Sunday, April 26, 2015



The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/2/2015))


G. K Chesterton, an English journalist and writer of the early twentieth century and author of the Father Brown mysteries, wrote that art is what people do with their limitations.  In Flagstaff that means the art of gardening is what gardeners do with the scarcity of water.  Unfortunately, the word “xeriscape” has a harsh ring to it, indicating bans and curbs rather than opportunities and possibilities.  Actually, xeriscape simply means dry landscape or a garden congenial to Coconino County and the Colorado Plateau, a simpatico for the sere of the Southwest.


          The real issue is the means to lush, beautiful gardens on less water than a tropical excess.  Indeed, excess is a threat to a water budget.  Also, excess is bad taste.  As the poet Robert Browning’s pointed out in his poem Andrea de Sarto, “Less is more.”  The opportunity for Flagstaff gardeners is how to spend less and have more beauty.  It takes imagination! 


          Happily, God has given us imagination and the Mexican feather

grass Nasella tenuissima,) a gardener’s delight.  Its leaves are so fine that they sometimes tangle, but sadly not a tangle with which to dally.  Yielding to a breeze with the grace of a ballet dancer it does a light fandango with castanets and in triple time in a good wind, a blessing which Flagstaff has in excess.  Its tall (2ft to 3ft), light green set amongst the lower blue green of a blue fescue (Festuca ovina ‘Glauca’) make an beguiling accompaniment to a small cluster of bearded iris (Iris germanica).  As in all forms of art, gardening, especially landscaping is compare and contrast.


          All of these survive, even prevail, on budgeted water, needing water only during dry spells.  The blue fescue gets even bluer with less water.  The voluptuous blooms of the bearded iris are one of the few beauties of the world who flourish on benign neglect and low maintenance.  Of course, benign neglect doesn’t mean abuse.  They need some water and appropriate nutrients.  


          The word “iris” is a Greek word meaning “rainbow” or metaphorically “halo.”  John of the Apocalypse wrote a lovely verse using iris, “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 pillars of fire (10:1.)”  The setting reads like a thunderstorm over the peaks with flashes of lightning, a rainbow threading it was way in and out of a virga, and the brilliance of the sun blazing through gaps in the clouds.  All of the colors in that scene can be found in irides (plural of iris) whose beauty can become, as the Book of Common Prayer reads, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” 


          Perennial grasses are available for gardeners on a water budget.  Unless a lawn serves as a playing field, a golf course, or a place for children’s play, grasses suitable for the Southwest offer an intriguing texture.  Creeping red fescue (Festuca ruba), a finely-textured, dark green grass, does well out of the sun, forming lazy whorls in the shade.  Sheep fescue (Festuca ovina), a dark green, lies flat and in mounds in various patterns and needs mowing with a weed-whacker once a year.  Both of these need only 12 inches of rain annually.  Flagstaff’s annual rainfall is slightly less than 24 inches. 


Many bulbs and rhizomes love gardens on a water budget.  A lushly xeriscaped garden can have color spring, summer, and fall.  Beginning with Wordsworth’s “fluttering and dancing daffodils” (Narcissus) and tulips (Tulipa) in late winter and early spring, the list continues through the bearded iris and the western blue flag (Iris missouriensis) and perennials such as the firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella), blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) and various penstemon such as the Red Rock penstemon (Keckiella corymbosa) and the Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus).  The drought tolerant geranium-leaf larkspur (Delphinium geraniifolium) is a long-blooming perennial as is the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplocfolia) and that old favorite of country gardens, the hollyhock (Althaea rosea).  A resource is Janice Busco and Nancy R. Morin’s Native Plants for High-Elevation Western Gardens. 

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2015


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