Coming to terms with an inability to grow and keep a plant alive
I’ve wanted a vegetable garden ever since I watched Jamie Oliver open a window in his studio kitchen and pluck out fresh herbs while a butterfly flew past. For all I know it was a fake garden, but the seed was planted.
I went so far as to actually start a vegetable patch. A process that involved convincing my gardener to help me, which I did by promising I’d do all the work, he just needed to watch and instruct me. He finally agreed and we spent hours every Sunday in that little patch, shovelling, de-weeding and watering.
He’d tell me stories about growing up in Zimbabwe and how farming was part of the school curriculum. There was a vegetable garden and each class was responsible for a different row of vegetables. They’d be graded on how they planted, their knowledge of farming and how the vegetables turned out. When it came to harvesting, they’d combine all the vegetables and each kid got to take a bundle of fresh produce home. An event that was the biggest incentive to make sure you grew the best vegetables.
In exchange I’d share my latest running update, as any committed Comrades runner does. And every so often he’d look at me as if he was trying to decide if I was crazier for spending hours every weekend running nowhere or for thinking I was going to grow a decent vegetable patch on what he deemed infertile land.
He humoured my vision and we planted lettuce, radishes, carrots, and parsley to start – and it would turn out to end – with. He taught me how to weed, how to water (it’s not just spraying a hose in the direction of the garden), how to take old potatoes and plant them in a pot to yield new potatoes and the importance of sun.
Months later, I got my harvest day. And as I pulled out the first carrot, I was bewildered that such tall leaves could be attached to a carrot so tiny. It turns out you shouldn’t judge a carrot by its leaves.
My garden yielded micro carrots, radishes, lettuce and some parsley, which although tiny were the tastiest vegetables I’d had.
That experiment lasted less than 6 months. I never planted anything else and last I checked it was thriving. With weeds.
Each month, we set challenges, based on that month’s theme. As Greenery was the theme this month, the challenge was to keep a pot plant alive for a month. I’m clearly not capable of planting from scratch and because a kitchen herb garden is another pipe dream of mine, it seemed worthwhile to try.
I banished memories of my poor chilli pot plant which is now a pot of dried soil relocated to a spot near where the rubbish bins are kept, and went to go select a plant.
I chose basil, because I like it, use it and it makes the entire kitchen smell delicious. And how hard is it to keep basil alive for a month?
I consulted You Tube for directions on keeping it alive and learnt some fundamentals to keeping a herb pot plant alive.
- Water with filtered water
- Do not water daily, water every few days when it’s dry or the leaves look limp.
- Do not over water. Two ice cubes worth is enough.
- Pick the basil in single leaves, not bunches and start from the top where the leaves are biggest.
I also learnt that basil doesn’t last more than a month or two and that combining a leaf of basil and dark chocolate is delicious. I tried it, it’s not. It tastes like a leaf got stuck to your chocolate.
I also came across a tutorial on how to repot basil and learnt that the way it was purchased produced “a competitive nightmare in there” with so many roots vying for nutrients and space. The best solution was to separate the roots and repot them. I decided to let them fight it out. Survival of the fittest.
The first two weeks went great. The plant thrived, I picked leaves to add to pizza, pasta and salad. It was somewhere in week three that things took a turn for the worst. The leaves started shrivelling and smelled less like basil and more like nothing.
I moved it to the sun, was more careful with water. But nothing. Eventually I picked off most of the good leaves and used them and watched as the once full pot shriveled to one single sad stick of green leaves.
I’m still hopeful it’ll decide to sprout back up. I’m giving it another month to grow or it joins the chilli plant, in a space good intentions go to die.
Somewhere during this month, I’ve also come to terms with the fact that my thumbs are not green and planting is not a strong suit. And that the fact that every plant I’ve had has died prematurely does not make me incompetent in life, just incompetent in gardening. And I can live with that. Maybe one day, I’ll try again but for now my herbs are coming in plastic containers and the only harvesting I’ll do is picking vegetables from the store.
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Main image by Feige Lewin