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