Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Herbal Happiness (no, not that kind)

Apparently, gardening is the most popular hobby in
America. For the last month or so, I’ve been chewing over why so many people, myself included, choose to do it. What’s the attraction? Whose idea was it to help plants grow, propagate them from seed, or move them around? In my case, it has to do with food – and I’m sure that’s the case for many people, especially vegetable and fruit lovers who can’t get enough of homegrown produce. Not to mention the folks worldwide who grow their own food because they have to, or they would starve.

I do have a few plants in the front bed now that are purely ornamental – the petunias and the “pink” (whatever that turns out to be.) The creeping thyme is only there because I had an empty spot in the layout and it looks pretty.

But my favorites now are the ones that are edible and beautiful at the same time. Now that it’s in the ground, the opal basil is growing up nicely, spreading its exotic dark purple leaves, tempting me to trim off just enough for an accent in a salad. At this stage, such a trimming would be disastrous, so I’ll wait for a week or so – and plant more, in the meantime.

The three mints cohabitating in the large pot are particularly fascinating. The chocolate mint has a slight blue tint to it and darkens up beautifully where the leaves meet the stem. (I know, there’s a name for that part of the plant, but I don’t know what it is.) The peppermint is more of a true dark forest green, and the spearmint, planted several weeks earlier, is the color of new spring grass.

I didn’t understand why they hadn’t grown up very much until I looked at the root structure. You know how you stretch your arms after a good night’s sleep or a satisfying afternoon nap? That’s what these little guys are doing. They’ve almost stretched their rhizomes to the edge of the pot, at which point they’ll have nowhere to go but up.

It’s funny, but this little pot of mint is a perfect example of why I appreciate diversity in people. The contributions to a society can be similar, certainly, but everyone looks slightly different, everyone flavors the pot a little differently, and the whole mess, properly tended, can be absolutely glorious.

There’s a definite, quantifiable return on the investment. But I never would have expected to be interested in making the investment at all, you know? In between mothering my daughter and partnering my husband and trying to manage my own physical and mental well-being, how could I have had time to plant a garden? Wouldn’t I be spending enough time and energy nurturing my human and animal family without adopting plants as well?

That’s the crux of it right there, the illusory concept of nurturing as an activity that someone does for someone else, as a purely selfless act.

However, according to Buddhist philosophy (which has always been part of my sense of things, whether I knew the name for it or not), everything is connected; nothing is separate – you and I are a part of the same web of existence. So are the Hidcote lavender plant, the anise hyssop, and the borage plant in my front yard. When I take care of those wee vegetative beings, I am, at the same time, taking care of myself, and of you.

The act, the gift of nurturing is a cyclical act of love. When properly offered and accepted, it seems to perpetuate itself. And it feels good, doesn’t it? My daughter likes to take care of her dolls, and us, not because she thinks she’ll get something out of it, but because it seems to be an innate, immediately gratifying impulse.* For a long time I shook my head at the baby doll thing. Where’s the tomboy I expected? Why wasn’t she out climbing trees, getting dirty, riding bikes? Isn’t it too girly to be playing with baby dolls? (This, of course, says entirely too much about my own priorities at the time.)

One day I listened to her playing with her dolls and was struck by how lovely it was that she was choosing to spend her time practicing taking care of someone else. There’s plenty of aggressive taking-charge energy in the world. It’s not a bad thing at all to have a little more softness, a little more pink bliss and gentleness to flavor the pot. And while her bicycle is indeed pink, her dresses are pink, and her cheeks are pink, she hauls ass on the bicycle, and runs rampant in those little dresses, and half the time the dirt covers up those pretty pink cheeks. Tomboys can wear pink after all, it seems.

It’s not surprising, then, to see her so intent on taking care of her little petunias. (Even the one she wrecked over the weekend because she was mad that I wasn’t paying attention to her seems to be recovering, although I still have my doubts.)

My own involvement in the garden still strikes me as odd. Totally new, totally different in my life. The only other thing I’ve tried to grow is – well, let’s not go there. It was a long time ago, anyway.

It really is so satisfying to watch the sage and chives pop up and recover – to notice that all my nasturtiums are blooming, the bee balm is taking a proud spot by the front steps, the Echinacea purpurea has grown six inches in the last week, and the German chamomile is offering lovely tiny white and yellow flowers already. It’s nice to putter around when I get home and deadhead the petunias, check the other edible flowers for potential picking, and run my fingers through the rosemary and lavender. (Really, I must plant more lavender. One plant is just not going to be enough.)

Oh, and Plants Don’t Talk Back.


* I’ve read several theories proposing that the nurturing impulse evolved over time simply because animals living in groups who took care of each other tended to survive better than those who didn’t.

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