As a cook, I am quite naturally drawn to the garden, the place where all cooking begins. But having spent the vast majority of my adult life in cities, I'm not so well-versed in the mysterious ways of soil and plants. I can never tell if those yellowing leaves mean the plant is thirsty or if it is drowning in my enthusiastic watering. (I usually forget when I've last watered and so therefore tend to overcompensate.) Gardening is just not instinctive to me and in fact, I have no problem self-identifying as a black thumb. But that hasn't stopped me from starting a garden this spring.
The most obvious reason I'm doing this is that for the first time in something like 20 years, I'm living in a place where a garden is possible. So even though I'm certain it is doomed, I've begun a small potted herb collection outside my kitchen door. Why? Because a cook would be foolish not to grow fresh herbs outside her kitchen door if it is at all feasible. Every great cook I know has said this. So in some ways, I have no choice.
But here's the other, more important reason: I'm also doing this precisely because I'm not good at it. I want to take on something I know absolutely nothing about, have absolutely no talent at, and will likely fail. (Sorry, plants.) My theory is that this will teach me how to teach myself, teach me how to keep at something even when I'm not encouraged or feeling good about it. I want to cultivate a kind of sturdy resilience to things that don't come naturally to me. Sometimes life asks us not to duck and avoid a situation but to square our shoulders, take a deep breath, and meet it head on. My new garden is my practice place for this.
In the kitchen, I can glance at a pan of sautéing onions and know just how much longer they will take. I don't think about it, I just know. In the garden, I have no such resources, so how do I figure this out? In absence of instinct, how do I educate myself? How do I stay with it when it doesn't work, when it isn't fun? And just to raise the stakes even further, my little garden is located in a fairly public place. I share this small corner of the world with several other households, so letting it all go to seed is not going to be an option. Accountability.
Self-improvement aside, I'm also doing this for you, dear reader. If there is one reason to why I write this post every week, it's because I want to encourage people to go into the kitchen and discover what's waiting for them there. Of course, the punchline is that everything is waiting for you there, all the difficult, discouraging, boring, impossible things as well as all of the delights. Since the kitchen is a familiar, comfortable place for me, I sometimes lose track of what it must be like to feel uncomfortable there and at odds. So the garden is a reminder to me about how hard it can be sometimes.
Here's one bit of wisdom I've already learned from my potted garden. See that lush and health looking nasturtium in the middle of the picture above? Where I live, nasturtiums grow like weeds. They are virtually indestructible. I mean, there's even a tiny nasturtium growing in a crack in the sidewalk outside my front gate. I purposely decided to grow a nasturtium in the middle of my herb pots because I know that despite my best efforts, I will likely not kill it. That every time I pass by, I will see it flourishing there and that this will help to encourage me, will help keep me in the game. Sometimes, you just need one small thing.
So there you have it. Get in there and challenge yourself today. Take on something impossible and doomed to failure! But also make sure there is at least one thing that will flourish for you, one thing that will lift your spirits and confirm your efforts. One thing that will help you to say "I can do that."
Related: On Developing an Affection for Dirt
(Image: Dana Velden)