Last night we made a stew that called for fresh thyme. We’ve had storms but there’s no giant pile of snow outside our door, so the kitchen thyme continues to thrive. It’s compact, fragrant, woody little self is a persistent and adorable tenant in our landscape.
It would be hard to overstate how satisfying it was to step out into the cool air of our kitchen walkway and snip fresh sprigs of this sweet little plant rather than open a glass jar of dried herbs.
Most of our kitchen herbs grow just down a stone walkway near to the kitchen, and they are looking very dormant right now. But there is a tiny patch of ground just by the door that is big enough to accommodate a little thyme plant; it seems happy in its protected south-facing spot. So last night I grabbed a pair of scissors, pulled my hood on, opened the door, and snipped what I needed, thanking my little friend and thankful that it isn’t buried in a mountain of snow, yet.
In these dark winter days, the cool, moist fragrance of this little thyme plant was reassuring and comforting, nourishing to my mind and senses, and helped me be fully present for a moment of sweet appreciation.
The early snow storm we had before Halloween was the end of the zinnia, the portulaca and other annual flowers, and remaining peppers, lettuce and radish. The montauk daisy’s glorious spray of blooms – now wilted, browned, bruised. On that morning I left the house to substitute at the local middle school, imaging a dusting or perhaps an inch of snow. But the snow fell and fell, making a 4-inch thick blanket on everything.
I returned to a garden on its way to winter dormancy.
Happily, I had already cut most of the herbs I wanted to save for winter before the snow came.
There’s more to this than having herbs to cook with and make tea with. For me, bringing my friends in and enjoying them after they’ve gone underground is a joy and a comfort. There’s brightening peppermint tea from my cheeky, robust plants that only weeks ago were covered with bumblebees. And velvety, sun-loving oregano that had grown large enough to divide. Like gifts left by visiting friends.
The snow has receded for now, leaving auburn trees and sending flowering perennials into hibernation. Seeing them die back brings up a hopeful tug of anticipation for next year. Bittersweet hangs on some of my trees – a glorious murderer; beautiful, and choking the trees it hangs on. I resolve to cut some to bring indoors for decoration.
The last of the vegetable plants were cut and thrown into the compost last week. Hardier perennials, now mulched in, reach faded leaves toward gray skies.
Modern medicines have their deepest roots in ancient history. It’s said that an herbal compendium was created in the 28th century BC by the mythological chinese emperor Shennong (1). And interestingly, scholars say that intuition and trial and error led humans to believe that plants, animals, and minerals have medicinal properties. So humans have understood the value of connecting to and working with plants from our earliest days.
Food taken fresh from the garden has a quality of sweetness and plumpness that makes you feel good on its own — you can taste and smell the difference from food that’s been grown and shipped a long distance. But aside from the difference in freshness, the experience of seeing, smelling, and touching the plants that produce our food is nurturing and reassuring, as well.
Vines, plants, and trees all have their own energies and personalities, their own habits of growth and characteristics that, experienced alongside the fruits and vegetables themselves, allow one to connect much more fully and consciously with the food we eat. Also, getting to know what conditions they thrive in (and the ones they don’t thrive in) serves to deepen one’s sense of “knowing” the plants that provide us our food.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, though. This year I decided to try a new variety of tomato (yellow pear minis) that I’ve never grown before. With limited space in my garden, I planted leeks in the same bed, thinking I’d given both enough space. There were some plants that were crowded, though; the tomatoes grew tall and leggy and became a towering bed of beautiful smelling tomato plants, dripping with yellow fruit – and some of the leeks that sat in the shadow of my towering tomatoes didn’t get enough sun to grow big – they ended up being the size of scallions. 🙂
All the same, I started the year with not a shred of experience growing leeks and though I’ve bought many a leek in the grocery store I had no idea what I could expect the experience of growing them to be like (aside from my handy gardening book’s instructions). There’s no substitute for experience, as they say, and so I started with planting them, as instructed, in small seedling pots before the final frost and keeping them on a heated seedling mat with grow lamps/sunlight on them. New England springs can be pretty rainy so on gray days they were under the lamp. On sunny days they sat in a south window or on our patio.
They started out teeny tiny. Like little green hairs growing out of the potting soil. And they weren’t much bigger than that when I put them in the ground. I wasn’t sure they would survive, they seemed so small when I transplanted them that I worried they would wash away with a good rain. But they took off — and the ones that had enough sun grew into proper, good sized leeks. Now I understand why mounding dirt around their bases is important – you get much more useable white leek if you do that. So much for my adventure with leeks!
The experience of growing these little plants gave me a sense of connectedness and belonging that’s hard to describe and even harder to overstate. It was like making a new group of friends and now, when I think of vichyssoise (potato leek soup) I think of their tiny little seeds, and of the investment of time, love, and light required to grow them in the northeast. I think of how darling they are until they become towering allium – fresh, strong, and all grown up by the end of the growing season. In a word, I feel connected to them.
After harvesting the leeks I did precisely what I’d intended to do when I planted them: I cooked with them. Vichyssoise (recipe in The Joy of Cooking) and a beautiful braised chicken dish from GardenintheKitchen.com.
The leeks felt like a gift given graciously by the planet, and cleaning and slicing them for our dinners bestowed warmth and a sense of connection and familiarity that I relished–like the satisfaction and pleasure of having carnal knowledge of a love interest. Magical, indeed.