On Herb Gardens

Compton, my Wombat, enjoying the morning summer air with my Black-Eye Susan Vine, or Thunbergia, called Susan.

At the start of summer, which, for those of us in New England occurs at just about the appointed time on the calendar when we expect the solstice, I experience a deep sense of satisfaction after visiting a farm in the countryside and trundling off to my home with a car load of herbs that have been very carefully selected for me with the assistance of the expert folks who tend acres and acres of flowers, herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees at a lovely spot in Buxton, Maine. I’m a novice gardener. No, wait – I’m not sure I’m really even a novice gardener. I think I’m more of a reluctant gardener, or a maybe a hesitant gardener. I dream of gardens surrounding my home, my streets, even my town. Vibrant with color and lush in hue, I imagine a world where neon and concrete have no place to thrive any longer, and where we are all surrounded by the beauty and wonder that is a butterfly fluttering on a stem, or a bee buzzing on a petal. So if my idea of heaven is a place that I have to wait and perish of old age, to get to, I figure that I have to settle for My Little Back Porch Herb Garden. It’s where I can be found with a cuppa in the morning while the birds call out to each other, or with my beloved husband enjoying a very late afternoon meal before the twilight of evening descends, or with a quilt wrapped around me just before the fireflies start their dance beneath a moonrise.

One corner of my little back porch herb garden, in early June – with Susan hanging, well watered, in the shade, as instructed.

But, do you see that image above? Of the lovely Black-Eye Susan Vine, or Thunbergia alata, as it is known in the botanical universe, hanging in serenity? That sweet plant lasted for about five weeks in my little back porch herb garden, before limping, shriveling, and nearly hurling itself from its container, while under my care this year. It doesn’t belong in my climate, actually, since it comes from Madagascar, but that was no excuse, because the one hanging in the shed at the farm was gorgeous. I saw it all throughout the summer months, when I returned for vegetables and fruits to bring home for the delicious meals I prepared during visits from family and friends. Alas, even as I queried at the farm on the subject of the delicacy and life expectancy of Thunbergia alata, together with a very careful description, (ad nauseam, mind you), of my limited ability as a gardener, they encouraged me to bring her home, keep her in the shade, and water her generously. Nothing could prepare me for the failure I felt at the loss of Susan, as I called my Thunbergia alata, during our daily conversations that were interrupted by occasional hummingbird sightings. It took several trips to the local hipster ice-cream shop, owned by a lovely young couple who just had their first baby this spring, and numerous scoops of their fresh mint chocolate chip, (made with real mint leaves, I tell you), before I would be consoled enough to continue on with My Little Back Porch Herb Garden.

I kept calm and carried on, however, with my Thyme, (Thymus vulgaris), Rosemary, (Rosmarinus officinalis), Lavender, (Lavandula angustifolia), Mint, (Mentha arvensis), Oregano (Origanum vulgare), Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), Sage, (Salvia officinalis), Basil, (Ocimum basilicum), nurturing them each with the success that I enjoyed in prior years. It is interesting to note all of their lovely botanical names, as botanical names were published and became a popular cultural interest during the Victorian era. One Victorian, in particular, was the biologist and botanical artist, Marianne North, whose extraordinary paintings hang in her own gallery at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, and who was once photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, at her home in Ceylon… but, I digress so easily; it is enough to demonstrate that I am unsuitable as the keeper of a thriving garden, of any sort. Houseplants do seem to grow well enough in my care, however, but only if they are unfussy about sunlight and salty sea air. We have an enormous and elderly Jade Tree, (Crassula ovata), that is, I swear, devoted to me, even allowing me to snip cuttings from him, (Crassula sounds masculine, I think), that have grown into more Jade Trees which now thrive in their new homes with our family members. Crassula may even have some deep satisfaction in the notion of populating the Jade Tree world with the stuff of his own roots.

Our Jade Tree, (Crassula ovata),now, about 20 years old.

What I have learned about myself and my surroundings, from tending a dozen indoor houseplants, a few outdoor hanging plants, and numerous pots of plants in my little back porch herb garden, would be enough to fill a tiny, slim volume, all its own. I’ve learned that patience, especially, is cultivated through events that are sometimes beyond my ability to navigate. Patience also requires a willingness to seek out more opportunities to learn and grow in areas where I feel uncertain. It isn’t enough, I’ve discovered, to simply research and study a new endeavor, attend all the gatherings where others communicate and demonstrate their vast experience, and then purchase all the necessary tools for my own success. I must be willing to fail, even at the cost of all that I have invested, in order to receive the extraordinary gift that is a hard lesson learned, with all its many assignments both simple and difficult. Patience is a repetitive discipline, but patience with myself is very often, nearly an unapproachable burden. I want everything I touch to sustain a quiet perfection long after I have completed my goals. In this, I find an urgency to hurry, because time seems always fleeting, as though it would be finally spent, all too soon. And so, of late, I have come to move through most of my days in a kind of a bitter haste.

I slowed down enough, one morning, to discover this tiny green slug on my Parsley,
(Petroselinum crispum), after bringing it into the kitchen for autumn.

Tending both outdoor and indoor plants doesn’t allow for such things. If I am to harvest the extraordinary basil leaves, so green and rich with flavor on the hearty thriving bushes in my little back porch herb garden, and if I am to blend them with olive oil from Crete, lemon juice and romano from Sicily, and pine nuts from, (who knew?), Michigan, all together in my blender to make the most delectable pesto, dripping with an aroma and a flavor so spectacular that my husband inhales deeply and licks his smiling lips in an erotic repose of tranquility that inspires poets to write and musicians to sing, well then, I must learn patience. I must learn that wind, and cold, and rain, and sun, and heat are some of the most powerful elements on my planet, Earth, and that I cannot alter their courses through the summer season in New England that begins at the solstice and lasts until the equinox. I cannot move through time in such desperation, nor live through each day with a triumphant completion that belies the disciplines of patience. I must slowly and carefully use all of my senses – to listen, to touch, to see, to taste, and to smell – so that I might determine what is needed for all my plants. In this, I often care better for my plants, than I do for myself.

Some herbs brought into the kitchen, for as long as the hours of autumn sunshine will
allow, as it becomes too cold in my little back porch herb garden.

Tending an entire garden really, really intimidates me, and I’m not sure that self actualization groups for the reluctant or tentative gardener have evolved to the extent that they are able to change much about how I think on such things. What I do believe I am able to do, and what I am confident I am able to do, will be to add more pots of plants next year to my little back porch herb garden. Perhaps I can take on more of the same plants that I have grown with success in previous years, while I add new varieties of plants, so that I might learn about their individual wants and needs. Whatever I decide, I know that patience will be required to sustain both the little back porch herb garden, as well as, myself. It is a schmaltzy metaphor, truthfully, but one that I can live with, for now. My Little Back Porch Herb Garden may one day become my big back porch herb garden, and then perhaps, my little garden alongside the back porch, and even one day, my big garden alongside the house. There’s an idealistic children’s book for me to write, in here, somewhere. It will need a fabulous illustrator. Maybe it will even be the kind of children’s book that adults will like to read, too.

From, My Little Back Porch Herb Garden, by Robin Whitham McCrady. Copyright, 2020.

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