Thursday, March 22, 2012


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/21/2012)

“In the spring of the year when kings go forth to battle (II Sam. 11:1),” King David stayed back in Jerusalem. Seeing a beautiful woman toweling herself after a bath, he summoned her for a dalliance. The woman, Bathsheba, was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of the soldiers he sent into battle.

There’s something fishy about a beautiful woman toweling herself off in the middle of the day in plain sight of the king while her husband is off to war. She became pregnant, and the king solved his dilemma by having Uriah placed in a salient where he was sure to be killed. Thus, begins a tale of woe for King David.  One of his sons, Absalom, eventually tried to overthrow King David but was killed in the attempt. The king was saved by his son’s death.

In the spring of the year gardeners go forth to battle grasshoppers. While not as comely as Bathsheba, with them there is no dallying. They’re the gardener’s mortal enemy. There is no staying inside the house or puttering around with idle chores, such as raking up pine needles or pulling nascent, springtime weeds. If ignored, disaster will likely result.

All warfare requires an understanding of the enemy. While it’s hard to underestimate the ferocity of grasshoppers, they suffer from an Aristotelian “fatal flaw,” a moral defect. They’re cannibals. Thus, if one is poisoned, and its compadres eat him, they’ll consume the poison as well. However, the poison has to be specific to grasshoppers because no sensible gardener wants to poison other beneficial and beautiful insects, such as lady bugs and praying mantises.

Happily, such a poison exists. It’s called NoLo which is short for Nosema locustae, a micro spore that infects grasshoppers and eats away at their guts. A subtle disease, it kills slowly. Happily, it infects nothing else, plants, insects, animals, or human beings. It's a single-minded killer. NoLo is baited with wheat bran, a sticking agent, and distilled water, the grasshoppers being attracted to the wheat bran. It’s best applied where grasshoppers naturally congregate amongst foliage or grasses.

Grasshopper warfare is unlike King David’s type of warfare or even the warfare of World War’s I and II where armies are lined up against each other. It is more asymmetrical or what was once called guerilla war, the kind of war in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency. A defensive barrier at the property line to bar the grasshoppers won’t work, like the old French Maginot Line of WWII. They’re migratory and, as their names suggests, they hop. They can’t be kept out. They have to be killed after they’re invaded the garden but before they can wreak havoc.

The really creepy thing is that grasshopper eggs are already buried in the garden from last year’s grasshoppers, like terrorist cells. The enemy within, they’re already in the garden before they appear. An early spring application is necessary to poison the small grasshoppers as they emerge. However, more mature grasshoppers will invade so frequent applications of NoLo are need throughout the season.

Since the killing is slow, a sign that the NoLo is working are lethargic grasshoppers upon which it is easy to step. As a long-term remedy it’s best applied throughout the season, year after year. If a grasshopper is infected as it lays its eggs, the eggs will be infected as they emerge.

In addition to NoLo, the grasshopper wars use an aerial component, the drone-like praying mantis. A particularly voracious flesh eater, it's an ally in the fight against grasshoppers. Happily, they can be purchased for local nurseries or over the Internet and released in the garden.

In addition to the praying mantis, birds and fowl are also allies. They love grasshoppers and are quick enough to catch them. Making a garden bird friendly is one sure way to fight grasshoppers. Chickens, ducks, and geese are great, but they have to be fenced in and tend to trample the garden. My father paid me a penny a grasshopper. It may be gender bias, but small children, especially boys, are quick enough to catch them and aren’t burdened with the icky, crushed green factor.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dana Prom Smith edits Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared on March 24, 2012.  His email address is

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/21/2012)

When I was a boy, one of my family’s friends was a Secret Service agent. I thought Alf Oftedahl was “really something.” After my father died when I was eleven, I grew close to him. A farm boy reared in Minnesota, he was full of pithy homilies which were in many ways an introduction to the world beyond my home. One of his favorites was: “By the time you die, you’ll have eaten a peck of dirt.” A peck is a quarter of a bushel which is a lot of dirt.

As the years have passed, its message about not getting carried away with ourselves and our importance comes to mind, as in Genesis 2:7: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground.” It’s important to remember where we come from, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

However, since this is not a sermon, we’ll focus on eating dirt. If we’re going to down a peck dirt in our lifetime, we’d better make sure it’s the best gourmet dirt possible. This means using a lot of organic material like compost and animal manure.

In this case only vintage animal manure will do. As Orson Welles once said of Paul Masson wines, use no manure “before it’s time,” which means at least six months of curing before being turned into the soil. One of the reasons for vintage manure is to leach some of the nitrogen and salt which comes from urine. As with human beings, horses, cattle, and chickens defecate in the same place they urinate. Too much nitrogen and salt can be seen in those yellow spots on the lawn after the letting out the dog.

Also, manure from meat eating animals, such as human beings, dogs, cats, cougars, bobcats, and coyotes should be avoided because the feces of meat eating animals often carry parasites and disease organisms. Eating a carrot freshly pulled from the ground is a more rewarding experience if it’s not transporting pathogens. A similar problem arises from using systemic pesticides which poison the fruit of the tree, bush, or vine.

Generally, there are three types of gardening manure, horse, cattle, and chicken. Chicken manure is potent and should be allowed to cure longer than horse and cattle manure because it contains ammonia, a poison. It also stinks because of the ammonia. However, once cured it’s a marvelous fertilizer so it’s wise to cozy up to any friends that might raise chickens. Being nice to horse people also works because equine feces contain lots of plant material, such as hay and straw.

Perhaps, the most effective use of animal manure is to compost it because in compost its strong urine component serves to foster the decomposition of the other material. A friend in Camp Verde often urinated in his compost bin until his neighbors complained which is unfortunate because human urine is very effective in compost.

The ratio of carbon to nitrogen material in a compost bin should be about 3 to 1 shovelfuls of carbon to nitrogen. Too much nitrogen yields a putrid compost bin. Too much carbon means that nothing happens. Coffee grounds and tea leaves are high in nitrogen. Coffee grounds can be picked from any of the coffee houses in town.

Carbon material can include kitchen scraps excluding meat and oil, clippings from the yard excluding woody material, beer mash, and leaves. In addition to carbon and nitrogen, a compost bin needs oxygen which requires a pitchfork to turn the material regularly. With the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen material and a steady supply of oxygen, the compost pile will “cook” at a temperate uncomfortable to the touch.

The next step is turning the compost or manure into the dirt. In Flagstaff our dirt is usually clay or volcanic cinders. The trick is to combine the water holding qualities of the clay and the friable qualities of the cinders. If the dirt is more congenial, so much the better. In any case, dirt transformed into soil with manure or compost, makes a fine dish for Alf Oftedahl’s gustatory peck of dirt, high in fiber.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dr. Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article arrived on 3/17/2012.  His email address is