I’ve come to realize that one of the keys to creating healthy, flavorful meals is using fresh herbs as much as possible. But it kills me to pay $2 for a bunch of wilting cilantro when I just need a tablespoon to sprinkle on my bowl of chili. So, after years of living in an apartment with no outside access save a dreary fire escape, I finally have a porch and a yard—the perfect places to plant a container herb garden.
There are far better places to read about gardening. But I’ll tell you about my optimistic—and ultimately foiled—plan for never having to pay through the nose for fresh herbs again.
I’d hatched my plan in May, when Atlanta was warming up and our local Home Depot was teeming with avid gardeners, making me homesick for my mother, whose green thumb, I was soon to learn, I did not inherit. While Chip tried to steer me to the potted herbs, I had a different idea. The paper packets and little plastic greenhouses beckoned. I loved the idea of starting my seeds from scratch, watching them sprout in their little dirt pods, and transplanting them to pots. In this way, controlling every step of the process from seed to plate, I’d be assured of their organic integrity. We brainstormed on which herbs we’d use the most: cilantro for fish tacos; dill (Chip’s favorite herb) for chicken salad; mint for mojitos and lemonade; basil for Caprese salad and pesto; thyme and parsley for just about everything. And rosemary, not because I use it so much, but because here in Atlanta, it thrives so beautifully that people use it as a decorative shrub.
The poor seedlings sprouted indeed, and then grew to spindly heights. We transplanted them into pots that we set on our front steps for convenient access when our plants were ripe for harvesting. But the poor seedlings, tall and anemic, grew pale and remained spindly, no matter how lovingly I watered them. And it became even more galling to have to buy herbs for a recipe.
Finally, I admitted that Chip was right…we should’ve just started with plants. We went back to Home Depot and bought replacements for all of our plants, pulling out the tiny herbs to replace with bushy, mature plants that were already ready to snip. I even went to Williams-Sonoma and bought a special pair of herb scissors. And for a few short weeks, everything was as I envisioned. Does the sauce need a little something? I’d run outside and snip a few stalks of parsley or dill. I was even raiding my little garden for plate garnishes and fresh mint to dress up glasses of iced tea.
My herbs were thriving…that is, until Atlanta was hit with a drought. A landscaper friend told us ominously that the draconian water restrictions applied even to container gardens, even to filling a watering can, even if you do it surreptitiously from your kitchen sink. I thought again of my mom, who lives in Santa Fe (land of the eternal water restriction), who so loves her garden that she even saves her bathwater and dishwater to nourish her plants. With a once-weekly watering, my herbs didn’t stand a chance. Nor did they stand a chance against an infestation of tiny red bugs (aphids, my mom diagnosed during a desperate phone consultation, and sagely recommended spritzing the offending bugs with diluted dishwashing liquid), or a second infestation of caterpillars, which my husband identified online as black swallowtail butterfly larvae.
Now it’s September, and I’m sad to report that of my container garden, only the parsley and rosemary survive. But that’s okay. The parsley recently came in handy in adding color to an improvised succotash dish, and the rosemary, if it lasts til winter, will add great flavor to roasted root vegetables. And maybe I’ll have better luck next summer.