My Babies


Confession: I have a tendency to kill living things. Things that happen to be green.

When I was in grad school, I had a roommate who traveled for an entire summer. She had a few houseplants scattered ’round our apartment, on tables near windows and such. She left for the summer, and upon her return, walked into the apartment and gasped. Her houseplants were all brown, dried and dejected — as well they should’ve been, after not being watered for three months. In my defense (a weak one) — she never actually asked me to care for the plants; she just assumed I would do it, since I lived there and was supposedly her friend. When she asked, in confusion, why I didn’t do that, I answered her honestly: I just didn’t notice them. If it didn’t meow, or in some other way alert me of its need, I could effectively ignore it.

How I wish I could say I’ve changed. And maybe I have improved just a smidgeon — but I still repeatedly kill a maidenhair fern that I bought for our first house in Athens, 8 years ago (maidenhairs are known for their hardiness — so when mine turns completely brown, I just cut off all the foliage and start watering it again; it miraculously begins to show tiny green shoots, and eventually returns to a state of growth). I’m not sure what my problem is — part of me thinks I should have a greener thumb, what with being married to a guy who does ecology stuff (though he’s admittedly more of a policy man than biologist) and being into other domestic-like ventures such as cooking. I’m a pragmatist to my very bones, however; and while I love art and things of beauty, I tend toward items that have function as well as form. Perhaps that’s why I’m better at taking care of my potted herbs.

My first experience with live herbs dates back to our first house in Georgia. We plowed up a plot of grass that lined the fence outside the kitchen door, and on one end saved a spot for about 7 herb plants. I knew absolutely nothing about growing things; so I stuck them in the ground, paying no mind to the eventual size and height of the mature plant. Most of them grew, but I ended up with a giant oregano bush that blocked all access to a creeping thyme. Eventually I tried to dig things up and move them around, but you can probably guess how that went.

Early last summer, we knew we’d be moving to Indianapolis. So, thinking ahead, I planted most of my herbs in pots (excepting a couple basil plants that I knew would do much better in the ground and would provide us with plenty of herb before we left). I tended them all summer, they grew like well-behaved greenery, and were ready to make the trip with us — I imagined the first few meals in our new place would be all the more welcoming with fresh herbs cut from pots we brought from The South. But then the moving van came, and they refused to load any live plants onto the truck, saying they’d never live to see the other side. Our two cars were already packed to the brim with items I didn’t trust the movers to take; so my pots stayed behind, and I encouraged neighbors and friends to take what they desired.

So last August, I bought four new terra cotta pots, and a couple bags of potting soil. I purchased three herbs that I hoped would make it through the winter: thyme, sage, and rosemary. I also “appropriated” one of the 20 or so overgrown Italian parsleys from the community garden around the corner (I didn’t do it until after the frost — and they were all going to die! Really!). I planted them, let them get a little sunshine and rain, and brought them into our unheated mudroom for the winter. A little sunlight, and a little water (I managed to water my herbs, but again forgot the maidenhair, which was sitting in the very same mudroom), and here we are in April. They are still alive, and happy outside, already having doubled their size in the past 2 weeks (except the rosemary, who is still looking a bit scrawny).

Why in the world am I telling you this story of herbs and forgetfulness? To encourage you — if you’ve not already — to grow some herbs; because if I can do it, truly, anyone can. In pots, in a bed — it makes no difference. But fresh herbs are an immense boost to the flavors of homecooked meals — a handful of chopped leaves can make the difference between a dish that is just fine to a dish that is really, really good. I took it upon myself to respond to your possible objections:

You know, I just buy dried herbs in bulk at the health food store. They are really good quality, and I always have them on hand.

Great habit — buying herbs in bulk — they are much fresher and cheaper that way. But while dried herbs work great in long-cooking dishes, such as soups and stews, they are too heavy-handed and bland in both color and texture when it comes to topping salads, pastas, and other fresh summer fare. For summer eating, fresh herbs are the way to go.

I don’t want to bother with plants — I’ll just kill them. So I buy packs of fresh herbs from the produce section of the grocery store when a recipe calls for it.

Look, I buy the packs, too. This winter, I had pillaged my rosemary plant to a point near death; so I bought a pack of sprigs from the grocery. But this gets really, really expensive. And it limits your access to fresh herbs for those times when you’ve planned for it. What about all those Sunday evenings, when you’d like to throw together a quick salad with leftover veggies from the fridge? That’s when a quick chop of basil or parsley makes a plain dinner turn into something great.

And — what if, like me, you manage to kill a few plants? The plant itself will probably cost you what the pack of herbs will cost. Pick 3-4 herbs you think you’d use most — I’d vote for Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, basil, oregano, and maybe some chives. Try them in a few pots, or a spot in your yard — if you have a place that gets a little shade in the late afternoon, even better. Water them in the mornings or evenings. See what happens.

My next door neighbor has a beautiful garden, lush with any herb I could imagine using. I just go out around midnight, and take enough trimmings for the week.

Alrighty then. Your secret is safe with me.

So, go ye. Prepare your soil, and purchase your plants. If you’re feeling really confident, get packs of seeds and grow them from their very beginnings. Start that herb garden you’ve been meaning to get going for a while now. And then use the herbs, and see if you don’t become completely addicted, bringing forth a capacity for nurturing things of green that you’ve not personally known.

Unless, of course, you kill them. Then, you can join the likes of me, and just try again.

Note: this post was syndicated at on April 19.

9 thoughts on “My Babies

  1. Thank you for that – I love your writing :). I must be your alter-ego. I actually do fairly well with houseplants, but have managed to kill every herb I ever started. But, you have inspired me yet again. They really would be so worth it if I could manage to keep them alive!

    1. Jenna, there probably exists a therapist who could tell us exactly why we choose to nurture certain plants, and ignore others ; )

      Do you keep your herbs outside? Do you live in a place that gets occasional rain? I think the fact that my herbs do get “watered” naturally, on occasion, is what helps them stay alive. I would never remember to water them enough on my own, even as much as I love them.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I have the anti-green thumb. I got a lily as a housewarming gift and within a week almost killed it. The boys re-potted it, waved some magic wand over it and it is totally thriving. They placed it in the living room and now, as a means of showing off, sometimes note how nice and “alive” it looks. One day soon, I am going to knock it over. Good luck with it all!

  3. Thanks for the encouragement to grow herbs. I’ve been gradually buying small post of herbs as the need for them arises. I only have mint and parsley right now, but I would really like to purchase some basil-it’s so yummy with tomatoes and mozarella and on pizza. I hope one day soon to make my herb garden more established!

    1. Jennifer, if you put the mint in the ground, it will take over. Which can be great, because you’ll always have mint. But just make sure you put it somewhere you are comfortable with its proliferation. I had some along one side of our house, by a gate, and you got a strong scent of mint every time you opened the gate — it was really nice.

      Basil — this has always been a frustrating one for me. I’ve had about 50% success with mine. Sometimes it’s puny and grows little leaves, and then other times it goes crazy. I think basil is one that needs frequent pruning — and you also must pinch off the flowers, or the herb’s flavor will mutate into something much more licorice-y. To me, basil is the most labor-intensive of the herbs I have.

      Well, except for dill. That one was so hard (at least, it was in the deep south — way too hot) I just don’t bother anymore. Which stinks, because I love dill.

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