Lessons from the herbs in my garden

When I’m cooking dinner, I’ll hop outside to trim some leaves off my plants, taking care not to thin out the foliage too much, taking from the top, not the bottom. Rinse your herbs well before consuming them. Savour their flavour. The love I cook into my dishes tastes like home-grown basil.

Beneath the mottled shade of the now-blooming frangipani tree behind my house sit a cluster of terracotta pots. They are propped up on blue plastic milk crates that were there when we moved in, or balanced precariously on bricks to give them room to drain. In these pots are herbs — or the remains of them. Basil, rosemary, thyme, a native mint, something called a “memory herb” that was on sale at Bunnings. A strawberry plant without berries (yet). A dried up stalk of a chilli bush that I’m hoping will be revived one day. A houseplant I put outside to get some sun. 

I had wanted to move out long before I was finally able to secure a place. In the months I spent trawling Domain and seeing polished photo after polished photo, the home I hoped to make became amorphous. I didn’t know if I would end up in an apartment or a townhouse, whether I would have storage space in my room or a dishwasher in my kitchen. 

Amid the nebula of potential home qualities, I pinned down a few images. A pot on a stove, simmering for hours. Pictures I painted, framed and stuck to my walls with command strips. A couch — any couch — with a fluffy throw rug strewn across it. The first image I held onto, though, was this: a collection of terracotta pots, on a balcony, a windowsill, piled in a backyard, with herbs growing from them. If I had my little herb garden, it would mean I had a home. 

Potting any plant is fairly straightforward. Find a pot with a hole in the base (for drainage), preferably terracotta; this controls how moist the soil gets, as the clay can absorb excess water from the soil. Fill it partway with potting mix. Ease the herb out of the plastic pot you bought it in by gently squeezing the sides until it becomes loose. Support the herb with your hand and invert the pot, trying not to break the roots. Place it in its new pot and fill any gaps with potting mix. Make sure you know whether it needs full or part sun, and let it rest in its new home. 

Moving out is not straightforward. It is hard to find a place that matches what you’re looking for, to find people you’re comfortable living with, rent you know you’ll reliably be able to pay. Packing things up is exhausting — physically and emotionally. You have to change your address for an endless stream of services, compare electricity plans, find someone with a big enough car for the boxes that you want to bring and carry those boxes around. I got COVID three days before I was set to move out, and all the carefully planned orchestrations I had laid out had to be scrapped or reworked to account for my isolation. 

Moving in, though, is easy. Once everything is where it needs to be, boxes unpacked and refolded, key in your hand and door closed behind the people who helped you move, there’s a peace in being alone in your new space. Make your bed first thing on moving day so that you can collapse onto it after your hours of effort. Listen to the sounds of your new home, your new street. Buy a bag of frozen dumplings and cook them on your new stove. Let your roots take hold. 

Herbs, of course, need maintenance once potted. It varies from plant to plant, but I like to water mine in varying amounts every day. In extreme weather — relentless sunshine or bucketing rain — you have to shuffle the pots around to make sure they stay happy. Slugs can pose a problem, too — if they nibble at leaves, your plants find it harder to photosynthesise, and it’s also harder to find leaves for you to eat. I’ve waited weeks for a strawberry to get big enough to eat, only to find it gutted overnight by some little creature. You can buy slug and caterpillar repellent, either as a dissolvable solution or as pellets, at Bunnings. 

Living alone seems deceptively static. Although it can be nice not to be beholden to family members, independence can lull you into a lack of routine. I have an app on my phone as a checklist of habits I must complete regularly: vacuum the house, clean the kitchen and bathroom, meal prep breakfasts for the week (if I don’t, I’ll forget to eat), wash, hang out, and put away laundry. Take the bins in and out. Clean the carpet once a month. Water my herbs. It is easy to underestimate the time and effort it takes to exist. 

I have other habits listed on my checklist too. I’ve added them in the last year. Exercise for fifteen minutes a day, eat enough, write down things that made me feel happy and accomplished, do something kind for my body. I’ve been meaning to add “rest” to the list, but I haven’t had time. 

When you don’t care for a plant enough, it will die. I’ve killed several plants in the last year — one got so eaten by slugs that it had no leaves left. I moved another to a bigger pot and broke its roots. I don’t know what happened to the others — too much sun, not enough, too much or too little water. The vacant pots sit discarded to the side until I can find the energy to fill them again. Those pots make me sad. 

They are terracotta proof that my effort, my time, the love I have for these silly little plants, sometimes just isn’t enough. A friend gave me lavender for my birthday last year, which I loved, but I couldn’t keep it alive. I have felt too ashamed to tell her. She’s probably reading this now — she’s one of my Honi editors (sorry, Misbah, I did my best.)

How can it be hard to be alone? How can I not deal with something as simple as keeping a kitchen clean? I work multiple jobs, do full time uni, make time for art and cooking and seeing those I love — why is vacuuming the straw to break my back? I shouldn’t have to put “rest” on my habit checklist. My hands shouldn’t tire from being busy.

On sunny days, I make myself a cup of green tea and stand outside near my frangipani tree to drink it. I check for the little green buds that will one day become strawberries, shuffle the sun-hungry plants to the front of the cluster. When I’ve finished my tea, I empty the tea bag into my watering can; green tea leaves are a good source of potassium and phosphorus for plants (it’s also good to save the water you rinse your rice with for your plants!) When I’m cooking dinner, I’ll hop outside to trim some leaves off my plants, taking care not to thin out the foliage too much, taking from the top, not the bottom. Rinse your herbs well before consuming them. Savour their flavour. The love I cook into my dishes tastes like home-grown basil. 

Fresh herbs simply do taste better than store-bought ones, let alone the concentrates you can squeeze from a tube. They take time and effort to take care of, but the herbs in my garden are worth it. I am worth it. So are you.

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