Monday, January 06, 2014


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/22/2013)


          When we moved to Flagstaff from Southern California 11 years ago, we inquired about landscaping after we’d settled into the house.  With various moves throughout the years, I had developed six gardens from the ground up.  I thought that at 75 I would like someone else do it, especially since I was still recovering from a triple by-pass.  Getting the bids was a mistake.  They were exorbitant, and nearly everyone came with drawing boards, diagrams, T Squares, graph paper, curve templates, and rulers. 


Landscaping is an art, and artists don’t start with the tools of mechanical drawing.  They start with imagination and then use the tools.

As Walker Evans said, “Photography isn’t a matter of taking pictures.  It’s a matter of having an eye.”  The camera takes on the personality and character of the photographer.  As with the camera, landscaping begins in the eye.  We recreate ourselves in how and what we see and how and what we fashion.  


So I set about developing my seventh garden from the ground up, a decision which helped my recovery.  It has taken eleven years, and it’s still not finished, nor will it ever be.  I once asked an artist friend of mine, the late primitivist painter, Louis Monza, when he knew he had finished a painting.  He replied, “I paint my dreams.  Sometimes, in the middle of the night I’ll jump out of bed to sketch a dream I had so that I wouldn’t forget it and then begin painting it in the morning.  I never finish.  I stop and go on to the next dream.”  Life and painting for him was the space between the beginning and the end, a space for becoming rather than being.   Paraphrasing Heraclitus (540-480 B.C.), “No one can step into the same garden twice.  The garden’s not the same, and the gardener’s not the same.” 


Landscaping is a reflection of our environment as well as the creation of our eye.  Often we attempt to force favored plants from our past onto an environment where they won’t thrive.  I tried with a couple of plants but soon realized the futility of it all.  Since our environment is so spectacularly beautiful, I decided to cooperate with the inevitable rather than combat it.  We’re best off taking our cues from flora around us.  As the 17th century theologian, Jeremy Taylor, said, “If you are in Rome, live in the Roman style: if you are elsewhere live as they live elsewhere.”  


In terms of design the late landscape architect, James Van Sweden said, gardens should “move in the breeze and sparkle like stained glass” and “catch the flow of time and wind, of shadows and seasons.”  We landscape for the winter as much as we do for the spring, summer, and autumn. The architecture of a leafless Gambel oak in winter, a ponderosa pine with its boughs laden with snow, a red Oregon grape holly in a field of snow, and a leafless oak etching a steel blue sky, are as much a part of a garden’s landscape as are the burgeoning delights of spring, the lush exuberance of summer, and the deep fluttering colors of autumn.    


Better a lawn of native grasses bending to the wind than a flattened lawn with a military buzz cut.  Water-thirsty lawns and their dreadful substitutes, gravel yards, bear no resemblance to the dense green of our forests, the sweep of our meadows, and the crystalline blue of our skies.  Consider for a moment what a gravel front yard reveals of the householder!  The forest, the meadows, and the mountains are shaggy with surprising twists and turns.  Straight lines straiten the imagination while twisting and turning paths draw us beyond what we see and know.  Neat geometrical lines leave no place for our minds to wander beyond our frustrations and limitations allowing us to relax and renew.  It’s the meandering path that leads us beyond. 


Happily, at our door we have The Arboretum at Flagstaff (928-774-1442), where gardeners have living resources to help in landscaping their gardens for authenticity in the high country and with fidelity to their eye.       

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2014

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun.  Smith emails at and blogs at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and inspiring piece! Would love to see the rest of your gardens. Cindy