Saturday, July 23, 2011

DRAGON FLIES: Winged Jewels in the Garden.

Freddi Steele

All that glitters is rare in the garden. A shimmering spring frost can encase hardy and delicate plants alike, a greeting from Mother Nature that the humidity is up but the temperature is below freezing. Glistening dew may welcome us when we get our morning paper or walk the dog, hinting of the monsoon to come. Silken threads of spiderlings, ballooning on the breeze across the yard, may glint in the sun. Dazzle is unusual where we exercise our green thumbs. As gardeners, though, we know there are always exceptions. Enter the insect world’s largest sparklers – dragonflies and their kin.
Included in the insect order Odonata (“toothed ones”), dragonflies and their relatives, damselflies, are the biggest insects found to date in the fossil record. Discovered in sediments in Europe and the American Midwest, wingspans of two and a half feet were common for these creatures, which coexisted with yard-long ancient scorpions during the Carboniferous period ending 299 million years ago. Modern dragonflies have wingspans of up to four inches. Found worldwide and normally associated with warmer climates, dragonflies have been sighted north of the Arctic Circle since 2007, possibly due to global warming. Anecdotally dragonflies are believed to fly 60 miles per hour (mph); they have been more accurately clocked up to 34 mph. There are approximately 447 dragonfly species in the US, with 63 species identified in Coconino County (
Dragonflies and damselflies usually share airspace over freshwater ponds, lakes, and streams, though they can be spotted far from water. Dragonflies are the larger of the two, with two pairs of wings attached perpendicularly to their bodies and looking like miniature “high-wing” planes. Damselflies are smaller, daintier, with wings that lie parallel to their bodies when not in use. Both dine on gnats, flies, mosquitos, spiders, and mites, though feasting on our favorite pollinators (bees, moths and butterflies) is not unusual.
As insects, dragonflies have an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and six jointed appendages. Their legs are used for clinging to vegetation and grasping prey and arn’t effective for walking. Females lay eggs near or in water, which hatch out into nymphs and mature into adult dragonflies. Two anatomical features distinguish them from other insects. The first is their huge eyes, made up of thousands of simple eyes, enabling them to see almost 360 degrees and making them excellent hunters. The second is an extendable jaw or mask, equipped with claws, which shoots out like the deadly lower mandible of the extraterrestrial creature in “Alien”, grabbing prey in an inescapable grip. Dragonflies and damselflies occur in an array of colors: blue, green, black, white, red and orange, with females being less colorful. Dragonflies and damselflies do not sting or bite, but their nymphs may.
Intrigued by these winged gems? Try creating a dragonfly garden. All it takes is a flat water container (like a birdbath), some tall grasses or bulbs (like irises), and sun, some of the same elements used to attract birds. For more information on how to design a dragonfly-friendly space, see HGTV’s website Can’t put in a dragonfly plot? Visit these aerial artists in or near Flagstaff: Elderberry Pond in the Arboretum at Flagstaff (opens April 1st for the season); Francis Short Pond near Thorpe Park; Kachina Wetlands in Kachina Village. “Dragonfly season” is between May and November.
My fascination with dragonflies began in the summer of 2000 while training for the Tucson Marathon. At the time I lived and worked at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. On early mornings I would run the seven miles to Hermit’s Rest. Several times I was suddenly surrounded by a swarm of Flame Skimmers, large dragonflies with red and clear wings and red bodies. They would dart around me for about a minute, and then while most would zip away, one or two would fly in formation beside me at the edge of the road – my personal “Dawn Patrol”. After several minutes, they would disappear into the roadside cliff rose, chasing honey bees. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear they were extraterrestrials...

(Freddi Steele is a Master Gardener and a former naturalist with the National Park Service. Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA. His email address is

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/18/2011)

Suzannah and Andrew Libby’s garden is reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s Memory of the Garden at Etten and his Gardens at Arles. Serendipitously, Van Gogh is Suzannah’s favorite painter. When I first saw the garden, the morning was clear. The sky was one of Flagstaff’s breathless blues, deep and true, and the temperature was comfortably warm though slightly chilly around the edges. Sitting under a canopy seemingly suspended in midair, we drank tea and talked. And a pleasure it was to talk with an intelligent and gifted woman: an artist, a gardener, and a lover of children.

Suzannah envisions her garden as a canvas on which she has created a series of isles, not just plots, but raised islands floating in a sea of green grass amongst stream beds of smooth pebbles. Looming above the canopy is a venerable maple and toward the back of the garden is an immense willow along with fruit trees, both new and old.

Near the front is a bed, called the fairie garden, surrounded by a mud and wattle fence, the mud concrete and the wattle thin sticks of bamboo. Looking like some kind of primitive dwelling with walls slightly askew and out of kilter, the bed is filled with berries, herbs, and flowers, a pot-pourri of tastes, sights, and aromas of lavender, mint, and lemon balm.

Further down the garden isles of color are strewn with yellow primroses and black-eyed Susans, others day lilies and red poppies, and still others harebells. With few straight lines one is drawn further down a wandering path to find something new just beyond the next turn.

At the beginning of the garden, the light is bright and clear as though there were a giant hole in the sky. Slowly, as the eye tracks toward the rear, the light becomes more dappled, and finally in the back it is shaded and dark. It is as though one were being gradually drawn into a shadowed mystery.

Suzannah, herself, is something of a mystery. Her life has not been a straight line, but one resembling her garden. Raised in Las Vegas, her father was contractor with an artistic flair, building their swimming pool with a huge red rose painted on the bottom of the pool. From there she went to the University of California at Santa Barbara to study art and then on to the Parsons School of Design in New York City. After a peripatetic and painterly journey as an artist, she landed in Portland, Maine, where she met her husband, Andrew, an artist in wood and music. Their daughter Lovenia was born in Portland.

Wanting to be near her family, they settled on Flagstaff which recalled the woods of Maine. They also wanted a place where they belonged. After a life of wandering exploration, they wanted rootedness.

Close to completing her bachelor’s degree in Integrative Art from Prescott College, she has found her purpose as an artist as well as a place to fulfill that purpose. She creaated a children’s garden pre-school, called Gartendale, modeled after the Waldorf approach to education of Rudolf Steiner. Small children learn by experience, instead of concepts and ideas: thus a garden becomes a school room in which a child experiences nature at every turn.

What better place for this kind of education than a child’s garden of isles? It is an education through touching, feeling, smelling, seeing, digging, and exploring. The happiest memories of many adults are often those explorations as children of gardens or a wilderness along with family members. Those early experiences are also the shaping ones, ones that began lives of exploration, of finding out, of taking care, of traveling through the shadowed mysteries. A garden is where we connect with the fundamentals.

Suzannah and Andrew’s garden leads the eye from light, touch, color, and aroma to those of shadows of what is yet to be known of outer space, inner minds, and the immensity of life. What better grounding for such a journey is there than smelling herbs, picking the berries, enjoying the flowers, and playing in the dirt?

For more information see:

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/11/2011)

A clump of pampas grass was purloined from the Olivia White Hospice Gardens. So far, the usual suspects deny any participation in or knowledge of the theft.

One thing is known. The theft was accomplished by sophisticated botanists. The pampas grass was removed with surgical skill. The hole left by the death of the pampas grass was expertly filled, and a buried drip line was carefully restored. Thus, the search is focused on horticulturally trained thieves, botanical burglars adept at theft in the dark of night.

One thing is certain. The purloined pampas grass was not an inside job since all of the volunteer gardeners at the Olivia White Hospice Gardens have expressed dismay and disappointment at its removal. One person, at one time active in the gardens who previously expressed displeasure with the pampas grass, has been questioned but has firmly denied knowledge of or connection with the theft.

The issue of the pampas grass gets to the heart of one of the vexing questions about gardening in Flagstaff and the high country: invasive, exotic species. Was it, to quote Asa Gray, the famous American botanist of the 19th century and friend of Charles Darwin, one of those “intrusive, pretentious and self-asserting foreigners?” Was the pampas grass a magnificent, toxic weed?

It fits the definition of weed. It’s invasive. It sucks up scare water. It overtakes defenseless native plants and grasses. It is a threat. Richard Mabey, the English botanist calls weeds: “Shape-shifters” with speed, ingenuity, and “almost supernatural resourcefulness.”

However, it’s alleged that this particular pampas grass wasn’t guilty of any of these crimes. Several horticultural experts claim that this particular pampas grass was sterile. Sitting in its corner of the garden, it is claimed that it was much like a castrated male lion lounging in the shade of a tree on the veldt sporting his splendid plumage. Was it such a clear and present danger to the gardens of Flagstaff that immediate covert action was required by horticultural “black ops”? Many think so.

Like many clandestine black operations, these “black ops” may have been ignorant of the alleged impotence. They clearly thought that the pampas grass was an immediate threat, especially now that Flagstaff is overwhelmed by toxic, invasive, exotics. If people dig up plants at will, chaos will ensue. No gardens or gardeners would be safe. Gardeners would have to ride shotgun on their gardens.

The case of the purloined pampas grass raises the issue of non-native plants and grasses. Do people have a right to grow toxic weeds? Apparently, they do. The City is seemingly impotent, claming that people are free to do what they like in their yards, except growing very high weeds. How about marijuana? HOA’s seem more concerned about derelict garbage cans than they do toxic weeds. Does the list of targets include water hogging grass lawns, such as at City Hall, NAU, or the golf courses in sequestered communities of the rich?

Since black operations presuppose deniability, there is a long list of denials and know-nothings. A person who wasn’t authorized to speak but spoke, nevertheless, on condition of anonymity said that there must be a vast horticultural conspiracy of silence, reaching to the highest places. The culprits may never be identified.

The “black ops” apparently took to heart Barry Goldwater’s famous nostrum: “Extremism is the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” So, is botanical theft a moderate virtue or an extreme vice?

Martin Luther King, Jr., said that if people choose to disobey an unjust law, they should own up to it. One of his great pieces is a “Letter Written from Birmingham Jail.” Since the perpetrators already covered themselves in darkness, it is unlikely they will come into the light. If they do, they can publish a manifesto, but it must be well-written, not a self-righteous farrago.

So far no one has. We are left with a missing clump of pampas grass, the threat of “intrusive, pretentious and self-asserting foreigners,” and the possibility of botanical “black ops” digging up plants wherever and whenever their fancy suits.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith whose email address is edits the column GARDENING ETCETERA in The Arizona Daily Sun.

Friday, July 08, 2011

PEONIES: Hallelujah Time

Puka Lewicky

Stand up. It’s time for the Hallelujuh Chorus. My red peony opened its golf ball sized buds and has huge blooms five inches in diameter. My ears are ringing with the joyful music of Handel's Messiah. Anything that survives Flagstaff's winter and spring deserves a celebration.

I’ve been a passionate gardener in Flagstaff for over thirty-five-years. I grew up in northern Ohio where everything grows. I learned to love gardening from my Polish family. Ohio sweet corn is the best.
Delicious tomatoes grow there. My father taught my siblings and me to plant over one hundred trees around our home on 18 acres. The Colorado blue spruce and deciduous trees grew to be over fifty feet tall. We created a forest. Our fruit trees bore fruit.

My mother had azaleas, and my grandparents grew a huge vegetable garden without elk. Flagstaff proved to be a challenge. But I couldn’t stop growing things.

My husband's parents moved to Arizona about twenty years ago. My mother-in-law, Irene, presented me with a special gift, her beloved pink peony. It wouldn’t grow in Sun City. Peonies require a winter climate to satisfy dormancy requirements. Ah Ha! Maybe it would be happy in Flagstaff. Irene's peony is now fifty years old. It has given me spectacular pink blossoms with a subtle fragrance.

It didn’t have ants on it this year so no blooms. But my younger red peony had ants on it so it had beautiful blooms. The ants are a controversy. Some people say they have nothing to do with peonies blossoming, but I’ve watched them now for many years and believe the ants are important. The resident elk and deer in my neighborhood leave the peonies alone. What delightful news!

Peonies need well-draining, amended soil, and abundant sunshine. They appreciate spring moisture. And they don't mind the altitude. I live north of town at a higher elevation. Peonies prefer slightly acidic to neutral pH soil. Perennials need a little extra preparation when planting, but the rewards are worth it. They can live to be 100 years old. They truly become a member of the family. They don’t like to be crowded. Prepare the planting site by digging two feet wide by one and a half feet deep holes. Space the plants three to four feet apart. They can grow to be three to four feet high. Fill the hole with one foot of good loam. Plant the rootstock so that the crown is two inches below the soil level with the eyes (sprouts) pointing upwards. Carefully shovel in loose soil around the rootstock.

Water well. They won't bloom if planted too deep or in the shade. Once established, they only need water once a week. Before they bloom, I use a wire form around them so they do not fall from the heavy blooms. In the fall, I cut down the stalks to about two or three inches. I don't use the stalks for mulch. I weed them by hand so as not to disturb the roots. Prepare them for winter by mulching with our abundant pine needles or clean straw. The peony foliage is dark green and very attractive in the garden. Let the foliage thrive all summer for blooms next year.

I feed them when I remember with a blooming plant food. I use Ferti-lome or Miracle-Gro. The blooms are great for cutting arrangements. Peonies come in a variety of colors to suit every taste. Once they are mature, they can be divided. but they prefer to stay in one place. Years ago, I moved Irene's peony, and it wasn't too upset. This May's freezing temperatures prompted me to cover my two peonies. I used quilt batting from the local fabric store. The ants seemed to appreciate their nightly blankets.

My dear Irene is no longer with us, but her amazing peony lives on. I’m grateful for all those who’ve gone before me and taught me the love of gardening. Gardening is truly good for the soul.

Puka Lewicky is a veteran gardener in Flagstaff. The photograph is courtesy of Puka Lewicky.

Dana Prom Smith, editor of GARDENING ETCETERA, Arizona Daily Sun, can be emailed at