Wednesday, December 28, 2011


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/31/2011)

“I knew it! I just knew it! I’ve told you so often that you never listen!” Meine Űberfrau was responding to the news that I’ve lost some hearing in my left ear for high decibel, highly pitched voices and sounds, the ear I use when listening to lots of people. “It’s not only that,” she continued, “you just tune out lots of times, like in restaurants and noisy meetings, like you’re floating around in midair in some kind of alternate reality. It’s like you’re not there, and I wonder where you are.”

When the audiologist peered into my ears, she said, “Oh, good, they’re clean.” What a relief! After sitting in a claustrophobic cell straining to hear barely audible sounds, she showed me a chart on which the lines plummeted at high-pitched sounds. Then she asked me if I could hear what people were saying in the next room. Puzzled at the question, I said, “Why should I?” I’ve heard enough for a lifetime.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes was close, “There is no new thing under the sun.” While that’s true, there’s more to it than that. There’s too much noise. There’s not enough time to think, let alone to think before speaking. We live in a society of hard surfaces and rectangles, reverberating harsh messages in strident voices, the clipped brutalities of corporate functionaries. We are overwhelmed by noise. The Swiss philosopher, Max Picard, wrote: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence.”

The silence of life in a garden is a boon to the ear, left or right. It’s not the absence of sound, but the silence of life. There is a great line in Genesis 3:8, “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” The prophet imagined hearing a footfall, the brush of branches against a thigh, a sigh on catching the scent of a rose, the hushed flurry of insects, all indicating a Presence yet unseen. It’s quiet in the cool of the day when the noise of the day is over. It’s in that pause after the heat and clamor when the gloaming draws nigh. Eugene Mason, an English poet at the turn of the 20th century, wrote: “I all but touch Him with my outstretched arm.”

Such a time is the reward of gardening. It’s that time when one can sit down and gather the pieces of oneself, having been scattered throughout the day. There’s something special about a garden in the cool of the day. It’s elemental, connecting all the five senses to the sensations of the garden. It’s gardening with the left ear when everything has been said, shutting out the hard-surfaced noises of shiny, impenetrable buildings, and listening to the silences of life, to Elijah’s “small voice of stillness.”

Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence is about an urban bleakscape where the voices are “talking without speaking,” and “hearing without listening.” It is the silences of indifference, deafened in the racket of subway walls. The voices of a garden’s silences are different, not hard-edged, but soft, the kind that one strains to hear for the listening.

Every garden needs a bench, a chair, or a large rock on which one sat sit and listen to the silences of nature. Cicero, the Roman nobleman, statesman, and father of rhetoric, said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

A good resolution for the New Year is a life attuned to the silences of a garden, a winter’s snowfall, the scent of a rose haunting the air, the songs of birds, the scurrying of squirrels chasing each other upon and down the trunk of a tree. What Picard said of the forest can be said of a garden: “The forest is like a great reservoir of silence out of which the silence trickles.” In a society geared to the harsh, to strident voices, to false promises, to everything hard-edged, the garden is a place to hear a Presence unseen yet heard in silence.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith edits the column, GARDENING ETCETERA, for the Arizona Daily Sun in whcih the above article appeared on December 31, 2011.  He can be reached at .

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Tam Nguyen

I never thought that a pure, white diamond really existed. I laughed when my Dad told me: “Come on, sweety, we are going to see the diamond!” I said to him, “It will not make us full or make money. I want to sleep more! I want to get up late and lie with my warm blanket.” But he still got me up and took me out into the yard. He gave me a glass of hot tea and pointed to the droplets on the leaves, saying “Those are all the pure diamonds”

The early mornings in the highlands of Viet Nam are cool and fresh with mists hanging in midair. The sun peaks through the coffee leaves, casting shadows on the ground, as though the sun in waltzing through the morning.

There were dew drops on the leaves. They were beautiful, glittering in the early morning sun. I played with them, collecting all the tiny tear drops on my glass. I wonder why we had the dew drops because my Dad had not watered the trees yet.

They came from the air, an essence. The mists made them when the temperature and humidity were just right. The process has been working all night before while I was sleeping, relaxed and enjoying my dreams. The earth was still working hard.

While I was playing with the dew drops, my Dad told me about the tear drops. He told me whenever I understand about meaning of a tear drop, I will have an different angle on life. I would appreciate how much life has given me so many wonderful things. The tear drop from mother’s eyes will be forever. She always cares for her children and her family. The sweaty drop from father will be different because he will work and protect his family and provide the food and a house to live. The impurity of sweat and tears is purified by the love of a mother and father.

It was made a pure diamond. It was without price for value. I watched the colors of dew drops with different colors. One is pure, one is have colorful, and another glitters. The dew drops never break down. They just break into two other tear drops when I try to cut it and when I fold the leaf together the tear drop will come together. It was a game that did not last long for me because the sun came up, and all of them disappeared. They dried out.

The value is understanding it! It came from the ideas. We named the dew drop a diamond. The talent of human is one of elements make difference of world. The pure diamond never has the value as the value of working to change the value of world.

The molecules of dew are so wonderful because of flexible of form. They begin from water molecules, and from there they form dew, snow, ice, and water. All these things are process of water to change from water to gas, liquid, solid. Playing with dew drop was a game for me since I was a little girl at country village. Dew drop was evaporated just wonder for me that because of the sun, and the sun was seem as an enemy for dew drop. I was hearing my Dad tell me a story more than listening to him the meaning which he tried to tell me. Years later, I comprehend it. My Dad kept my childhood full of story. It did not make full my stomach of food. But dew drop gave me a wonderful game and a point to thinking. I appreciated my Dad took me out into the yard at early morning and show me dew.

The wonder when I came to Flagstaff in the winter. I looked out from window at the snow, the ice, the crystals, the icicles. It was field of diamonds. The sky was blue. Snow danced with light from sun bright and clear. I opened the door. I freeze-dried. I ran back get mittens, hat, coat, gloves. No more dew drop but crystals.

Tam Nguyen is a Master Gardener and a student at NAU and The Literacy Center. She is taking her oath of citizenship on December 19. Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun and emails at  This article appear in the AZDS on Saturday, December 17, 2011,

Saturday, December 03, 2011



The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (Dec 3, 2011)

Dirty Harry once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” More importantly, Georges Braque, the famous French 20th century Cubist, said: “In art, progress lies not in extension, but in a knowledge of limitations.” So it is with gardening in the high country. If we don’t know our limitations, we’re in trouble, but if we do, then we can have beautiful gardens.

Now, some local negativists gripe and whine about the limitations of gardening in Flagstaff, fondly recalling other climes and cultures where “all you had to do was stick a plant in the ground.” Now, those fondly-recalled climes are often hot, humid, sticky, and buggy, swathed in mosquitoes. More importantly, however, than their short memories of yucky climates is their tendency to “look at the present through a rear-view mirror” to quote Marshall McLuhan. Lot’s wife also stole a fond rear-view glance of Sodom and Gomorrah as she fled their destruction and for that was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26.)

Rear-view, salt-preserved people aside, gardening is a tutor for the way inevitability and necessity beget creativity. We all work within limits, and it’s important to know them. For Calvinists, it’s the doctrine of freedom within destiny. Freedom is always within limitations, such as being born male or female. This awareness of limitations applies not only to art, but to gardening in Flagstaff.

Although gardens are artificial, human constructions, as are paintings, they’re extensions of the wild, or else they won’t work. The wilderness is the testing grounds for gardens.

Braque began his career painting landscapes in 1908; however, he, alongside Picasso, discovered the advantages of painting still lifes instead. Braque explained that he, “… began to concentrate on still-lifes, because in the still-life you have a tactile, I might almost say a manual space… This answered to the hankering I have always had to touch things and not merely see them.”

Braque likened the genius of gardening to a form of art. It’s reaching out to touch, hear, taste, and smell, to bring life up close and personal. Seeing often keeps things at a distance, as in “over there.” However, if something is tangible, it is limited to time and circumstance. As Robert Frost said, “I play tennis better because the net is there.”

Rather than importing plants from out of our histories or imaginations that don’t belong in Flagstaff, it’s far better to garden with the plants that work in Flagstaff. The sad fact is that we can never fully trust the advice of someone who anticipates making money off their advice whether it’s cars, clothing, or plants. It’s called caveat emptor, buyer beware. It’s not that they can’t be trusted, it’s that their advice needs to be checked. The late President Reagan said, “Trust and verify.”

Most of us have the greatest ever research tool available sitting somewhere in our homes or at work. It’s called the Internet. The things to look for in the search
are climate zones, last and first frosts, length of growing season, water, soil, and so forth. Perhaps, the best guide for gardening in the high country is Busco and Morin’s Native Plants for High Elevation Western Gardens. It’s the real skinny on plants suitable for Flagstaff’s gardens.

We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. If we take our cues from the splendor around us, we can have gardens in Flagstaff that will rival gardens anywhere. It’s all a matter of accepting the limitations inherent in the beauty of our environment. We’re not necessarily limited to native plants, but if we go beyond, we have to make sure they’re adaptable and not invasively toxic. As it is psychologically, so it is horticulturally, it’s a matter of authenticity, being faithful to ourselves and our place, and not pretending to be someone else somewhere else or, worse yet, wanting to be someone else somewhere else.

Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian and philosopher, told the story of an aged pious man, Rabbi Susya, who became fearful as death drew near. His friends chided him, "What! Are you afraid that you'll be reproached that you weren't moe like Moses?" "No," the rabbi replied, "that I was not Susya."

“Dana Prom Smith © Copyright 2011 Dana Prom Smith edits the column GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared 12/10/2011.

Sunday, November 13, 2011



The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/12/11)

James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson quoted Dr. Johnson as saying, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Indeed, it does. After my troopship foundered and split in half at the base of sheer cliffs on the Alaskan coast, I waited for rescue on a disintegrating hulk for a couple of hours, knowing that I wouldn’t last in the frigid water more than five minutes. My mind was concentrated wonderfully. Happily, I was finally taken off by breeches buoy.

The recollection of that experience always brings me back to essentials, fresh air, clear water, and the sun’s warmth, the things that make Flagstaff so desirable. Of course, this is about gardening, that marvelous and mysterious fusion of seed, soil, water, and sun. The prospect of running out of fresh water is akin to the prospect of running out of either air or sun.

In this case, the issue is grass, one of the loveliest aspects of a garden, and one of the most problematic in Flagstaff. The problem is Kentucky blue grass (Poa pratensis), the grass most people favor, consumes lots of water. Although some people seem to suffer from a prodigal son syndrome, everyone else knows that drinking water is precious. Not only is water scarce, it’s also becoming scarcer and more expensive. The city is hiking the water rates, especially for homeowners.

But the problem at hand is the front yards of Flagstaff. Some people favor gravel as a means of solving the water issue. The problem is that it’s ugly, especially when decorated with cattle skulls or rusted-out plows. Worse yet, it heats up the atmosphere, turning yards into a reflecting ovens.

Lawns can be beautiful, cool-looking, neatly trimmed expanses of green. Sadly, they’re, also, ill-used and waste water. Unless, someone is into playing badminton, croquet, or lawn tennis in the front yard, Kentucky bluegrass lawns are wastes.

When in doubt, go native because native works best. When the forest is left alone to do its own thing, it seems to do pretty well, like native grasses. During our dry spells, they need to be watered only once a week to be kept green, and this can be done by watering them with rain water saved in a barrel. They require mowing once a year with a weed whacker after their seeds stems have finally cast off their seeds.

Three very attractive native grasses are Arizona fescue (Festuca arizonica), sheep grass (Festuca ovina), and creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra).

All three can be planted from plugs or by seed. In any case, the ground should be prepared by turning compost into the soil a few inches deep as would be done with any grass. If sown by seed, anytime of the year is all right, save winter, but the best is during monsoon and the second best is early spring.

Arizona fescue is a bunch grass, that is to say, it doesn’t form a smooth sod but grows in clumps which can be grown closely enough together to form a continuous green lawn. As such, it is not a turf grass which will bear lots of foot traffic, but generally front lawns are not heavily trod upon. It throws off a bluish haze.

The sheep fescue is also a bunch glass that forms attractive mounds and swirls, much like a turbulent pond. It’s green. A very interesting variation of sheep fescue is blue fescue (festuca ovina var. glauca.) It is distinctly blue and is best planted in plugs. Its uses are in edging and plots and even randomly scattered.

Creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra) is not a bunch grass, but a turf grass which spreads by seeds and rhizomes. It tolerates shade. If left to grow, it forms, as does the sheep fescue, whorls and cowlicks which are far more attractive that the usual military buzz cut from which front lawns suffer.

There you have it: more interestingly beautiful lawns on less water, less work, and at less expense. Less is more, go frugal, do indigenous!

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith edits the column GARDENENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared 11/12/2011. He can be emailed at

Friday, November 11, 2011



The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/11/2011)

Several years ago meine Überfrau and I had a shoot out at Thanksgiving over the gravy. She’d asked me to make the gravy and stuffing, writing out the steps in gravy making. I compressed a few. The gravy clotted with free-floating radical lumps. “I just knew it!” she said, “You’re always taking short cuts. You’ve just ruined the whole dinner.” A former first-class flight attendant during TWA’s days of glamour and glory, Gretchen likes things done elegantly down to place cards.

A tense time was had by all. The gathering was composed of people who ordinarily don’t sit down together for dinner. We’d invited my mother-in-law and my former wife. My adult children had prevailed upon us to invite her fearing she’d be alone. We’d also invited two couples, a flame-tressed veganesque Wiccan priestess of fungoid theology who ate all the mixed nuts and her husband, a fleshy carnivorous hummingbird feeder salesman who dislocated the pot rack while leaning over to gaze down my nubile granddaughter’s bosom. The other couple was a sallow Assyrian Orthodox husband, complete with ancient indignations and orthodoxies and claims to ecclesiastical exclusivity, and his Sephardic Jewish wife from South Yemen who was glad to be alive. A malaise underlay the gathering until dispelled by Gretchen’s magnificent feast.

Some gardens suffer the same malaise, something is going on in the garden just below the surface, resulting in a garden that doesn’t thrive. The problem’s deep in the soil. Successful gardening is soil, and soil is “what you make of it.”

The best guests for a soil dinner are those strangely-worded mycorrhizae which aren’t discreet entities like a rock, but fungal associations or symbiotic relationships between the soil’s nutrients and the plant’s roots. Growing on the tips of a plant’s roots, they’re little strands of fungi that pass from just outside the root to inside it. Spooky looking, they resemble a diaphanous spider web or that gossamered stuff used at Halloween. They can’t be seen with the naked eye, lying well below our visual radar screens.

In corporate-speak mycorrhizae are facilitators and in psycho-babble enablers. Although they can be bought, it isn’t necessary because they’re in the soil already, but to function effectively they need soil amended with organic matter, such as vintage cattle, horse, or chicken manure and compost.

Some mycorrhizae are good and some bad, the good are called mutualistic and the bad parasitic. If the soil isn’t composted and too much artificial fertilizer is used, especially heavy doses of phosphorous, the mycorrhizae sometimes turn bad or parasitic. Ironically, sometimes artificial fertilizer withers plants.

As in life, good relationships mutually benefit everyone in the relationship. The plants take up the nutrients and release carbohydrates to the fungi all because of the mutualistic mycorrhizae. Everyone wins. The parasitic mycorrhizae suck nutrients out of the plant and don’t deliver carbohydrates to the fungi. Everyone loses.

As the middle men of a thriving garden, enabling and facilitating the uptake of nutrients, mutualistic mycorrhizae are the sine qua non of gardening. They improve nutrient and water uptake, root growth, and plant growth and yield. They also reduce transplant shock and drought stress.

Amending the soil with organic matter does something else. It helps save the planet, by replenishing the earth rather than consuming it and by cooling the planet through water conservation and increased foliage. Concrete, asphalt, and gravel heat it. It’s thinking globally by sustainable gardening locally. What better way to thank God at Thanksgiving than having a sumptuous feast of manure and compost for the earth!

The Sephardic woman from South Yemen and I got along swimmingly because we both spoke the same Sephardic dialect of Hebrew. She rescued the gravy, vigorously smoothing it out with a wire whisk. The stuffing turned out well. I followed the directions. “For just once in your life, why don’t you do as you’re told?” The shrinks tell us that men often marry women like their mothers.

“Thank” is a transitive verb. It requires a direct object. Remember your direct objects, especially the Presence who is not an object, but the Subject. As the Lord told Moses, "I am." Pity the agnostics and atheists. They just don’t get it.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared on Nov. 19, 2011. He can be contacted at

Wednesday, November 02, 2011



“Dysfunctional family” is an epithet often thrown around nowadays, masquerading as a diagnosis. The problem: it’s meaningless because all families are dysfunctional in one way or another. A diagnosis without a difference, it’s like accusing someone of breathing.

We perceive our experiences through the prism of our personal metaphors. Some think that human relationships are like a machine in which everything works efficiently without intimacy, the parts being interchangeable. Others think of them as if they were cupboards or a parts department, pigeon-holing members as though they were objects unrelated to one another. Both metaphors in terms of family relationships lead to alienation because there are no intimate connections.

More functional metaphors for a family are an organism or a fabric in which the members are involved with one another or closely woven. As John Dunne wrote in Meditation XVII, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Dysfunctional families pretty much parallel our gardens. When we first moved to Flagstaff 8 years ago, one of the first things I did was to plant a rhododendron and several forsythias largely because I was still enthralled with the beauty of Princeton in the spring, a halcyon experience now 65 years old. A hymn reads, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.” I’d forgotten that.

I enjoyed Latin in school, but not my sons. A year of frustrations and anger was misspent enforcing Latin. I thought they would like what I liked and become what I had in mind. A folly it is to impose our expectations on others contrary to their interests, abilities, and inclinations. Happily, they’ve forgiven me. When they were in their early twenties, I took them out to dinner with my daughter and asked for their forgiveness for all the ill-tempered and stupid things I had done. I would recommend such an event for every parent.

So it is with gardens. Many wonderful plants don’t do well in Flagstaff, but many do. I kept that rhododendron alive for four years as it withered year after year. The forsythia, Shasta daises, blanket flowers, penstemon, and Arizona fescue have prospered beyond my expectations. One sure sign of dysfunction, nay, insanity, is to keep repeating a failure expecting a success. In short, what works are native and adaptive plants.

Our sense of beauty needs to change when we move from one place to another. I was raised in California with orange trees, Meyer lemons, camellias, bougainvillea, avocados, and azaleas. I miss them, but that should not blind me to the beauty of the ponderosa pines, Gambel oaks, sheep fescue, and quaking aspen.

When I moved to Tucson years ago after 8 years in the East and Middle West, I first thought the desert was a waste. After a year, I began to see its beauty, and when I left, I missed its beauty. I still smell creosote bush when it rains. So it is with the High Country. No azaleas, but, ah, the wildflowers.

Also, that maple I planted at the same time as the rhododendron and the forsythias now shades a once beautiful flower bed. The flowers are now pitiful, pathetic, and dysfunctional. I have to transplant them and put in what the arborists call “understory” plants. Gardens evolve just as do families. Those reluctant Latinists are now worthwhile middle-aged men planning their retirements. My daughter now does the Thanksgiving dinner.

Since we’re all dysfunctional, it’s important to look at the whole of the garden and family. Sometimes plants don’t prosper no matter how much care they’re given. No point in blaming the plant or Flagstaff. The big dysfunction is in not accepting one’s dysfunction. As Oliver Cromwell told the Westminster Parliament in 1650, “I beseech you, in the blood of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” The Westminster Parliament didn’t. We should.

Families bond much like a soldier’s “band of brothers” where forgiveness, tolerance, and trust are the sine qua non of survival and prevalence. So, too, is a garden. Not every member is the same. Not only that, they change with time. Gardens, like our families, are organisms constantly evolving into new shapes and forms. So “faith, hope, love abide.” Gardening is an act of all three.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared on 11/5/2011. His email address is

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Tam Nguyen

Every season has a various beauty. The color of leaves changes so fantastically. Fall season has many leaves which fall off. It looks like a rain of leaves! Anyway, once in a while there is a tiny sound of the leaf that does not fall to the ground, the leaf that hangs on when others fall. So quite, so silent, so still. Because the leaf is so light, it seems to have no weight.
In a garden with many plants in spring, everything looks so green, smell so fresh. The new bulb is going up. Then the time comes for the leaf to change color, light green, dark green, gold, brown, and then falls off the branch.
Day by day, the leaves take the light from the sun, make energy for tree, and make free oxygen for the earth. The silent work is every moment. Then when the leaf fall off, we call it going home. After it finishes its job, it begins the new traveling to begin the new story.
It’s almost the shock of the spirit. The leaf broke up my spirit because the leaf makes my mind look at life from another angle. The human being, the earth, and the tree become a one thing. The spirit is in everything, everywhere. The beauty of life becomes a thing named by love. The fluttering leaf becomes the music with the melting melody. Nothing can stop it. It survives all over the time. The leaf touched the ground, played with wind. It is flying, and the flying never stops.
Deep inside the person, there is the empty space to fill with the beauty of life, for love, for trust, and hope life will be better. These are on our horizons, the sky bordering the mountain and the leaf changing its color. It is so deep in color, so close for anybody to touch, yet far enough for some people try not to understand about spirit. The leaf still is there. It is attending everywhere even in a quite village or a busy city. The leaf helps the spirit fly higher, further and faster, than the human can imagine about the time and space.

When the leaf falls from the branch of a tree, it begins a new travel tour. The wind will flow it up, and it will fly on the air. It is a time for leaf to find out the real world after it heard from the sun, clouds, and wind. The leaf will tour wherever the wind pushes it. It is not only the forest, village or city, it also expand all over. The leaf brought the song with the artist to make the life better. Just as the artist feels the melody and sings the song, so the blowing wind sings a melody.
Often the only person who is the artist can feel the melody of song and sing out loud. Gold color reminds him that the late evening for life, ready for everything, knowledge, experience and passion for life somewhere. Nothing can survive forever, just one moment will be forever. The end of tour, the leaf will drop on the earth and go back to root. It will change to organic nutrition of the earth. The earth will be porous for the plants. All the story of leaf’s tour, nobody knows exactly, but it makes the mystery for life. Often people do not understand the experience of
nature. They think the leaf is without meaning for human life, without caring or paying attention to the leaf.
Many forests disappear or turn into the desert when the leaves are gone. The green leaf brings hope for everybody. I wonder how many people ask for the gold leaf. Is it for dying or beginning new things, to do something or begin come back? The leaf is the reason we breathe every day. Even the good day or bad day, people need the small leaf to clean the air without touching or smelling it.
My tutor told me of Albert Camus’ words: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

Tam Nguyen is a Master Gardener and a student at NAU and The Learning Center where Dana Prom Smith, the editor of GARDENING ETCETERA, is her tutor. His email address is

Tuesday, October 18, 2011



Dana Prom Smith

A narrow, well-worn graveled lane leads to Casa Escondida, the “hidden house.” Finding the lane means meandering through three county roads, several ambivalent junctions, and some missteps. Several miles from the village of Chimayó in northern New Mexico, it is off the beaten path. While no one can completely get away from it all, Casa Escondida comes close: no telephones, no television, no radios, peace and quiet in what is a “rustic elegance.” Sadly, there was a wireless internet to check the stock market, a disquieting experience.

The quiet is the quiet of nature. A couple of crickets near the patio carried on an undecipherable dialogue. Soon, a whole chorus of several hundred chirping voices joined in the conversation. While sipping a glass of cooled chardonnay to smooth out the kinks from sitting on a long drive, my ears begin to hear the silences of nature: the winds rustling the leaves of the cottonwoods and whistling through the junipers. The birds were still singing as the sun began its descent.
Although dusk had settled around the patio, the sun was still shining on the tops of a couple of giant cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) in the distance. Bright with seemingly small red and golden Christmas tree lights, they glittered against the backdrop of the deepening blue of a New Mexico sky. It is the kind of scene which evokes a tension-releasing sigh.

A dinner at Rancho de Chimayó was an authentic taste of northern New Mexico. Nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, the people of the villages are largely descendants of the Conquistadores, some identifying their lineage to the seventh and eighth generation. Flavored by the people of the region, the cuisine is often more Spanish than Mexican.
After dinner, the chirping of the crickets slowed while the yipping of the coyotes took over in a bloodthirsty ferocity euphemistically called the balance of nature. I was grateful for not being born a field mouse.

While asleep later that I night, we were awakened by the piercing screams and coughing barks of a bobcat, similarly engaged in the balance of nature. It was not more than ten yards from our patio in a thicket of trees and bushes. Sometimes, the wilderness comes too close.
At dawn, I heard a rooster. I realized I hadn’t been awakened by the crow of a cock since I was a boy. My job was to feed the chickens and gather the eggs, sometimes fleeing an irate hen. It was a very pleasant homecoming. I lay abed relishing the moment and the memories.
While sitting on the patio enjoying a pot of hot tea, fresh fruit, sausage, and a green chili omelet, I caught a flash of fire out of the corner of my left eye. Steeled by the drought that had plagued northern New Mexico, I turned to check to see whether or not a disaster was in the offing, but, no, it was the rays of the rising sun striking the tops of the cottonwoods in the distance. They glowed for one glorious moment and then no more.

Looking straight out from the patio lay a small cultivated garden fit for a dry climate, then a lawn of mown weeds and grasses, and finally a wild thicket of Siberian elm saplings, junipers, piñon pines, a maple emblazoned in red, and finally in the background those giant cottonwoods. It was a panoply of colors, sizes, and shapes. A truth dawned on me. A southwest garden is as much about the wild as it is about order and pattern. What doth it profit to study a world we know when the mystery of the unknown is before our eyes?
In the small strip of a cultivated garden were honeycomb butterfly bushes, two small yuccas, and a couple of stonecrop bushes with their burgundy flowers in full bloom.

To the right of the patio was the center piece of the garden. Like a time-worn obelisk, an ancient juniper abided, its age-roughened bark, hacked and pruned, a few tuffs of new life emerging here and there. I had found a compadre.

Copyright 2011 © Dana Prom Smith

Dana Prom Smith, editor of GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun, emails at

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


THE ANSWER MAN: What’s Your Problem?

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/3/2011)

This time of the year, many people ask questions about planting bearded irises.

Q. Spent big bucks on iris bulbs. Missus told me to fix up the front yard. Told me I was gonna get cold sardines for breakfast if I didn’t get a move on. Said that old, rusty plow “just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore,” least ways not since some Master Gardener moved in next door. Kinda scowls at my yard. Anyways, all I got was green spikes, no flowers. Told me they didn’t need much care, and that’s just what they got.

A. Your sentences don’t have subjects, just verbs and objects, like imperatives and commands. You must’ve been traumatized by your drill sergeant. They never use subjects, either. Anyway, they aren’t bulbs, but rhizomes. “Little care” doesn’t mean “No care.” If those rhizomes were your children, you’d be charged with child neglect and tossed in the hoosegow. Here are some guidelines about parenting rhizomes.
You feed children. Irises are fed about 6-8 weeks before they bloom and after their blooms are gone. No lawn fertilizer. Too much nitrogen. Nitrogen for iris is like candy for children. It rots their rhizomes, instead of their teeth. Use bone meal or super-phosphate because phosphorous makes for root growth. All root, they need lots of phosphorous.
Next is potassium. You need potassium for your cardio-vascular system just like irises need it for their health and growth.
I’m sure you make your children clean their rooms and make their beds. Irises need clean beds and rooms. They need weeds picked, just like you don’t let your children hang around a bunch of delinquents.
Finally, you don’t want your children wasting their energies in frivolous pursuits, like video games. Children need discipline just like irises. After the irises have bloomed, cut the flower stocks close to the ground. This is allows their energy to go back into the rhizome instead of frittering it away.
Your wife is right. That rusty old plow is an eyesore. You aren’t a farmer anyhow. The proper plural for iris is irides. Iris is a Greek word meaning rainbow. Dress up your front yard with rainbows, and your wife won’t serve you cold sardines for breakfast. Maybe, even that Master Gardener with the creepy hat will give you a hand.

Q. My name is Abigail. My husband, Rusty, thinks that a front yard of gravel, weeds, and a rusty old plow is the cat’s pajamas. He says it celebrates the early days of Flagstaff when “men were men” whatever that means. I threatened him with cold sardines for breakfast, just like early cowboys ate, if he didn’t get off his big, fat behind watching “Ice Road Truckers” and fix the front yard. Our new neighbor just shakes his head. His wife is real nice and friendly and suggested that the easiest thing to grow were bearded irises. Said they were quite beautiful. She even said that they could be planted in groups right in the middle of that damned gravel. Rusty dug’em in, but they just kind of pooped out. What do you suggest?

A. I fear that Rusty didn’t plant them the right way. You don’t dig’em in but settle them in, just like you’re putting your children to bed with a light blanket over them and just their heads sticking out. First, prepare the bed, by digging in compost, phosphorus, and potassium, and then let it sit for a week or so. Then make a small mound and settle the rhizomes into the bed, covering them with a thin layer of soil while leaving the leaves above the soil. Then for the first few weeks water them so that the soil is damp, but not wet lest the rhizomes rot. This should be done toward the last of summer or the beginning of fall so that the rhizomes will have time to develop roots before winter sets in.
Cold sardines may be better for Rust’s health, but biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs are better motivators. Napoleon said, “An army marches on its stomach.” Don’t let the Master Gardener’s hat put you off.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith edits the column GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun and can be emailed at

Saturday, August 27, 2011



The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/27/2011)

Sneezing people with head colds are an unwelcome sight. They should stay in bed with hot chicken soup, but, no, they appear in public, sometimes at close quarters, spraying everyone in sight. With rheumy eyes and runny noses they are a lot like weeds. Sans merci.

A lot of gardening involves weeding. A weed is an unwelcome plant. It generally is fast growing, ingenious, and supernaturally resourceful.

When the Romans conquered England in 41 A.D., they brought with them the scotch thistle (Onopordium acanthium) which has its origins in the lands around the Mediterranean. It eventually hopped over Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman barrier defending Roman England from the Scots to the north. In addition to the scotch thistle, the Romans also introduced bathing to England.

It flourished in Scotland where it proved itself a defense against Viking invaders. In a nighttime sneak attack upon Scotland, the Norse stumbled into a thicket of scotch thistles. Their cries of pain awakened the inhabitants who drove them back into the sea. It was imported into the United States as an ornamental shrub because it’s flowers are beautiful.

Now it has become an invasive, noxious weed, especially in the West where it has become a barrier to cattle. I found a thicket of scotch thistles in a vacant lot near my house and set about uprooting them, a task which requires heavy, leather gloves along with full body armor. The Latin phrase Nemo Me Impune Lacessit (No One Injuries Me Unpunished) is on the national emblem of Scotland along with the scotch thistle. By the way, after pulling them, put them in a plastic garden bag and dispatching them to the county dump. Sans merci.

Another oddity is that it is a cousin to the artichoke (Cynara scolymus), both being members of the tribe Cynareae which takes its name from the Greek word for dog because their bracts look like the teeth of a snarling dog. It’s a delightful vegetable with anti-oxidant and anti-cholesterol benefits. Artichokes can be grown in Flagstaff just as can scotch thistles; however, while the artichokes grown here are beautiful to behold, they aren’t nearly as tasty as those grown in Castroville, California. Bon appétit.

Another member of the tribe Cynareae is the Centaurae diffusa, commonly called the diffuse knapweed which in the fall and winter turns into the tumbleweed. It, too, has snarling dog’s teeth. The word cynic comes from the Latin word for dog, cynicus. Cynics are toxic, baring their ideological teeth, claiming that everything is rotten save themselves.

The diffuse knapweed is a true cynic because it poisons the soil around it so that nothing else can grow save itself, eliminating any competition. It’s called allelopathy which means that a plant can release chemicals that inhibit the development and growth of neighboring plants. Just as cynics poison a social environment, so do diffuse knapweeds poison a horticultural environment, eliminating their competition by toxicity.

One plant can produce 18,000 seeds which are spread by the wind as its tumbles and sneezes over the land. A genuinely ugly plant, it is scraggly, prickly, and unappealing, with no known benefits. If it had been available to Moses, he surely would’ve used it as a plague.

When destroying it, it should be rooted out before it goes to seed, plant and roots, put into plastic garbage bags, and dispatched to the Environmental Services (garbage can). Sans merci.

And then there is cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), a truly despicable and aptly named form of vegetation. With its lateral roots it sucks up moisture from the soil, depriving other vegetation of moisture. Capable of displacing every thing else, especially native vegetation, it is easily combustible, making it a fire danger. A seedy profligate, it grows almost anywhere in the most miserable of soils, especially soils that have been disturbed. The best thing to do is pull it as soon as it is seen. A native of Asia Minor, it was imported with bales of alfalfa and has no known adversaries.

As with the common cold, the Scotch thistle, diffuse knapweed and cheat grass have arrived, and they’re sneezing. Sans merci.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith edits the column GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun. His email address is

Friday, August 19, 2011


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/25/2011)

One of the most splendid meals I’ve ever eaten was California golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss,) roasted over a campfire, and a cobbler of pink Sierra currants (Ribes nevadense.) Every summer for about ten years, I took young people from my church backpacking in the High Sierra along the John Muir Trail. We packed freeze-dried food which we divvied up amongst the backpackers. An over-privileged student wearied by his forty pound pack dumped his share of the food over the side of the trail. We were one day short of food.

While protecting the offender from the wrath of the others, I began scouting the forest for forage. Remembering my military survival training, I found watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and edible grubs and insects. Fast-food addicts, they all said, “Ugh! Yuk!” Just below a sub-alpine lake, I spied a thicket of pink Sierra currants with its tasty blue-black berries. Along with a couple of non-fishing volunteers, the offender was sent off into the thicket to pick the berries. Those with fishing gear went along with me to the lake and stream to fish for our dinner.

We soon had our limit. I solicited all the graham crackers from the group, and we made a cobbler with the berries. We ran pliable branches from creek-side bushes through the trout from mouth to tail, roasted them over the fire, eating them like sweet corn on the cob.

All of which brings us to our yards, not in the High Sierra, but on the Colorado Plateau, especially berries for wildlife and birds. Pink Sierra currants do quite well in Flagstaff. A California native, it’s found in forests from 3,000 to 10,000 feet. Its berries are sweet, tart, and edible. It thrives in climate akin to Flagstaff’s. It survives both drought and flooding and prefers the company of pine trees.

A deciduous shrub about three to five feet high, it flowers from April through July with white and pink blooms. In the summer, its fruits hanging in six inch cascades are favored by both birds and human beings. Its weeping branches are without thorns, making it safe for children. If unavailable in our local commercial nurseries, it can be ordered online at

Next in our list of food for birds is the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa.) However, its berries and plant are slightly toxic to human beings, producing a derivative of cyanide. For this reason, children should be kept from playing with the plant, flowers, and berries. However, with careful preparation a delightful cordial and jelly may be made from the berries.

It can grow into either a clump several feet high or a small tree. It favors well-composted soil and regular watering. The green leaves are either oval or oblong. In the late spring its cream-colored flowers bloom in large clusters followed by small black, blue-black, or red berries. Both the flowers and the bush itself are slightly unpleasant to the nose but charming to the eye, especially when in bloom and fruiting. More importantly, it is attractive to birds and particularly winsome to doves.

Not to be forgotten is the western chokecherry (Prunus Virginia) which produces beautiful pendulous clusters of creamy white flowers from April to July. The flowers eventually turn into astringent red and dark purple-black berries ¼ to ½ in size. The darker, the less astringent. The sour taste is the reason for the word “choke.”

The plant including its seeds is toxic to humans and also to horses and other animals with segmented stomachs. With the exception of the flesh of the berries it also produces a form of cyanide when eaten. Along with the red elderberry mentioned above, it makes an excellent hedge from twelve to twenty feet high, bringing privacy to the garden.

Shade tolerant, it needs full sun to produce berries good for food. Happily for Flagstaff, it is moderately drought tolerant. The berries have been a major food for many Native American tribes and were often used in pemmican. Also, they can be used for wine and jellies; however, mostly its fun watching the birds eating the berries.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun, and can be emailed at and blogs at