrived in our garden via the wind or the alimentary systems of birds: alpine pennycress and silverweed cinquefoil, MacDougal verbena and common yarrow, pussytoes and pygmy bluets, wild sunflowers and Flagstaff senecio with its rosette of leaves and single yellow flower on a stalk.

Noticing where these locals established themselves, we finally learned where to put the native—or at least hardy and drought-tolerant—plants we brought home from a nursery. We stopped dotting them around the house in naked patches of dirt. Instead we planted perennials beside football-sized rocks that would keep them warm, shield them from the wind, and hold moisture in the soil to sustain them between rains. Seeing that new plants did best near established plants, we grouped them together to form mutually-nurturing neighborhoods that shelter each other’s seedlings and attract hordes of ecstatic pollinators. The house itself became part of the garden, fostering mosses and moisture-loving plants on its shady north side, and agaves and other drought-tolerant plants on its sunny south.

In the early years, it sometimes felt as though we were in an endless struggle with marauding rodents and harsh elements, which foiled our attempts to establish plants we wanted just where we wanted them. We squandered time, effort, and expense before we learned to observe what was already here and the character of each plant and place in each season.

It was when we finally let the garden have its own way that the struggle ceased. Our garden taught us to cooperate with what naturally occurs and to offer only gentle encouragement. In our case, this meant providing sheltered niches in appropriate spots for plants both wild and bought. After that, voila! Our garden’s evolution into flowering mounds, mats, and spikes began.

We are patient now, recognizing that the garden goes through different stages in concert with its pollinators and pruners, from its small and shy early bloomers to its dazzling summer crescendo. Shrubs leaf out and perennials emerge as if by magic each spring. Pollinators from beetles to bees to hummingbirds arrive as their preferred flowers open in sequence from April through October. Ripe asters attract lesser goldfinches and other birds which bob up and down as they pluck at the seedheads, dropping a few to germinate next year. Golden-mantled ground squirrels harvest the fescue, leaving it to dry in the sun then storing it like hay. In winter, rabbits nibble shrubs poking above the snow, neatly and naturally pruning them back. Elk and mule deer mysteriously keep their distance (much to our relief) but coyotes, fox, and an occasional weasel do their bit to keep things in balance as they prowl at night around the house. On our land, there is no question that nature is the Master Gardener.

Susan Lamb, a local writer and naturalist (, and her husband, Tom Bean, a photographer, won the Best Native Plant Garden award of the Arizona Native Plant Society in 2008. She is the author of The Natural World of Saint Francis of Assisi and Arizona's Scenic Seasons.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/16/10)

Tam Nguyen is a young Vietnamese woman learning to speak and write English at the Literacy Volunteers of Coconino County. Under the tutelage of Joel Baillere, AIA, she wrote a composition in which she said, "Deeply inside each of us we have an empty area. We do not have a name on it or understand what it is. So we try to turn the empty feeling to the arts."

William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury, a tale of the Compson family's fall into ruin, wrote of the same emptiness. Dilsey, the family's black maid and silently heroic presence, at the end said, "They endured." It is to that experience of enduring to which Tam points. There has to be something beyond the "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable," and for many, as Tam points out, that something may be found in the arts. The arts often touch the fringes of meaning, the presence of mystery. Rudolph Otto, the great historian of religion, called the experience both awesome and enchanting (mysterium tremendum et fascinans.)

The arts, as Tam writes, sense the awe and enchantment. Ironic it is that a newcomer to the English language from a distant land of our troubled past has put her finger on that experience with no name. However, the arts are not the only ways to touch the fringes of meaning. Listening to the silence of a snowfall on a winter's evening will do it.

Spring, also, carries a sense of wonder, the experience of mystery. The emergence of daffodils or a tulip in retreating banks of snow, a wildflower in a meadow, the slow greening of a field all witness to that mystery freighted with meaning, the meaning that makes it all worthwhile.

So much of this is the gift of gardeners and their gardens. Taken for granted, maybe even seen as eccentrics, gardeners paint their canvasses of beauty all over town, places that take us beyond the ordinary and the humdrum into the mysteries of beauty, allowing everyone to pause and sigh at wonders so often wrought.

As Tam pointed out, it does not have a name because it is not an object "out there." It envelops us in the experience of the mystery, sweeping us up in a moment of transcendence in the "twinkling of an eye." Small scenes of these moments of transcendence can be seen throughout the city when two or three people pause before a garden to gaze at beauty, hold their breath, sigh, and then walk on.

Some walk by without pausing, consummated in their boredom. Never once smelling the aroma of a bouquet of roses or pausing to admire its beauty, they seem coiled within themselves. Albert Camus in his essay The Minotaur wrote, "Obliged to live facing a wonderful landscape, the people of Oran have overcome that fearful ordeal by covering their city with very ugly constructions," "turning back upon themselves like a snail." Some people cannot abide the beautiful, much less the mysterious. In the same essay he mentions the friend of Flaubert "who, on the point of death, casting a last glance at this irreplaceable earth, exclaimed, 'Close the window; it's too beautiful.'"

Along with artists, gardeners are the guardians of a community's soul. Just as a school without the arts is likely to turn out graduates without imagination, so a city without gardens is a city without a soul. Some say that they have no time to garden. Do they have no time for beauty? What kind of souls do they have? It is a wonder what these people think of themselves who let their yards go to weed or cover them with gravel's "very ugly constructions."

Legend has it that when Michelangelo finished his statue Moses, he was so taken with its life-like quality that he struck its knee with a hammer, crying out, "Now speak." Its knee is, indeed, scarred. We need no hammers with our gardens and flowers. They speak when we pause to look, and having looked we sigh for a brief encounter with the experience with no name.

For that we can thank the gardeners who have names.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/9/10)

Tallulah Bankhead, after watching Leonard Bernstein conduct the orchestra at Tanglewood , sent him a note, saying, "Darling, I have gone mad over your back muscles. You must come and have dinner with me." The rest is lost in the mists of gossip.

In another vein, I would like to send a note to novice gardeners that while back muscles are required for gardening, they don't have to be a body-builders'. Supple, even creaky, is enough. What counts is smarts. Geeks and nerds make excellent gardeners.

First of all, to dispel a well-known fact: gardening is not an uphill battle in Flagstaff. Veteran gardeners, like battle field veterans, relish frightening recruits with tales of gardening terrors, and, one suspects that their tales improve with the telling. Gardening in Flagstaff is not difficult if gardeners use their smarts, especially with tomatoes.

The first smarts is varieties that mature early, and if one is given to starting with seeds, the middle of March is the time to begin. Seeds offer a great variety, such the early maturing Sasha's Altai, Galina, Early Girl, Stupice, Prairie Fire, and Big Boy. Starting with seeds is simple. Commercial nurseries have planting packs for starting with seeds. A sunny window sill serves very well as a green house. After the plants have developed a second set a leaves, transplant them to a pint container, using potting soil, so that they'll grow larger. When they've reached about foot or more, it's time to transplant them outside.

The second smarts is soil. Control-freaks can shine manipulating soils. No one in their right mind ever just sticks a plant in unprepared soil. I've heard tales of that happening in Wisconsin, but I doubt them. I've been to Wisconsin, and I saw lots of cows, pine trees, football crazies, cheese heads, and fisherman but never anyone sticking plants in unprepared soil. Maybe Iowa, but not Wisconsin.

Smart soil should be friable, loose and flowing through the fingers, so that the roots can grow. No brainer. A soil desideratum: a nice mixture of volcanic cinders, clay, and organic matter, such as compost and manure. Also, it should have the sweet smell of earth. One of the pleasures of gardening is smelling dirt.

An excellent way to control soil is in containers which is especially true for tomatoes which tend to be soil finicky. A black five gallon container will do. If there is money to burn, fancy containers can be had. The soil can be sterilized by draping the container with a black plastic bag and let the sun do the cooking for a week or so. Also, sterilized soil can be bought if there is even more money to burn.

The next smarts is fertilizer. Tomatoes will produce marvelous foliage but no tomatoes with a high nitrogen fertilizer, the kind used for indoor potted trophy plants. Tomatoes like a somewhat balanced fertilizer high in phosphorus for the production of fruit, but with ample nitrogen and potassium for healthy foliage and plant well-being. Also, they should be fertilized regularly.

The third smarts is water. Tomatoes like to get their feet wet while their leaves stay dry. Their leaves crisp when the sun hits them if they're wet, and air borne infections are fond of wet tomatoes. Also, they don't like standing in old foul water. Who does?

So far so easy. The problem that creates the whining about gardening in Flagstaff is the weather which I would like to point out is not the tomato's fault. Complaints about the short growing season are predictable because people often shirk their responsibilities and blame the weather. Weather and climate are safe scapegoats although sometimes they strike back.

Another no brainer. It's called shelter, like coming in out of the rain and dressing for the cold. To blaspheme Noel Coward, "Only mad dogs and Englishmen take their tomatoes out in the noonday cold." When transplanted outside, the plants can either be bundled up in blankets or surrounded by a nifty device called Walls-o-Water, also available from commercial nurseries which are really portable, mini-greenhouses.

There you have it. Smart gardening in Flag.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D.

"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" echo the charmingly primitive second creation narrative in Genesis. "A mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground--then the LORD God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being."

A metaphorical potter fashioning the man from clay points to a human rootedness in the process of nature, a reality often forgot in the modern emphasis on cognition. The Hebrew word for man as an individual, 'adham, is closely related to the Hebrew word for red earth, 'adama. Modern psychotherapy attempts to understand human beings by exploring their pasts as if they were locked in an historical time-line. Theologians claim that human beings, imprinted with the divine image, are more than the dust of the earth. As the narrative in Genesis points out, human beings are mud pies infused with the breath of life. It may, also, be time to understand human beings in their earthiness, as in digging down in the dirt.

Years ago, as a graduate student floating around in the world of ideas, an old-time physician told me, "You've got to remember, Dana, that you're 99% animal." As the ancient (1350 B.C.) prophetic narrative indicates, we began as mud pies. At heart, we are primitives with a very thin veneer of sophistication, and if we don't get that, we're in trouble. 99% primitive.

The closer we are to the natural process, the more efficiently we function, the psychological corollary of sustainability. A recent study placed 90 highly stressed adults in one of three different contexts: a window facing a meadow and trees, a 50 inch plasma television screen of the same scene, and blank wall. The heart rate of those looking through the window decreased faster than the other two who fared the same which doesn't say much for television. Staring at the nihilism of a blank wall can be unnerving. If the study had added lying in the grass, looking up at the sky through the trees, or sitting at a monitor checking the Dow Jones, the differences would've been even more marked.

The further removed we are from the natural process, the more inefficient we become because, encapsulated within ourselves, like snails coiling upon themselves, we are ill-nourished. Experiencing the natural process technologically second-hand impoverishes human beings by cutting them off from their origins. Without the connective tissues of touch, smell, sound, or taste, human beings experience only themselves, a solipsism of the spirit.

While "getting back to our roots" can mean an age regression or an ancestral time-line, it can also mean digging in the dirt which is the heart of gardening. Digging allows gardeners to connect to their primitive origins, being "of the earth, earthy."

Gregory Bateson, the famous anthropologist, former husband of Margaret Mead, and underrated genius of the last half of the 20th century, wrote in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) that one of the greatest flaws in western thinking is the separation of the mind from the body as though they were separate entities. The brain is not the same things as the mind. Indeed, a baseball pitcher doesn't calculate wind, velocity, trajectory, and thrust in his brain. The mind in his shoulder and arm does it. He's connected to his flesh, often shaking out the stress before he hurls the ball.

Rather than a distinction between body and mind, we are a continuum from the dust to the mind, and it is those sensory connective tissues that keep it all together, especially touch, smell, and taste. We cannot feel or smell the grass through a window, much less a television screen. Gardening allows us to use all of our senses to the fullest, connecting us to the natural process, keeping us in contact with the dusty sub-stratum of our lives, as the mind is enriched. The imagination is free to soar in lovely gardens filled with life. Cicero wrote, "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010