by Sandra Bark
Recently, I was gifted with a brief course in the habits of plants. My education came courtesy of Nancy, an archaeologist, artist, cook, gardener, runner, and author of the charming blog potlicker.net.
Nancy lives in a little red schoolhouse on a pretty road in a Rockwell-ish town in Vermont. Looking at the exterior, one imagines an interior setting of pews and pupils, a scene circa 1861. From the inside, it feels like one is in a loft apartment, circa 2011.
Back outside, around back, it doesn’t matter what year it is. It is summer, and the garden is in bloom.
Nancy’s garden is full of globe basil, purple peppers, and tall tomato plants. She has mint sprouting near at the corner of the house, armloads of ready-to-harvest kale and broccoli rabe in raised beds, rose bushes covered in blowzy looking flowers and a cherry tree sprinkled with little yellow orbs, like it is strung with Christmas lights. Hot peppers are emerging where tiny white flowers used to be, understudies about to take center stage.
We walk around the rose bushes, and Nancy shows me the wilting blooms which will give way to red fruit, the rose hips already blushing and swelling as the roses dry and fade. She will use the fruit to make jam, she says, one of a dozen varieties.
I have my own garden at home, but it is nothing like Nancy’s. It exists on shelves, in containers, and along sunny windowsills and a well placed fire escape. Like Nancy, I I have hot peppers and basil, and a desire to see things growing in whatever space I’ve got.
Like the cuttings: a friend gave them to me last summer, and I stuck them in water so their roots could grow. They seemed just fine in the vase, so I left them there. They stayed pretty much the same all year, not thriving, but surviving, which I thought was the same thing.
This summer I thought to pot them in dirt, but I was nervous: I didn’t want them to die. I was afraid the soil would be too much for their delicate, rice noodle roots. Three days after I potted them, I was amazed to see that the slender vines were sprouting big, shiny green leaves. One, two, three weeks later, the plant was barely recognizable. Glossy leaves and new shoots appeared daily, and the stems grew long, like unruly hair, like a jungle was starting on the bookshelf.
Of course, what looks like a jungle in a Brooklyn living room would seem a lot less wild if planted near the rambles of Nancy’s thick blackberry brambles. All that delicious fruit, and so many jars to put them up in.
Over a glass of this summer’s requisite rosé, during our walk through the garden, Nancy gave me a lot of practical tips about plant care. Dill and green beans do nicely together, she said, and onions with carrots, but you never want to plant onions with parsley or asparagus. Basil does better if you clip it to encourage growth. Tomato plants grow stronger and taller and fuller if they are touching one another. And moving plants once they’ve settled in is always a shock to the roots.
Then Nancy sent me home with an armload of freshly picked kale and broccoli rabe that I promptly wilted and devoured with a little bit of lime and sea salt.
While I ate, I thought about Nancy and her garden and how these practical facts about plants could be easily applied to human life. Like dill and green beans, we also take on the characteristics of our neighbors. Like onions with carrots, friends lend us their habits, their experiences, and their advice, thereby changing our natures in subtle ways. Like the tomatoes, once we start touching each other, we grow stronger and taller and fuller.
And like the plants in Nancy’s garden and on my bookshelf, our own tender roots can be shocked when we transplant ourselves into new soil. It is always a risk to give ourselves over to new surroundings, but how important it is to try, because surviving and thriving, as it turns out, are two very different things.