Monday, October 27, 2014


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/20/2014)

          Sitting with Pam Neises on her front porch, we weren’t only looking at her front yard, we were also enveloped in its beauty.  We weren’t observing.  We were experiencing.  When I returned home, I realized that the garden reminded me of Van Gogh’s “Ladies of Arles.”  There was a low gracefully curved wall running along the left side of the yard, and above the wall a bounty of colorful flowers and grasses, filled with Van Gogh’s “no blue without yellow and without orange.”


The curves of the wall and the textures of the plants and bricks all drew one into the experience of the garden.  Neises may have had such an experience in mind when she designed her front yard, factoring in spaces, colors, heights, and textures.  As she said, “It was all in my head” before she began sculpting it.  It is a work of art, as it should be, because Pam is by profession an interior designer and by avocation a landscape designer.  In college she majored in interior design with a minor in art history.


          But more than that, she’s a “hands on” gardener, inheriting from her mother a love of gardening.  As well as having the “eye” of an artist, she gardens with her back and hands.  She and her son, Chase, did all of the heavy lifting, and the soil has flowed through her fingers.  As with experienced gardeners, she understands the value of perennials.


But more than a work of art, her garden is a therapeutic experience.  She said, “The garden is my de-stresser,” as it often is for gardeners, and what better way to make a garden a de-stresser than to make it an experience in which one is drawn by the colors, shapes, and textures.  We release our stresses when we are drawn out of ourselves, such as petting a dog, enveloping our selves in music, experiencing a garden.  She has created such an experience with her garden.


          The eye is drawn along that long, curving wall holding back its masses of grasses and flowers, its greens, blues, yellows, and oranges, to a stand of trees, pines, maples and aspens, shielding the garden from the world, creating a haven of peace.  Secluded with a steep bank on the left, maples and pines in the front, a fence on the right, her front lawn is spread out as though it were a meadow, a meadow of thyme and grass.  Her front yard is an experience akin to being cradled in God’s arms.   


As with most of us, she has divided her garden in two parts, the front yard and the back.  Her back yard is for her dogs, two Australian shepherds, and her front yard is for her.  She has designed the back yard for the dogs, a safe place for them to play, sleep, and eat, and a place, as well, for her to take care of them and pick up after them. 

From her front porch as well as her kitchen window, her front yard is for her an experience in which she can touch base with herself and renew herself.   When she returns home from work and looks out the kitchen window, she is drawn into the private world of her garden, something akin to Claude Monet’s water lilies.


A garden has many purposes but paramount amongst them is tranquility.  It is difficult to imagine a calling more stressing in itself than that of an interior designer with all of the competing calls of the designer’s knowledge and sense of good taste and the customer’s desires.  It is a job that would require immense emotional stamina and a place where the designer could find herself again.


Her garden’s not only a spring through autumn garden, it’s also December garden.  She decorates her front yard much as most people decorate their living rooms at Christmas with large colorful balls hanging from those maples, pines, and aspens.  Ironically, she transforms her private haven into a community celebration.


Driving past her front yard any time of the year is slightly hazardous.  The impulse is to take one’s eyes off the road.   

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

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





Saturday, October 11, 2014


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/8/2014)


          The other day a woman tried to comfort another woman who had lost her teenage son in a traffic accident by saying, “He’s in a better place now.”   Ever so slightly, the grieving woman pulled away and fell, sobbing, into the arms of a gruff-looking, burly man who had lost his wife of forty years to cancer.  He said nothing at all while he softly cried and gently stroked her back and shoulders, sharing her grief.  She was in one of those “dark places” where, as Saint Paul said, “our sighs are too deep for words.”

Life is full of dark places, empty places, where things don’t make sense.   When the absurdity is writ large, it’s called a tragedy, and we cry.  When it’s writ small, it’s humor, and we laugh.  Death is certainly one of those experiences that don’t make any sense at all, absurdities writ large.  For almost of all us death is a tragedy when there is nothing to say.  Knowledge doesn’t stand us in good stead.  Faith is what allows us to abide when there are no answers.


Of our nine to twelve emotions, depending on how they’re counted, surely fear, grief, and humiliation are the worst to bear.  The thrust of these emotions is inward, and they’re negative and debilitating.  Sometimes words of advice can ameliorate the stings of humiliation and fear, but for grief there are no words.  Grief is the emotion without answers.  Only those who want to avoid their own grief distance themselves with platitudes and empty words.  To sympathize one must touch his or her personal grief, and since it is so painful, many resort to platitudes.


This is one of the reasons why we love dogs.  They sense our emotions, sidling up to us, letting us pet them as though they were absorbing our pain, giving us a sense of relief.  One can feel the stress ease while stroking the back of a dog or feeling the muzzle with its wet nose brush our hand.


Years ago after I returned home from a triple by-pass, open heart, operation, for the first time in my life, I felt fragile.  Our dog, Roxie, was offended by the residual odor of the hospital still clinging to me and kept her distance.  After a few hours, she overcame the offensive hospital odor and lay down beside me, nuzzling me with her cold, wet nose, as if to say, “I’m here.”  I sighed a sigh of relief.   


Touch is the fundamental way we communicate with one another.  The communication begins in our mother’s arms and at her breasts.  Both children and animals wither without touch, and part of the sorrow of touch nowadays is that it is so disused in our cyber and digital age.  We actually believe that an email is enough.  A hug is far better than “how ya doin?”


Releasing the stresses of grief through sharing our pain with others who’ve touched their own grief is the beginning of renewal.  There is never “closure” on grief.  Only fools think that.  Its sting may lessen with time, but there is no closure.


One of the elemental qualities of a garden is releasing the pain of our grief.  Jesus repaired to the garden at Gethsemane as he faced the grief of his coming death.  A garden is a matter of life and death, how plants come to die, and how they are reborn out of their deaths.


A garden begins with touch, the feel of the soil, the texture of the plants, holding life in our hands and an overwhelming sensory experience of seeing the colors and shapes.  Then there are the scents of life, hearing the rustling of leaves and twigs, and tasting the fresh fruits and vegetables.  The feel of a garden is closely akin to the embrace of someone else who shares our grief.  In the midst of death there are signs of renewal and life in the embrace of someone who in touching their own grief has touched ours.

Albert Camus wrote:  “In the depth of my winters I finally learned that there was in me an invulnerable summer.”

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




Thursday, October 09, 2014


 Dana Prom Smith


          In early spring when the stunning white of the snowdrifts gives way to patches of mud and dirty snow, bright, cheery daffodils are amongst the first to bring the promised beauty of spring.  The bearded irises are next.  One of the most complex and beautiful flowers ever to grace a garden, the word “iris” is a Greek word meaning “rainbow,” “halo,” or “messenger of the gods.”  The plural in Greek is irides from which we get the word iridescent.  John of the Apocalypse writes:  “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire (10:1).” 


Irises are both tough and beautiful.  Tough means they’re hardy, but it doesn’t mean they can be neglected.  They need care, such as nutrients and bedding, and if cared-for well, they will return the care with a nonpareil beauty.  Care begins with bedding.  The makings of good bedding are aplenty in the high country, clay, cinders, and compost.


          If a gardener is clay, add cinders, and if cinders, add clay.  Irises like a soft, friable bed.  They also like lots of compost.  The best bed has good drainage because they don’t like it soggy.  But who does?  Irises will tend to rot if swamped out.


          With irises it’s important to start out well because unlike annuals the beds can’t be enriched with compost each year.  Those rhizomes are going to be stuck in that bed for several years.  One of the big items in caring for irises is giving them a low nitrogen and high phosphate fertilizer (6-10-10) six weeks before they bloom and right after they bloom and super-phosphate or bone meal (0-10-10) in the fall.  Since irises are all root, they need phosphorus to promote root development.  With too much nitrogen, as in lawn fertilizer, they will tend to rot.


          Irises do best in a sunny location with at least six hours of sunlight a day.  As far as water is concerned, they’re a xeriscaper’s dream.  In the high country, they need water when they’re planted until the new center leaves appear.  During dry spells, they’re best watered every 3 to 4 weeks, and again in the spring before blooming.  Also, they’re best mulched before the snows of winter with the mulch removed after the last hard frost.


          The best time to plant iris rhizomes in the high country is in the early fall, giving them enough time to get their roots established before the winter freeze comes.  After the soil has been enriched, make a shallow hole in the soil about twice the size of the rhizome with a small mound of soil in the center.  Put the rhizome on top while draping the roots down the sides of the mound.  In Flagstaff because of our cold winters, the soil should slightly cover the rhizome.  Do not plant them deep.


          Irises can be attractively planted in groups of three throughout a yard, 12” apart, with the toes pointing inward in a triangle.  If planted in rows, all the toes should point in the same direction to avoid crowding, spaced 18” apart.  Remember to keep the soil in which the rhizomes are planted moist for two or three weeks until the first news leaves appear.


          After blooming, the stalks on which the flowers appear are best removed, not to drain energy from the plant.  Every three to four years, irises should be replanted to prevent overcrowding and to encourage renewing.  This is generally best done a month or so after blooming.  Clumps can be renewed by removing the old center of the clump or by digging up the entire clump and removing the old plant and replanting the newer rhizomes with the fans attached.


          Irises come in many sizes for many tastes.  The tall bearded irises when planted in a circle or triangle appear as though they were a lush aureole of exotic colors hovering above the garden betraying their name “rainbow” or “halo.”  When studied, one can even hear the messengers of the gods.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2014

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