MARTIN CHEMNITZ PRESS
A MIGHTY FORTRESS LUTHERAN CHURCH
Pastor Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
GARDENING: PRUNES ARE GOOD FOR YOU
When we bought our home in Phoenix, US West (now Qwest) hastily put in a utility post, picking the low spot in the back yard. Repeated severe rainstorms revealed the weakness in this plan when our Internet and cable began shorting out. The post was wet inside and full of plant material. The top was not even placed properly. The company is spending about a week digging a hole and re-splicing the lines, moving the junction to a dryer place.
The digger was telling how hard it was to work around all the beautiful plants. He didn’t know that I planted the bushes to hide their hellish post, which stuck up right behind the waterfall. Then I surprised him, saying, “Trim the bushes back as much as you need to work. Pruning is good for the bushes. It makes them grow.”
He looked at me the way most people do when I mention something so fundamental. He did not really believe me. John 15:1-10 is quite clear. Jesus’ example is based upon Creation. Otherwise the illustration would be jarring to those of us who garden. The deadwood is cut from the vine (or bush). The fruitful branches are pruned to make them even more fruitful. Whenever I see a sick rosebush, I prune it back hard, for several reasons. One reason is that nothing grows well on sick foliage. Another reason is that pruning immediately forces root and plant growth. Finally, sick foliage invites disease and insects.
In John the pruning (purging) applied to absolution from sin. The same process applies to us. Repentance and forgiveness may seem to be a harsh remedy, but they are God’s pruning to make us more fruitful.
My gardening methods in Phoenix are now bowing to the reality of the desert. We are removing the lawn (really a mixture of weeds and Round-Up) and replacing it with gravel. Not parking lot gravel, but colored rocks of various sizes and textures. We picked a blend called “Cotton Candy.” The entire front yard will be gravel instead of weeds and bare spots. No more watering (and forgetting to turn the sprinkler off all night.)
We are planting some Chilean mesquite trees. You may have eaten mesquite flavored hamburgers or cooked with mesquite charcoal. It is a desert tree, immune to drought, and fast growing (two feet per year) with modest watering. The sun has fairly roasted the west side of our home since we moved there. Now four mesquites will throw their willowy shadows against the west wall. Another mesquite and a paloverde will shade the back yard. If you can picture this, the sun travels across the southern exposure of our home until afternoon, when the thermonuclear radiation hits the west side. When I planted sunflowers, their shade on the west side was wonderful. However, some touchy church members and family members objected to being clobbered with the heavy seed heads as they worked their way to the back yard. I used ropes to keep the sunflower patch from overwhelming the sidewalk. A rope break could have had a disastrous catapult effect.
The paloverde tree is another desert native, the state tree of Arizona. When I looked up the name on Google.com, I got dozens of things named after the tree but nothing about the tree. Forget your four-season-country notions of a tree. Like the mesquite, the paloverde is more of a woody bush, growing up to 30 feet in height. Its beauty comes from the greenness of the tree. Most of its photosynthesis comes from the lizard green stems rather than the tiny leaves. The paloverde also has attractive yellow flowers in the spring. Throughout the year the tree strikes everyone as graceful and feminine.
We will also install the state flower of Arizona in the front yard – the majestic saguaro. (Say “sah-wa-ro” and you will sound like a native. “Sagwaro” will peg you as a tourist.”)
Saguaro cacti are the familiar forms which seem almost human with their arms pointing in various directions. The saguaro flower blooms at night and feeds many creatures from the time of pollination to its fruiting and formation of seeds. Our little saguaro will not be of great size or cost, but it will grow in time. My wife Chris has wanted one ever since we moved here. Our pet saguaro will be in the front lawn.
I thought it was odd to fling thousands of gallons of water at a front lawn that did not really want to grow. The weeds loved it. Goat’s head flourished, in spite of my investment in gallon jugs of Round-Up. Shepherd’s Purse, once a favorite of mine, became a curse in the front yard. Bird seed feeders promoted more rough grasses. Xeriscaping is becoming popular in Phoenix. The idea is to quit trying to grow Minnesota plants in a desert valley when God has provided a wonderful selection of beautiful specimens already. Dry gardening means almost no work, and that is important when the growing season has several months where the temperatures reach 100-115.
In fact, my little cactus garden from two years ago established itself quite well in the face of total neglect and occasional vandalism from neighborhood punks. Prickly pear will look like Mickey Mouse with two plates growing like ears from the main plate, but the cacti are tempting for a kid with a stick. Cactus plants can be stuck in shallow earth and they will grow. Excessive watering kills them, so they cannot be planted with Midwestern flowers in the same patch. But total neglect is good for them and they follow the design of their Creator. If the rains are heavy they lift up their faces to heaven, bloom, and grow fast. If rains are sparse, they get tighter than a bachelor raised in the Depression.
Readers may recall that I ran out to the yard and began sowing seed carelessly when rain was forecast. Later I even had a few regrets. But now I am pleased to see basil growing for the first time. Grow and smell basil when you have a chance. The aroma is especially pleasing. The flavor is a natural for tomato dishes. The plant also does well as a companion with tomatoes. I have some tomatoes growing, following last year’s pattern of growing in the cold season with no fruit, after surviving the hot season with no fruit. (A good ground cover?) Phoenix, I have concluded, is not tomato country. And should it be? My neighbor in Moline grew perfect tomatoes. I grew them effortlessly in Michigan and Minnesota.
The landscaper was impressed with my zinnias. He was not aware of how well the desert rose grows here. I did a walk around of the swimming pool area today and saw more evidence of zinnias seeding themselves, growing, and blooming all over again. I took some seed-heads from an orange variety and scattered them around. Once again I had a clump of orange zinnias. Maybe I should dub them the desert tulip. In full bloom they are glorious. Once the blooms start to form seed, the plants seem to advertise their large size and homely nature. Just like tulips. (I would risk frost-bite to have a drift of Darwin tulips rise from the ground and proclaim the coming of spring with giant, egg-like blooms of purest color.)
Radishes grew where I scattered them into the mulch. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Radishes are vastly over-rated as food. I did waste a lot of seed, but it cost almost nothing. Now I will have radish seed pods to eat. I hate the roots – too hot. But the seed pods are great for salad or eating on the run, with the flavor of radish but not the bite. Maybe you never thought of this – radish means root (radix is Latin for root). Radicals get their names because they claim to go to the root of the matter. But I think they are more like radishes, hot and over-rated.
The triple rain storms have made me less sullen about roses. The rain has made most of the bushes form buds again and start to bloom. All the roses will be in the narrow and well watered area around the pool from now on. I have hopes for two varieties. One only bloomed once in the front – too hot and dry. The other rose, an English variety, bloomed well before with delicate pink flowers. The first rose is Madame Isaac Pereire, famous for its fragrance. By that I mean a large area around the rose in bloom is permeated with perfume, rare for any rose except Fragrant Cloud.
An irony about this project fits the Midwest as well. I used to bank on the rigid attitude of gardeners that nothing could be done or planted after a certain date in the Midwest. In July a potted rose was worth one dollar ($1) because no one wanted to plant them anymore. A potted rose had July-October to bloom and become established. “But you don’t have much to pick from,” the patient gardeners explained to my uncomprehending face. I fairly yelled, “I can plant 10 bushes for 10 bucks. And I get to try odd varieties no one else thinks to grow. How am I harmed?”
The same group of gardeners would explain to me, year after year, why they never planted asparagus. “Because it takes 3 years to get going.” I would counter, “You said that 5 years ago. You could have had asparagus for two years.”
The ideal planting time for trees and bushes is late fall. In four-season country, the plant becomes dormant but builds up a root system during the winter, fed by snow. Here the trees and bushes get a chance to become established before the blazing heat of summer. When do trees and bushes go on sale? Yes, exactly! – at the best time to plant them. Why? Because gardeners give up work on that date and refuse to buy bushes and trees. So the bushes and trees go on sale. I have seen many gardeners stare in wonder at the idea of planting trees and bushes late in the year. Sometimes they slowly chant, “Yes, I heard that is the best time.” Their voices trail off.
I belong to an impulsive group of hobbyists, these gardeners. An executive at Scott’s Lawn said that rain on Saturday ruined fertilizer sales one year. Why? Men buy lawn food on Saturday, but only if it is not raining. Lawn food can be bought or applied any day, even bought one day and applied the next. But no. Bad weather killed sales one year, since it rained especially on Saturdays. One batch of lawn food killed everything it touched. One process was done wrong at the factory. That reduced sales too. Twenty years later the same men are saying, “Yep, Used to use Scott’s. It killed my entire lawn one year. Never touched it again. Sure, they settled. But you never know.”