the killing fields
August 13, 2006

My marigolds have died—and this is not because my mother was right. It is because I didn't water them for two weeks. What I'm looking for in a plant is something that will let me know when it needs water (by appearing dead, if necessary) then revive thoroughly upon receiving it. (I have two that follow these rules beautifully.) But now what I want are herbs.

This is the time of year for food uncooked. It's the time for fat Jersey tomatoes and sweet peaches and strawberries. Ice cream. It's the time to be picking herbs out of your own garden—and I'm suddenly so jealous of suburbia I can't stand it.

So last week I scoured Park Slope for the summer's last remaining herb planters. Root, Stock & Quade had a limited selection (Greek basil?) for $6 each, but the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket offers up the best deal in town: Four herb pots for $11. I bought basil, rosemary, parsley and mint. (Cilantro—what I really want—I can't find it anywhere.) But generations of familial green thumbs have died with me.

I can't decide if five hours of morning sun equals "full sun"; I don't know what intervals are indicated by "water regularly"; and I'm not sure herbs can go three to a box. Internet research only confuses the matter, but Taunton Press suggests transplanted basil ought to be immediately cut back, and that's advice I can follow. I harvest my first crop and lunch on cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil, drizzled with olive oil, sea salt and cracked pepper—the sort of simple, stunning summer lunch that prompted this endeavor. I cross my fingers and ask Tracy to water while I'm in Detroit, then change my mind Sunday night and send an email cease and desist. She doesn't get it in time, but it seems for the best because the soil is dry again Wednesday morning when I get home.

It's been a week, and nothing is dead yet. The basil looks the best, if a little slow to fill in my possibly over-zealous pruning. The rosemary is dry at the tips, but okay at the base. The parsley seems to be burrowing back into the soil, behavior I do not understand. And the mint is showing black around the edges of several leaves, which could signal impending death. I suspect they aren't getting enough sun, and the storm that had me wading home from the subway Thursday night might have constituted over-watering. But people say herbs are the bounce-back kind of plant, the kind that plays dead, but revives. I'm trying not to give up on them, and am considering remodeling the tiny kitchen with south-facing window boxes. (Though this would mean washing all the dishes and putting them away every time I wanted to water or harvest herbs: a commitment I may not be prepared to make.)

In the meantime: blueberries and mint on ice cream; rosemary and cream cheese on crackers; parsley garnishes on black bean salad. And the bliss of climbing out onto my fire escape with a pair of scissors and harvesting my own food—urban living at its best.