- Honestly, Dara -

The Keeping-It-Real Garden

|
Easy Pickings

Gardening is simple — if you grow only herbs.

I acquired a cucumber vine last spring at a fundraiser for my kids’ school. This little plant was bundled with other vegetation I did not need, including a tiny watermelon vine.

My kids christened the watermelon vine Wilhelmina and petted and carried her around, until one day I found her with her stem broken and buried her before anyone noticed. I tucked the cucumber vine into a cute trellis purchased at a different school fundraiser and turned my attention to the only things in that bundle of plants that I really care about: the herbs.

How I love herbs! Thick woody shrubs of rosemary, standing as fragrant sentinels near my cherry tree. Tall plumes of leathery lavender, speckled with tiny purple blossoms. Black clumps of ruffled basil, not nearly as potent as ordinary basil but beautiful in salads and so pretty along the walkway. Then there’s the ordinary basil, wide leaved and pliant, shimmering with the promised pesto flavors of summer.

I also adore parsley — frilly and leprechaun green, stretching for the sun. I treasure my delicate tendrils of thyme, weaving in and upon themselves like a low-pluming fountain. I keep three varieties of sage clustered together in a little alley — the purple, the speckled white, and the gray-green.

Sometimes I grab a leaf of sage on my way to work in the morning, chewing it like a Thanksgiving-flavored breath mint, and I’m happy. Sometimes I crush a sprig of rosemary into my pocket when I’m leaving for a fancy event, and when I catch a whiff of it later, I think, Life is varied and full.

And the chives! I have so many of them that I divide them every spring and drop them on neighbors’ back steps under cover of darkness, like a reverse cat burglar. These tenacious beauties bring me utter delight in those first brown weeks of early spring when winter is gasping its last breath. The little green shoots shove their heads out of the newly defrosted earth as if to say in spicy triumph, “Who’s first? Chives! Chives win again!” 

Finally, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for mint, that indestructible weed associated with a seriously creepy Greek myth, which goes something like this:

There once was a beautiful river nymph named Minthe, the daughter of a river god. One day she was relaxing by the flowing waters, when Hades, king of the underworld, discovered her, and things between them got a bit fresh. Then Hades’s wife, Persephone, turned up, and she was not happy. She kicked Minthe to bits and turned her into a plant! The sort-of-chivalrous Hades intervened and ensured that Minthe was at least the kind of plant that smells good when it gets stepped on.

Aromatics and mythology aside, the real reason I love my herb garden is because I’m busy.

There was a time when I raised tomatoes — beautiful heirloom varieties — and all my energy was spent waging war with squirrels.

Think squirrels are cute? You’ve obviously never tried to grow tomatoes. These invasive rodents take one bite and leave the savaged fruit to rot. “Haha!” they seem to chatter when chased from the garden. “I’m a squirrel, and puncturing tomatoes is hilarious.”

While growing herbs, you may have to fend off the occasional bunny, but you never have to worry about your crop overripening. Lose track of your zucchini and you end up harvesting a canoe. Have a busy weekend and your strawberries wilt and wither.

Neglect your herbs for a while? No problem. They’ll just hang out, because they’re mellow (assuming they’re not seducing gods of the underworld while your back is turned).

And if they flower? Not to worry. When your chives bolt — and they will, beautifully — pull the little blossoms apart and scatter them over a watermelon salad with red onion and salt. If the basil starts to flower, pinch off the blooms and bury them with the ghost of Wilhelmina. If your lavender flowers, life is as it should be and you can just enjoy another perfect day. Raising herbs is a relaxing venture.

Even reluctant gardeners can handle herbs. My colleague Stacy, who had never gardened, finally took my herb evangelizing to heart and planted basil last year.

“It was so easy!” she gushed. She told me of the caprese salads she’d been making, layering homegrown basil leaves with mozzarella and tomato. She prepared her own pesto, whirring up fresh basil with garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and parmesan.

Stacy was so pleased with her garden-to-table success that she’s going to plant mint this year. (I didn’t tell her about Minthe and Persephone.)

I am now sharing with her the many virtues of rosemary: You can throw whole stalks onto the coals of your grill, like they do in Tuscany, and infuse your grillables with their aroma! You can hang bundles in your kitchen to make your life smell like heaven.

If there’s one thing I want Stacy and any other would-be gardener to know, it’s that herb gardens meet you where you are.

If your life won’t accommodate tending to heirloom tomato plants — the staking, the watering, the weeding, the defending against squirrel invasions — grow herbs. You’ll still be connected to the earth, the seasons, and your food. Then you can visit your local farmers’ market fully appreciating all the effort these fine people exert to provide the delicious food you aren’t able to grow at home.

And if you get roped into buying veggie plants at a fundraiser, you may as well give those cucumber and watermelon vines a try. What’s the worst that can happen?

In August I found my own lowly cucumber plant again, still inside its trellis. It had borne one small fruit the size of a lime, with a rotten dent the size of a penny near its head.

So, there it is. I can’t grow cucumbers. But I can grow sage and rosemary and basil, which makes me happy. And I can share my enthusiasm — not to mention extra chives — with friends and neighbors, which I hope makes them happy, too.

This originally appeared as “Easy Pickings” in the April 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

is a James Beard Award-winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by Paul Hostetler

Leave a Comment