Since 2006, Dana Prom Smith has written and assigned essays for the weekly High Country Gardener column in Flagstaff’s Arizona Daily Sun. Over the years, these essays have covered all aspects of gardening from the practical to the aesthetic to the metaphysical. Click on this link to see more columns from High Country Gardener.
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Note: Local realtor Eileen Schreiber offers descriptions of neighborhoods outside the city limits on her website.
The popular phrases “the medium is the message” and “global village” were coined by Marshall McLuhan. In “Understanding Media,” he wrote that a medium is an “extension of ourselves.” A medium could be a hammer, fork, cartoon, rifle, fishing pole, tennis racket, motion picture or even soil. It’s anything by which people extend their ability to affect their environment, empowering themselves to change things.
Soil is the gardener’s medium.
Dirt isn’t the same thing as soil. Soil is manufactured by gardeners using sand, silt, clay and organic matter, in short, improving what has been given them. In Flagstaff, we also have limestone, sandstone, clay and volcanic debris.
The ideal soil consists of 40 percent silt, 20 percent clay and 40 percent sand in addition to organic matter. Sand is gritty and can be seen with the naked eye. Both silt and clay are finer, so fine that their particles cannot be seen with the naked eye, clay being the finest.
The problem with clay, of which there is an abundance in Flagstaff, is that when it dries, it hardens so hard that most of the garden plants wither because their roots cannot penetrate the clay. When fired, it makes pots. However, it holds moisture well while sand doesn’t. Mixing sand with clay loosens the clay while keeping its ability to retain moisture.
Alas, sand is scarce in Flagstaff, but we have a good substitute that is better than sand. Volcanic cinders are everywhere and are about 2/3 sand and 1/3 geochemical nutrients. Mixing volcanic cinders with clay loosens the clay. Weathering, such as harsh winters and monsoons, with their howling winds, torrential rains, and blizzards, gradually release the nutrients from the cinders. We have harsh winters and monsoons in Flagstaff.
Forget about silt, which occurs in washes, along stream beds, in certain meadows, on alluvial slopes and on deltas. Most of it occurs somewhere downhill from Flagstaff.
The next step to a soil of clay and cinders is adding organic matter. Organic matter is important because it positively affects the mycorrhizae already in soil, making them more effective. Mycorrhizae are fungal middle-men or brokers, transferring nutrients from the soil to the plant’s roots. The soil may be loaded with nutrients, but without mycorrhizae, they aren’t transferred to the roots.
Obviously, the best organic matter is decayed organic matter because the nutrients are in the decay. Also, organic matter aerates the soil as do the cinders. Organic matter turns the clay and cinders mix into what might pass for loam. The best kind of soil runs through the fingers. If it clots and doesn’t flow, like blood in the arteries on the way to the heart, it ain’t so good. Clots, clods and clumps are signs that the nutrients aren’t flowing as well as they should, a gardening mycrocardial infarction.
Digging kitchen scraps (no fat, meat or oil), manure, and decayed pine needles, fallen leaves, clippings, even shredded newspapers, into the soil is good, but compost is better because as the name suggests, it’s already decomposed. Compost is simply a pile of organic matter with a 3-to-1 ratio of carbon material to nitrogen material in which the carbon material is broken down by the nitrogen material, releasing the nutrients. Carbon material is often called brown while the nitrogen material is called green, although coffee grounds are green horticulturally, if not visually.
Composting is best done in bins and large containers, but our homesteading ancestors did it in piles, usually several paces from the cabin. In a way, the modern composting movement is a return to the past as a way of finding the future in a horticultural time warp.
Compost is the heart of the soil’s medium. It’s the difference between a garden that thrives and one that withers. Thriving gardens are the message of the medium, a message with a cascade of consequences, beginning with food and beauty and extending all the way to a habitable planet.
Eight years ago my husband and I relocated from Southern California to Hutchison Acres, a community five miles northeast of Flagstaff. Our new property was other than weeds and a few trees, nearly devoid of vegetation.
Our natural yet attractive landscaping is now flourishing, and as planned, serves as a sanctuary for a diverse assortment of birds. What came as a pleasant surprise though, was the multitude of native bees and wasps that are drawn to our native vegetation.
Bees and wasps belong to the order Hymenoptera, which also encompasses ants. Most Hymenoptera bear four membranous wings. The egg-laying apparatus, or ovipositor, of wasps and some bees also function as a stinger.
The most conspicuous members of this fascinating order are several species of bumblebees. The typical and seemingly gravity-immune black and yellow species frequent majestic stands of Palmer’s penstemons. Here they are beckoned to faintly pink large bulbous tube flowers sporting three joined lower lobes providing the perfect landing platforms for these giants. These and other bumblebees are drawn to an assemblage of native flowers, including pinkish-purple racemes of Rocky Mountain bee plants, pendulous pale pink inflorescences of New Mexico locusts and any penstemon species with medium to large blossoms.
Other titans lured to our landscape are the spider hawk and digger wasps. Both species seek out nectar of endemic flowers. I’m always dazzled when I spy a digger wasp with its black and orange-red abdomen and shiny blue-black wings zooming in on a creamy spray of fernbush blooms. Its young feed on beetle larvae.
Spider hawk wasp larvae gorge on spider innards. One flamboyant species, the tarantula hawk, sports a flashy blue-black abdomen with rust-colored wings and can reach the whopping length of two inches. The female hunts down a large spider, preferably a tarantula, nabs it, and with its colossal stinger deposits a single egg in the spider’s abdomen. The unfortunate spider remains paralyzed while the growing wasp larva feasts. Avoid antagonizing any of the large hymenopterans — some species pack a powerful sting.
Looking towards the opposite end of the Hymenopteran size spectrum is the metallic or sweat bee. As both names suggest, many are metallic in color and/or are attracted to perspiration. It forages on a wide range of host plants like the mauve-rose florets of my native mountain spray. The ones I observe are tiny, about three-eighths of an inch, but some species are moderate in size. Unlike the honeybee, which feeds its larva throughout its growth stages, the sweat bee gives its young all of its food at the same time by laying each egg in an underground waterproof brood cell filled with pollen and nectar. Many species of this family are highly efficient pollinators.
With its voracious appetite for caterpillars and sawfly larvae, the thread-waisted wasp is highly appreciated in my yard. Ranging in length from five-eighths of an inch to about two inches, it’s easily identified by its thin “waist,” or pronotum, that connects its abdomen to its thorax. This August, I was captivated observing a female thread-waisted wasp dragging into its burrow a colossal wooly bear caterpillar.
At a mere one-quarter inch in length, the miniscule yellow-faced bee is often mistaken for a miniature wasp because its abdomen is nearly hairless. This primitive bee has no pollen-carrying apparatus, so it must carry pollen and nectar to its young in its crop (gut). In a similar manner to the metallic bee, the female lays a single egg in a prepared brood cell. She prepares her nest in an underground burrow and in plants with pithy stems like our native sumac.
Little did I know that while planning and planting a lovely bird habitat I was concurrently creating a delightful bonus — a Hymenopteran haven.
Songbirds begin their ruckus in the wee hours, singing and cawing the morning to life.
Did you hear that? It was the soft thump and scrape of a bird that has flown into the picture window. Your heart sinks as you look out on its still body, but optimism seeps in to replace despair and you hope that the bundle of bright feathers will regain composure and fly away. Turning away, you become immersed in another workday when you experience both gratitude for having gainful employment and resentment that you will spend your day tethered to your desk with only momentary glimpses of the world outside and the clouds that build over the mountain.
An evening stroll in the healing presence of water will wash away the day’s concerns. The garrulous red-winged blackbird sways atop a cattail and raises his wings to show bright, red shoulder patches. “Konk-la-reee,” he calls in a liquid trill, ready to tussle to defend his territory. The Mrs., in her mottled brown feathers, sits concealed on an elaborately woven nest deep within the cattails and bulrushes.
The clamor of the congregation rises as you venture farther from your car; birds frawnk, honk, quack, chee-chee, chirp and chatter. Furtive rustling in the dense reeds indicates the presence of a bird that forages by skulking, while the sound of splashing alerts you to the blue-billed Ruddy Duck who appears to run on the water’s surface. The rich smells of the wetlands concentrate into a deep, musky essence as summer wears on. All that life and exuberance, that drive to procreate, is an affirmation that life is its own reward.
Consider life without forelimbs, or rather, life with forelimbs that cannot grasp for food, feed young or scratch an itch. Because their forelimbs are dedicated to flight, birds must find other ways to conduct their daily affairs. The shape, as well as the size, of a bird’s beak is indicative of its diet, while the design of its feet and legs are clues to where it prefers to forage.
Swallows flit in and out of view as they feed on flying insects above the water. Being aerial foragers, they have long wings and forked tails that allow for superb maneuverability. Their short, wide beaks are adapted to scooping up swarms of insects on the fly. Well-developed feet and legs are unnecessary for birds that forage in the air and these body parts are inconspicuous in flight. Greenish-blue above and white below, they are easily identified as they zip and dive above the water.
There is speculation that birds have descended from the dinosaurs. With wingspans of almost 7 feet, the Great Blue Heron is reminiscent of the prehistoric pterodactyl. Ungainly when taking flight, their long legs trail behind them. Despite their large size they weigh only 5 or 6 pounds, and like all birds have hollow bones. The Great Blue Heron extends its neck like a periscope to peer above the tall reeds. Foraging by stalking, they stand motionless in wait for prey to come within striking distance of their spear-like bill. Small mammals, snakes, fish and even ducklings are part of their varied diet.
Home again, you seek out the sweet warbler, so light in your hand, its beautiful black and gold feathers smooth to the touch. The small, sturdy beak is the perfect tool for gleaning insects and spiders from tree foliage. The tiny toes are curled as if holding onto a branch. Having become accustomed to its stillness, you acknowledge that there will be one fewer singer in tomorrow’s dawn chorus.
Gardens on the outskirts of Flagstaff are patient and persistent teachers. Most of them eventually manage to educate even the most stubborn of gardeners about how to cooperate with the local climate and just how little they can boss around nature.
Where we live is not only a biological ecotone, it’s also something of a cultural ecotone between human beings and the natural world. We have learned from our garden that what will grow here is definitely not up to us. The plants will mostly determine that for themselves, in collusion with butterflies and chipmunks in the daytime and moths and rabbits at dusk. Even the inanimate — the sun and the soil, the wind and the rain — have a much stronger voice than do we.
At first we tried planting what we wanted, based on what we found at nurseries and in catalogs. We put in cosmos, for instance, but chipmunks and ground squirrels ate them all immediately. Pansies and petunias met the same fate. Sudden frosts blackened most nursery stock and dry winds shriveled transplants grown in distant, muggy greenhouses.
The only plants that thrived in those early days were the ones whose seeds arrived in our garden via the wind or the alimentary systems of birds: alpine pennycress and silverweed cinquefoil, MacDougal verbena and common yarrow, pussytoes and pygmy bluets, wild sunflowers and Flagstaff senecio with its rosette of leaves and single yellow flower on a stalk.
Noticing where these locals established themselves, we finally learned where to put the native—or at least hardy and drought-tolerant—plants we brought home from a nursery. We stopped dotting them around the house in naked patches of dirt. Instead we planted perennials beside football-sized rocks that would keep them warm, shield them from the wind, and hold moisture in the soil to sustain them between rains. Seeing that new plants did best near established plants, we grouped them together to form mutually-nurturing neighborhoods that shelter each other’s seedlings and attract hordes of ecstatic pollinators. The house itself became part of the garden, fostering mosses and moisture-loving plants on its shady north side, and agaves and other drought-tolerant plants on its sunny south.
In the early years, it sometimes felt as though we were in an endless struggle with marauding rodents and harsh elements, which foiled our attempts to establish plants we wanted just where we wanted them. We squandered time, effort, and expense before we learned to observe what was already here and the character of each plant and place in each season.
It was when we finally let the garden have its own way that the struggle ceased. Our garden taught us to cooperate with what naturally occurs and to offer only gentle encouragement. In our case, this meant providing sheltered niches in appropriate spots for plants both wild and bought. After that, voila! Our garden’s evolution into flowering mounds, mats, and spikes began.
We are patient now, recognizing that the garden goes through different stages in concert with its pollinators and pruners, from its small and shy early bloomers to its dazzling summer crescendo. Shrubs leaf out and perennials emerge as if by magic each spring. Pollinators from beetles to bees to hummingbirds arrive as their preferred flowers open in sequence from April through October. Ripe asters attract lesser goldfinches and other birds which bob up and down as they pluck at the seedheads, dropping a few to germinate next year. Golden-mantled ground squirrels harvest the fescue, leaving it to dry in the sun then storing it like hay. In winter, rabbits nibble shrubs poking above the snow, neatly and naturally pruning them back. Elk and mule deer mysteriously keep their distance (much to our relief) but coyotes, fox, and an occasional weasel do their bit to keep things in balance as they prowl at night around the house. At our place, there is no question that nature is the Master Gardener.
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.”
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 a 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.
Water makes life possible on this planet because of its unique molecular structure. Each water molecule is comprised of one oxygen atom with two hydrogen atoms bonded to it like the two ears on Mickey Mouse’s head. Because the oxygen atom is negatively charged and each hydrogen atom is positively charged, the molecule has a slight positive charge at one end and a slight negative charge on the other. This “polar” configuration is what allows water to dissolve other molecules like sugar and salt and allows ice to float.
But it’s also the causal factor in plant freeze damage. As water freezes, the polar molecules attract and align themselves in a rigid hexagonal structure causing the water to expand and become less dense. When outdoor temperatures suddenly plummet to 32 degrees or lower, water trapped inside plant cells expands as it freezes, causing the cell membranes to burst. Susceptible plant tissues such as delicate new growth may lose turgidity, wilt and die. By avoiding fertilizing and pruning plants and trees past late summer, you can discourage the growth of tender new leaves and shoots thereby limiting or even preventing freeze injury. Heavy row covers or hoop houses placed over vegetable gardens may delay or even prevent freezing of cold-hardy crops like carrots.
One major culprit of winter damage to shrubs and trees is water unavailability, even when there’s snow on the ground. This is especially true of evergreens, because the needles continue to allow water to evaporate, especially in high winds, while the roots struggle to draw water from frozen ground. Proper watering techniques are the best way to avoid this. Sherry Lajeunesse of Montana State University advises, “Avoid watering trees in late summer or early fall before the leaves fall so they can ‘harden off’ for winter. Then, in late fall, after deciduous trees drop their leaves but before the ground freezes, give both evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs a final deep watering to last them through winter. Apply the water under the entire canopy area and beyond.” Coconino County Master Gardeners further suggest watering once a month during warm days throughout the winter.
Every year for several years, the bark of our cherry tree would develop cracks, which in turn developed into deep furrows. It got so bad we were concerned that the tree might die, but we couldn’t fix the dilemma until we determined the cause. Fortunately we found out, in time, that the cause was sunscald, a condition that many smooth-skinned trees develop when exposed to intense sunlight and extreme temperature fluctuations during the winter. We could have avoided sunscald damage if we had simply wrapped the trunk of the tree with burlap or tree wrap at the beginning of each winter.
Have you ever headed outdoors for a quick walk around your garden to enjoy the exhilarating mountain air on a dazzling winter day only to discover that one or more of your recently planted shrubs or perennials had seemingly popped out of the ground? I have, and it’s an unsettling experience. This phenomenon is frost heave and it’s precipitated by cycles of freezing and thawing of the ground. Shallow-rooted specimens like new transplants, strawberries and daisies are particularly prone. You can limit frost heave by applying a two to four-inch layer of mulch beneath the plants (not touching the stem or trunk) after the soil has frozen slightly. This keeps the soil frozen, arresting soil movement.
Now that your landscaping is tucked away for the winter, don’t forget to follow local weather reports; you may need to throw a blanket on your less hardy plants on cold, clear nights.
Here around Flagstaff, we walk among giants. Ponderosa pines frame our landscape, commanding most of our attention for much of the year. Small wonder that some people say the ponderosa forest is a monoculture, nothing more than a whole lot of trees that all look alike.
It’s true that compared to the soaring pines, plants on the forest floor can seem insignificant. In some years it may be late summer before masses of bright yellow flowers make us notice what’s right at our feet.
Yet whether we notice them or not, myriad little beings begin to emerge in the forest in March, increasing in number and diversity as the days grow longer. At first they’re inconspicuous, just ground-hugging, solar-collecting rosettes sporting modest boutoniers — bursts of white petals on alpine pennycress, Kaibab draba’s dinky yellow parasols, dwarf lousewort with its ruffly leaves and ruby snouts barely covering pale stamens pointed downward like teeth.
As the weeks go by, such low-profile flowers gradually give way to larger blossoms on taller plants in a rising chorus of color. By the time of the summer solstice, a hundred different species can have appeared, from locoweeds to lupines, bluets to buckwheats. Fortified by summer rains, warm season grasses spout flowering plumes of varied and complex architecture. More and more plants bloom higher and brighter to tempt passing pollinators. By September, masses of yellow and purple members of the Aster Family attract hosts of butterflies.
The Flagstaff area is infamous for its erratic weather. The blooming season can last only seven months or as many as nine. Good years can bring two hundred different plants into flower in a square mile of forest, each of them unique in color, shape, and scent.
These sensational displays are not for us, of course. In synchrony with the blooming of flowers, fantastical creatures appear. Hopping, creeping, flying, wriggling, each insect visits its preferred flowers within a distinct temporal territory, a territory in time.
Flowers have an impressive array of time-related strategies. Their windows of opportunity can be very limited: the few hours a fly can find a crag lily open, a moth’s dusk-to-dawn quest for an evening primrose in bloom. Fleabanes unfurl slowly each morning, freeing tiny beetles well powdered with pollen while trapped overnight. Pineywoods geraniums stay open around the clock but advertise nectar “for a limited time only.”
Along with their territories in time, wildflowers of the ponderosa forest occupy habitats — territories of place. It’s obvious that they self-organize into communities of plants with similar requirements: the sun-lovers in the open, the shade-lovers on north-facing slopes or sheltered by rocks or shrubs. Beeweed and rabbitbrush flourish in sunny openings that would be lethal for the fairy bells and catchflies glowing dimly down in cool, damp draws.
But the territory of a flower can be more revealing than whether or not it needs a lot of sun. Plants also offer us a tour of the continent. Some are defiantly local, such as Arizona clematis and Flagstaff pennyroyal. Others reflect more distant places. Rarely seen, Huachuca Mountain morning glories bloom on sunny, rocky ridges where conditions approach those in the center of their homeland to the south. Single big sagebrushes appear here and there in the realm of ponderosas, but flood the Great Basin with a pungent gray sea. Spike muhly is definitely here, but more at home in the southern Great Plains. Blue flag, Iris missouriensis, is a characteristic plant of western mountains that despite its name, does not occur in Missouri.
The big ponderosas are older than any human alive and will be here long after we’re gone. They have a permanance that keeps us all rooted in place. Forest wildflowers — poised to match up with their pollinators within their far briefer territories of time — connect us in a different way, drawing us into the intensity of life lived in the present moment. Each flower’s brief but marvelous blossoming reminds us that the forest is indeed, so much more than trees.
I remember how bored I was in Latin class, gazing out the window at birds chirping in the trees. I’d been persuaded that Latin would come in handy for its own sake but also as the basis for lovelier languages. True on both counts, but sing-songy grammatical drills and readings from pompous elders of the Roman Republic seemed awfully irrelevant at the time. Biology class was much the same in those days: studying life sciences meant rote-learning of taxonomic terms and performing ghastly dissections. I didn’t see a connection between either of the subjects and the real world that called to me from outside that window.
But life has a funny way of creating connections, of tapping all our experiences and yearnings to assemble the creatures we eventually become. I thought I’d left those rigid disciplines behind when I joined the National Park Service but failed to consider how interpreting the natural world would bring me face to face with my old adversaries: Latin and Life Sciences.
I resisted them at first, preferring folklore to facts and stubbornly refusing to learn the Latin names of plants. Of course, this couldn’t last. Simple curiosity and the urge to do my job properly soon had me reading books and magazine articles about scientific discoveries and learning Latin names.
A world of wonders unfolded! Scientists now have the most remarkable tools to observe the infinite forms and behaviors with which life expresses itself, and they describe much of what they learn using the Latin vocabulary. There are so many stories in those clickety-clack names as well as puns, tributes, geography lessons, pharmacological tips, rapturous descriptions, and most of all, connections.
People everywhere have always given interesting “common” names to local plants they use for medicine, food, and ceremonies. In western culture, it was Greek philosophers who began to organize the known world systematically. Romans adapted Greek names into Latin forms that persisted in medieval texts about herbal remedies. During the Age of Exploration, scholars continued to use Latin in their efforts to organize the flood of unfamiliar plants and animals brought back to Europe.
In 1757 the Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus conceived the system still in use today. Linnaeus’ father was first in his family to adopt a last name, Latinizing a word from his local dialect for a giant linden tree on his land. Carl used Latin names to classify plants and animals according to what he thought were family resemblances. (With the advent of DNA analysis, science is now in the process of revising the Latin names of plants using genetics instead of flower shapes.) For instance, Linnaeus placed milkweeds — a group of plants with similar flowers and potent chemistry — into the family Asclepiadaceae, a Latinized name for Aesculpius, the Greek god of medicine.
Linnaeus further divided families into groups called genera (think “generic”), based on even closer similarities in flower anatomy. He modified each genus name with a species (“specific”) name to distinguish between closely-related plants, resulting in our binomial system of paired names such as Valeriana arizonica. Valeriana is from valere which means “health” in Latin, for the plant’s tranquilizing properties later synthesized as Valium. The species name arizonica means “of Arizona” because this sweet little pale pink shade lover is a local native.
“All rootedness is learning to call things by their right name,” Confucius. Instead of spending six years majoring in Greek and Latin, it’s much easier now to discover the meaning and derivations of plant names in The Names of Plants by David Gledhill and websites such as Calflora.net/botanicalnames/.
Try it yourself! Look up Calochortus nuttalli, the Latin binomial for sego lily. You will learn that the genus of this member of Liliaceae — the Lily Family — means “beautiful grass” (a description of its leaves) and that it was named for the English botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), who ventured into the wild American West to collect plants. Voyageurs who accompanied Nuttall described him as “some whimsical kind of madman” who used his rifle to dig up plants and store seeds. You’ll never see a sego lily the same way again.
Onions, Faith, and the National Weather Service
Those of us with memories past yesterday may remember Sgt. Joe Friday of TV’s Dragnet say, “All we want are the facts.” While many people may not know it, facts are what Flagstaff’s National Weather Service gathers in addition to forecasting the weather. The facts are accurate while the forecasting, as with all predictions, is occasionally, though seldom, iffy.
Just as predicting human behavior largely relies on past behavior, so forecasting requires knowledge of the past. The NWS’s facts are on its website, which offers all manner of statistics on Flagstaff’s climate in the “NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS WR-273 Flagstaff, Arizona (Revision 6) 2009.”
Getting the facts right is important in gardening. Amongst the facts of gardening are soil, fertilizer, water, and climate. This is especially true about onions, the world’s second-most-popular vegetable.
The soil needed for onions is easy, friable, as in easily flowing through the gardener’s fingers. The fertilizer is also easy. Since onions are really a bundle of leaves, such as grass and lettuce, they need a high-nitrogen fertilizer. As for water, they need plenty of it so it’s best to grow them in trenches so that the water won’t run off but rather run down and sink in.
The bugaboo is climate. The word climate covers a multitude of sins, such as temperature, sunlight, snow and rain, monsoons, drought, and what-have-you. As for onions, the issue isn’t temperatures, but sunlight, actually the hours of sunlight in a day, and this is where the NWS’s facts are not only useful but also imperative.
One of the unpleasantries most frequently practiced by farmers, ranchers and gardeners is whining. It may be because they’re often the victims of the vagaries of the weather, a problem over which they have no control. In Flagstaff, they whine mostly about the short growing season, by which they mean days free of freeze and frost. Sometimes, when it hails, their whining turns into cursing, a worse unpleasantry.
Growing onions in Flagstaff isn’t limited to 90 days free of frost and freeze. Onions depend upon the hours of sunlight in a day. The right number of days with enough sunlight start about the Ides of March, the 15th, and this is where the National Weather Service comes in.
Generally, there are two types of onions, short-day, which require 14-16 hours of sunlight a day, and long-day, which require about 10-12. The 36th parallel is the demarcation line used to distinguish short-days from long-days. The 36th parallel runs along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff sits on the fence between short-day and long-day, horticultural mugwumps with our mugs north of the 36th and our wumps south. So we are left with what some call “intermediate” onions.
The easiest and most productive onions to plant are onion sets, which are really immature onion bulbs. Seeds are chancy. The sets can be purchased locally or online, such as Brown’s of Omaha at www.bopf.com. Plant them about one inch deep and five inches apart. If spring onions are desired, plant them three inches apart, pulling every other one in the spring.
Some of the “intermediate” sweet onions are TX 1015-Y, Super Sweet, and the long-day Walla Walla, which does well for the “intermediates.” If loneliness is not a disadvantage, sweet onions can be eaten raw, like an apple, carrot or tomato, once the outer leaves and dirt have been removed.
Heroically compiled by Mike Staudemaier Jr., Reginald Preston, and Paul Sorenson of the National Weather Service, the memorandum sets out on page 70 the exact facts on hours of sunlight in Flagstaff for every day of the year. This is where a gardener can find March 15 for “intermediate” onions. It also may mean planting onions sets in the dank and drear of mid-March in cold mud mixed with leftover snow. But what the (heck)? It means extending the growing season by three months. No pain, no gain.