Just a quick howdy-do from the little amphibian who visited me in the garden the other day. Sometimes it really does take very little to brighten the dullest, most common chores or the least exotic occasion. A little hopper leaps into view, and my heart leaps to follow.
It’s springtime, and that means I look at my yard with an especially keen eye. Toward eating, of course.
Yes, the age-old adage, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute,” whether Mark Twain originated it or not, is as true as ever in north Texas. Winter was generally milder than average in the metroplex, with only a couple of brief ice storms to remind us it was winter. But then, we’ve had a spate of rainstorms here this spring that must be at least close to setting some records for the region’s seasonal rainfall and low average temperatures, and certainly I can attest to the practically tropical greens and lushness of the landscape as compared to my previous 5+ years living in the area. A glance at the lake levels charts is almost comically improbable; even the small line reading “Change since yesterday” today reads “↑ 0.70 feet,” meaning that nearby Ray Roberts Lake has risen nearly 21.5 cm in under 24 hours. For a place that has languished well under normal levels for several years, being still below “full pool” as late as 11 April this year, that’s a tidy bit of change.
The last few days have been especially showy in their showers. On Thursday night, our drive home from Dallas was merely rainy at the beginning, but the last half hour was lit with such constant sheet lightning and the soundtrack of equally omnipresent grumbling thunder that it was film-worthy. I shot 30 minutes of iPhone footage that would have given a Steadicam a seizure, but of course it’s too long to link here and would probably give my reading friends dizzy fits. Not to mention the incredible circus-like blur of lights as the rain obscured and abstracted everything, and the couple of times that waves literally engulfed the whole car, even at crawling speeds. But as there was no place to stop on the freeway for shelter, all of us simply lumbered on, determined. I did, however, shoot a couple of very brief clips at home over the weekend, as the fun continued.
Yesterday, in fact (Sunday), the local tornado warning sirens went on around 2 or 2:30 pm. They kept up their mournful moaning for well over an hour, accompanied by warnings via telephone and computer from the National Weather Service that our county was under flash flood warnings until the wee hours of today. The wind picked up quite a bit, even in our sheltered spot between a low rise toward the street and our back fence line along the small runoff ravine, where we sit pretty comfortably sandwiched between higher lots and houses on the sides. Our great oak and pear trees whispered more urgently than usual that we should batten down the hatches and keep away from the windows. The lightning and thunder that had been holding their dramatic interchange all through Saturday night and Sunday morning kept at it like a couple of elderly housemates nagging at each other without more than a moment’s pause for breath. Somewhere around 3:30 pm, I thought it prudent to quit sneaking onto the porches for a gawk at the squalling mess and hunkered down in the quietest part of the house to write until the sirens stopped and the storm abated. And it did. The worst here had stopped shortly after, the eye of the storm now past us.
We were among the most fortunate, in our safely tucked-in hideaway at home. For a glimpse at some of the nearby damage, click this link. Yes, a couple of deaths have been confirmed and plenty of damage has been sustained. It is nowhere near the levels and expanse of more famous storms and disasters around the world, but my heart goes out to those who had a harder time of it during this go-round than we have; as I’ve said many a time before, suffering is a relative thing, and one’s pain in the moment may as well be the only pain in the world. The people who were hit hard by this latest storm, whether the ones three miles down the road from us or those in other counties and across the state line, have my true sympathy, and I feel all the more fortunate for the ease of our escape.
Today, less than 24 hours later, this is what it looks like in our idyllic little backyard. Blue skies, bright sun, thriving garden, and receding puddles where the walking path had been a fast-flowing stream. I look at it in amazement and scratch my head a little. The weather forecast tells me to expect rain tomorrow and the next day, and thunderstorms again for a full week afterward. All I can do is keep living my life and see what comes.
Meanwhile, I need to get back out to the garage and figure out how to reset our water heater, because the storm knocked it out of commission.
Under the willow tree, her shade my calm,
I see so bent by storms her trunk, how far
The winds have twisted every limb, each scar
Where lightning struck; yet there’s a quiet psalm
Of gratitude that whispers in her leaves
Each time another rainfall comes to spend
Its quenching kindness on her and to send
New hope down deep—for anyone who grieves
Or wonders how to pass through life’s travail
Finds shelter in her shadow—knows the limbs
That seem to weep are only singing hymns,
Embracing in their gentle sway the frail.
So one fine sapling, tended with such care,
Becomes the home for all who shelter there.
And now her roots are deep, her branches wide
Enough to draw more birds to them to nest,
Assured, secure and loved, and full at rest,
No matter what the world is like outside—
Just as I am, beneath the willow’s arm
Of graceful comfort, grateful for her wise,
Kind lesson to look upward to the skies
For blessed rain, and sun to keep us warm,
For sweet reminders of the Gardener
Who made the willow grow, and gave her strength
To nurture others in her shade, at length,
Upon the graces planted there in her:
So one fine sapling, tended with such care,
Becomes the home for all who shelter there.
I do not shy away from using superlatives. Instead of, “thank you, that would suit my taste nicely,” if someone offers me anything that pleases me I’m generally much more likely to blurt, “perfect!” even though I know perfectly well that almost nothing in this universe is in fact demonstrably perfect. Quite the contrary, I should think.
But I do get a bit tired of hearing extreme words bandied about with such frequency in less-than-worthy circumstances that they can quickly become meaningless. If I am trying to pay anyone a compliment, it would sadden me to be unable to find a single proper turn of phrase worthy of the occasion because all of the fitting terms are so watered down and hackneyed by then that whatever I say will end up sounding like sidelong sarcasm. I hear people described as geniuses often enough that it would seem my own modestly strong intellect is actually appallingly lowbrow in comparison with the general population’s much more impressive IQ average. Even calling people brilliant, unless they’re visibly beaming with phosphorescence or incandescence, is probably overdoing it; most of the time I’ll bet it’s something that a fine yet ordinary person did or said or thought in a specific instance that was brilliant, shining so brightly in part precisely because of its having appeared in the setting of its less sparkling human source. Isn’t that spectacular enough? Most of us never get to think, do or say anything wildly impressive and distinctive in our entire lives, so why not appreciate the rarity and beauty of each occurrence of such brilliance without flattening it out through excessive flattery.
“Awesome” is one of my most mourned of these half-dead words. The popular practice of calling all good things Awesome not only tends to defy the full meaning of the word as breathtaking, wildly impressive, and awe-inspiring, but makes it sound fatuous and empty to call anything genuinely deserving the title Awesome. I was reminded of this the other day when, on the drive home, I was startled to see what looked like a four-meter-tall stalk of asparagus growing in a neighbor’s front garden, right by the road. It was the flowering spike of a ‘century plant‘—a magnificent blue-leaved agave of the sort that grows to rather massive proportions in its native climates (Texas included), though only for about 1 to 3 decades rather than an actual century. The centennial reference is to the habit of this beautiful but spiny plant, in that it bears, only once in its lifetime, such an impressive tree-like stem as this that can sometimes reach eight meters in height, and when it’s reached its peak it bursts, almost frighteningly quickly, into a firework of magnificent, prehistoric looking yellow flowers, and then dies, leaf rosette and all, with the exception of whatever offshoots it has meanwhile nursed to, quite literally, supplant it.
And let me tell you, the sight of one of these beautiful monsters rocketing into bloom in my very own neighborhood is not only tremendously surprising, it is awesome. It is a rare and showy natural oddity and worthy of jaw-dropping, gasping, stomping on the brakes very suddenly, awe. So I’m here to tell you, if you weren’t already fully aware of it, that I have no hesitation about using any and every superlative I can dredge up when I think the occasion calls for it. I’ll keep trying to be more accurate and varied in my terminology so as not to denude the language of its full use. But, admittedly, I’ll keep falling down on the job like most others do. I’m not perfect, after all.
To celebrate at breaking of the dawn
Or close of evening, or the stroke of noon,
There is no sweeter pleasure than a tune
Well sung by everyone, an antiphon
To peace, to sorrow, or to happiness;
No matter what the poetry or text,
It truly matters most that what is next
Is choral concord to renew, redress,
Resound through all the unseen years ahead,
A clarion, an anthem or motet
Grander than any ear has heard as yet,
And run to distant history, a thread
Of melody and harmony so strong
That no one can resist joining in song
I am prejudiced. It seems logical to me that any garden grown for beauty should be grown for utility as well, and any garden grown for use ought to be pretty to look at and full of great sensory experiences well before it gets put to work. Why shouldn’t gloriously pretty edible and functional plants be shown off in all parts of the landscape, and why shouldn’t we take better advantage of what we have growing around us anyway?
Thankfully, these biases of mine are becoming more widely put into practice all the time. While kitchen gardens have a grand tradition of being ornamental and landscape design has long had its elements of utility inserted, those approaches have tended to be rather exceptional than the norm. So I’m thrilled to see such a proliferation, a flowering, if you will, of the whole concept that these belong as integrated into a delightful whole.
My friend Christopher’s interest in starting the garden personalization of his next home with herbal inclusions and infusions (not to mention his appreciation of adventuring in the kitchen) got me thinking about my own past and present herbal operations. What do I consider a good framework for inserting my own preferences, herbally speaking, into the garden nowadays? And what, in turn, is actually happening in that way here? Not surprisingly at all, this thinking turned into a lengthy exercise in list-making. Herewith, my mental inventory of herbal ideas. Foremost among them: that I plant every and anything in my garden where I think it will thrive best, then opt for where it will provide the most splash and panache in complement with the nearby plants, and finally, tuck in some elements of surprise wherever I think they can inspire even the casual visitor to the place. Herbs, fruit, vegetables, common or exotic. So long as I’m not trying to subvert the laws of nature too far, let alone encourage an invasive alien species anywhere, it’s all fun.
Easiest to keep as perennials or self-sowing annuals are some of the best kitchen basic herbs and also some of the prettiest flowering or border texture plants, so they’re what I’d call genuine bargains in the herb dept:
Parsley (curled and flat-leaf); both can get pretty large over time, but are also pretty easy to cut back if necessary. Be prepared for gigantism, since parsley can easily top two meters in height when it’s stretched out in bloom.
Chives (common and so-called Garlic Chives); both give that nice light oniony flavor, and of course the ‘garlic’ variety has a hint of garlic in it as well. The purple pompom-like head of the common chive is attractive in the garden or as garnish and also edible, but I’m especially fond of garlic chives as a garden plant–they don’t look at all like the common chive, having a flattened stem and clusters of tiny white lily-like flowers in place of the purple variety’s.
Rosemary comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and leaf lengths, most tasting similar. It’s a woody, shrubby plant in general, but some are upright, some trailing. The blooms vary: white, pink, lavender, purple, even quite blue, depending on the variety. Pretty and fragrant even while still in the yard, and bees and butterflies tend to like it too.
Thyme also comes in a ton of forms. Its types vary slightly in the pink-to-violet bloom range (quite tiny flowers) and quite a bit in the leaf type: white- or yellow-edged green, solid green, silvery; some, like Lemon Thyme, have mildly differing flavors as well, and some, like Woolly Thyme, are more strictly ornamental. Me, I’m quite happy with common thyme (Thymus vulgaris); it’s really quite easy to grow, even as a sort of ground-cover plant in borders, easy to control, has those cute little blooms, and is a very versatile herb for cookery. My favorite with chicken.
Sage is pretty easygoing, too, and also has numerous colors. I like growing the purple-leaf and variegated yellow- or lime-and-green varieties for what they bring to the flowerbeds. They can get big and leggy and woody, so sometimes sage plants require some good pruning, but it’s not hard to do with them, and sage is so lovely with poultry and winter vegetables, not to mention that their fried leaves are fabulous with lots of dishes!
Some of the less common ones I love are well worth mentioning, too:
Lemon Verbena is better started from a live plant than seed and is fragile. I suspect it could work as a kitchen-window dweller for longer life, though I’ve not tried it indoors. I got lucky with it wintering over last year! As I said, great to add to tea (hot or iced), and would be dandy in anything where you want a less astringent lemony, kind of perfumy, flavor. There’s a lemon verbena ice cream recipe on epicurious.com that is sheer HEAVEN.
Borage is an annual, but I got lucky last year and it self-sowed from the previous season. It’s a kind of straggly and tall plant and has hairy, even lightly spiny, leaves and stems, but the hairs actually look kind of pretty in daylight, adding a lacy aura to the plant, and they don’t outright hurt when you touch them at all. Both leaves and flowers have a lightly cucumber-like flavor that’s nice in salads or cold drinks (chop the leaves finely or smash ’em to keep the fuzziness from being an off-putting texture in food), and the blooms are gorgeous, starry, true-blue dainties.
& Sweet Bay, if you have the room for an actual tree, is a pretty one and exudes a faint resinous perfume on a windy day as well as providing bay leaves for all sorts of cookery. In a former home I had a 4 foot tall lollipop shaped semi-bonsai one I grew in a big galvanized tub and wish I could’ve taken it with me.
& Saffron is both useful and a glorious choice for the garden, being the dried stigmas of a very pretty kind of crocus. These bulbs don’t naturalize readily like some crocus, but are of course worth the effort and expense if you can get them.
& Sorrel‘s bright acidity makes it a welcome herb with which to spike a salad, my favorite use for it. The zippy sourness comes from oxalic acid, so it’s not something you want to eat by the bale, but it’s not so potent you can’t safely make soup or just eat it raw in small amounts. The flower stalk is slightly weedily aggressive, and the leaves are very popular with munching insects, but since it’s not a virulent spreader the flowering isn’t hard to nip, literally, in the bud, and those insects are often butterflies and moths, so I’m happy to share with them.
Some herbs are big on flavor but not worth trying to grow in the wrong climate or simply too short-lived for my lazy wishes:
& Cilantro: I love it, but it bolts (goes to seed) so fast that unless I grew a huge patch of it for one-time harvest and freezing or kept planting it repeatedly through the season, it’d be sprouted and dead in no time, so I’m happy to pay farmers to grow it for me.
& Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and ginger (okay, that’s a rhizome, not an herb) are exceedingly delish in all kinds of Asian foods but require more tropical conditions than I’ve lived in for their happiness!
Some annual herbs are worth the effort, even if they don’t tend to self-sow:
& Basil is one that I have been known to plant in a couple of varieties a season for different purposes: the purple leafed types are pretty as well as decent tasting; Thai Basil gives a specific and welcome familiar spice to Thai and Vietnamese cookery; Sweet Basil is the most versatile flavor king among them. They all have nice blooms, though not showy; if you let them bloom, though, they tend to wind down as their work is done, so you want to keep beheading at least some if you plan to keep using it through the whole growing season. Then basil tends to keep proliferating. Cruelty pays! 😉
& Lettuces are of course lovely, but cabbages too are often forgotten as ornamentals, but as you know, I like planting them for their leaf color and texture, can cut occasional leaves for food or garnish, and when I leave the rest to do so, they bloom in very hummingbird-friendly ways and are a fun novelty in the flowerbed as well. Another lettuce cousin I like a lot is chard (silverbeet), whose leaves are tasty spinach imitators (raw or cooked) and whose varieties include some with great colorful stems that make them look like rhubarb or Pop Art versions of it in yellow and orange. Mine wintered over this year in the front flowerbed, surprisingly. Radicchio is a great member of this whole group, too: edible and showy burgundy colored leaves, and if you let some or all of them go to flower, they’re tall blue daisy-like things. Quite delightful.
& Shiso, or Perilla, is a less commonly used leafy herb in the US, but the popular Japanese treat comes in a number of often quite attractive leaf shapes, textures and colors. I grew a gorgeous one some years ago that had a slight scallop on the leaf edges, a gracefully veined texture, glorious purple and green-black hues, and a spectacular metallic sheen. I confess I didn’t use it much for food because I couldn’t bear to snip it.
& Garlic and Onions, on the other hand, have distinctive and fun flora, and can survive longer term if you don’t choose to dig all of them up to eat.
Some herbs are potentially invasive pests but I still like them for their beauty and/or culinary gifts, so I’m willing to keep massacring them occasionally to keep them in check:
& Oregano spreads fairly easily but is a pretty bloomer as well as a tasty leafy herb, and not awful to control.
& Mint is a genuine monster that wants to take over the world, especially my favorite commonly named ‘apple mint’ (huh??? I’ve never figured out what’s apple-y about it) that’s so incredibly versatile, but I try to plant it in places where it can spread without turning into square-stemmed kudzu. There are a number of interesting and fun varieties of mint ‘flavors’ available, but I stick with my old reliable despite the allure of Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, and even true Peppermint and Spearmint, since one aggressive invader variety is enough for me. Wintergreen is a beautiful plant but, besides not being a mint variety at all, is pretty hard to find. It’s a broad-leafed evergreen with small white flowers and big pinky-red berries, and the crushed leaf is wonderfully fragrant, but it’s not commonly found, isn’t a snap to prepare for edible uses like most of these others, and has a picky attitude in climate and growth requirements. Still, I did grow it once in Washington because of its peculiar attractions. Maybe I feel an affinity with it by virtue of my husband’s having chosen me for my peculiar attractions. Ha.
& Dill is sometimes known as Dill Weed for good reason, as it can run rampant in friendly climates and it’s a large, blowsy plant despite its delicate thread-like leaves. But its starburst flora and subsequent seed heads are pretty among the leafy lace, and it’s so danged delicious in so many meals that even if your climate is conducive to such running amok it’s worth the trouble. Besides, in that case you can at least put in some of the dwarfish kinds of dill. Pretty unbeatable with fish, and indispensable in deli pickling!
& Fennel is similarly a member of the uncontrollable-toddler plant type, moving aimlessly but at speed all over the garden and being a big showoff of a thing, but even if you’re a little hesitant about the licorice-y hints it gives food, it too has a nicely delicate look for such a tall plant, and you can bring some nice color into the beds by planting bronze fennel. Just chop it ruthlessly when it wants to flower to keep it in check. I’ve never tried growing bulb fennel myself since as rarely as I use it, it’s easier to buy it and give the garden space to something else.Clearly, I could wander on like this for ages. My experimental wildflower mini-meadow out back has behaved modestly well in its first half-season last year and appears to be letting a few sprouts emerge for a good beginning again now. I will go out in the next few days and give it a thorough haircut with the weed-cutter so that it has its own mulch through the remaining unreliable chills of late winter and early spring, and have been feeding it a kind of pre-compost over the winter by tossing the chopped and blended remains of the kitchen’s dregs in and letting them freeze and decay gradually as they would have in a regular garden, and will add to that with some other treats as the patch begins to revive. I am very curious to see what of the multitudinous kinds of seed I’ve planted out there now makes an appearance and what will take hold for the long term, as much of what I put in was intended to be naturalizing perennial feed for the birds and insects as well as soothing wildflower beauty. The bonus, if all goes well, will be lots of herbal fun for my dining companions and me. Only time and Mother Nature will tell.