Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/24/2012)

Manager’s Specials are often chancy. I bought a Manager’s Special filet of salmon at the supermarket. I took it home into the kitchen along with seven packages of groceries just as meine Űberfrau was getting everything on the table for our evening dinner. It became one of our occasional arsenic hours. Gretchen’s bling snapped, crackled, and popped.

She said, “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see I’m getting dinner on the table? Besides, that fish stinks. What on earth possessed you to pay good money for that? Get it out of here. Take it back.”

Gretchen’s noble nose is a fine smeller. Although my eyesight is holding firm, my ears and nose have lost acuity as well as my tongue. Even extra sharp, aged, Vermont cheddar cheese seems mild nowadays. I didn’t know the fish stunk and dutifully returned it the next day, getting a refund. On return, she admonished me, “Always smell the fish before you buy it.”

Such a thing as smelling the fish isn't always easy with commercial nurseries because, most of the time, a gardener doesn’t find out that a plant stinks until a year or so after it’s planted, and then it’s too late to get a refund. The chances are if the gardener returns the stinky plant, he or she will get a lecture on too much or too little water, too much or too little fertilizer, wrong kind of fertilizer, wrong microclimate, neglect, et ad nauseam et ridiculum. This means that the gardener is either guilty or stupid for ineptly caring for a stinky plant. Smart gardeners do research on a plant’s stinkability before laying down their good money. In terms of horticulture, smelling the fish means checking out the plant for zone 5. While commercial nurseries may dispense reliable information, it’s important to remember Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware!). As our late President Ronald Reagan said, “Trust and verify.”  Even citizens want to know whether or not a politician's tax returns stink.

One caution: what works in another clime doesn’t mean that it will work in Flagstaff. A favorite tree of my childhood was the California sycamore. I did the research, and the likelihood of its surviving a Flagstaff winter is next to nil, so I’ll just have to drive down 89A in Oak Creek Canyon to Sedona to get a whiff of yesteryear’s tree plus having lunch. It’s important to know when you can’t do something. I can still dance the fox trot, but forget the flamenco. I tried it once and got a headache.

Anyone who has spent a year in the high country knows that hardiness is required of both humans and plants not only to survive but also prevail.

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of plants that do well in the high country: noxious weeds, natives, and adaptables. Noxious weeds stink and should be eliminated. They tend to prosper in adverse conditions. Some weeds are beautiful, taking some gardeners in, such as the Dalmatian toadflax (Linaria dalmatica.) Like a lot of beauties, they mess things up. It’s best to check out a noxious weed list with pictures on the internet. See: http://cals.arizona.edu/pubs/natresources/az1482.pdf.

A few natives aren’t always comely. Newcomers sometimes mistake them for weeds. However, many of them are quite beautiful, and since they’re native, they’re hardy. An excellent resource is Busco and Morin’s Native Plants for High-Elevation Gardens. The longer I’ve lived in Flagstaff, the more I’ve gone native. It’s just smart gardening.

The next are the adaptables, non-native plants that will thrive in Flagstaff but won’t overwhelm the natives and screw up the flora of the high country. Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium) is a good example of an adaptable. I’ve had mine for eight years. They’re very attractive year around and haven’t tried to take over the garden.

Three good resources to find plants that don’t stink in the high country are: http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/zipbyzip.php?zip=86004, http://cals.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/az/1256.pdf., and http://cals.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/az1255.pdf.

Of course, there are no guarantees in gardening but research helps in smart gardening, and smart gardening is more likely to produce successful gardening. Ask veteran gardeners.  Check with county extension.  Smell that plant. Sniff around the Internet.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dana Prom Smith along with Freddi Steele edits Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared on 9/8/2012.  He emails at stpauls@npgcable.com.

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