Thursday, August 23, 2012


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/22/2012

When Ed Skiba started creating his garden 37 years ago, it wasn’t ex nihilo, out of nothing. Worse, he started it from scratch which meant he had to undo that which hadn’t been done well before. He began with a dry, weedy plot of neglected dirt and detritus. The Book of Genesis (1:2) has a phrase for it: “without form and void” which in Hebrew is an eerie: “tohu wabohu.”

He began by spreading straw over the desolation and then made little clearings in which he planted his vegetables. He gradually dug the straw into the dirt giving it both form and fullness. After the straw, he planted his yard in clover to add nitrogen to the soil. He knows that soil is the heart of gardening and that dead dirt can be transformed into a living soil by adding organic matter, compost, and various natural amendments. These amendments create a home for life-giving organisms, such as mycorrhiza, enabling a plant to take up nutrients in the soil.

Ed’s garden is really a series of gardens. The front yard has a great overarching silver maple which bids welcome with its shade. Across the driveway a sunny strip of bearded irises and flowers add color to the welcome. It’s an invitation to walk around the side of the house to an expansive back yard.

The design of his back yard is a lawn with three islands of raised beds. The lawn is a fascination because in addition to the grass, there are all manner of small plants, like topless dandelions growing in the lawn. I asked him about the lawn which is quite lovely. He replied that he is an organic gardener and doesn’t use poisons on the soil, “So I just mow them down.” If he runs across a plant that he likes, he “just mows around it.” Indeed, I saw a hollyhock happily growing incongruously in the middle of the lawn. The lawn is lush and is watered by a network of drips under the turf. It’s almost as though he believes using poison on the earth is a sacrilege.

We sat down in the shade of a cherry tree while munching tidbits from a spread of fresh fruit. He told me about the various fruit trees, such as cherries, apricots, and peaches, some of which were gifts from friends and relatives. He had even wangled an apricot from Arizona Public Service for having cut down one of his pine trees.

Those little clearings in the straw had grown into islands of raised beds filled with heavily composted soil, growing a variety of vegetables and flowers. Unlike many gardeners who grow their vegetables and flowers in single plots, the beds being all of a kind, Ed uses companion gardening, such as tomatoes, red peppers, beans, onions, and basil all grown together. He believes in using as much space as possible, not wanting to waste soil. The bed nearest to us was surrounded by marigolds which helps keep out unwanted insects and pests.

As we talked about gardening, he said, “I’m a believer in the little gifts from God.” Indeed, he said that sometimes he has prayed over a plant which, on reflection, I thought was a lot more likely to produce a beautiful garden than cursing the plants. As any veteran gardener knows, plants pick up vibes from the gardener. It’s called symbiosis in sophisticated circles, but the plain fact is that successful gardeners love their gardens and the plants therein, both the great and the small. We pray for those we love.

After sitting for a time under the cherry tree, he bade me follow him to another garden with chairs and a small table. It was his pine tree garden with both vinca major and vinca minor covering the ground underneath. It was a place of rest and solitude, a place to let the mind drift to places unknown or chew the rag with an old friend. As I sat there talking to Ed about his garden, it struck me that Ed has got gardening right. Un jardinier extraordinaire, he’s made a wasteland bloom.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dana Prom Smith along with Freddi Steele edits Gardening Etcetera and can be emailed at This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on 8/25/2012.

No comments: