There isn’t more evidence in my life of the difference perspective can make.
Growing into a man, my perspective changed when my attitude changed — when I stopped working a garden for others and started working it for me. (That sounds selfish, doesn’t it?) By the time I was 30, I had lived my whole adulthood living in other people’s homes, renting, borrowing … subsisting. And as a young adult, my years had almost entirely been spent in apartment-type dwellings surrounded by elevation and asphalt. So when, as a young man, I returned from living in Europe where everything had long ago been built, from a place replete with history and culture built on top of cobblestones, I was longing for the earth.
As I have previously recounted, when I returned, I returned a changed man: a zygote of a foodie wrapped inside a man compelled to cook. And cooked I did … and grow I did continue.
And so it was that 6 months into my return to Canada that I somehow got it into my head that the next stage of my culinary development, such as it was, was to grow my own herbs. Perhaps it was all the Italian food I was making at the time and my indoctrination into the belief that the essence of great (Mediterranean) food starts with the best ingredients: aka prima materia. With that awareness, I started growing seeds in the late winter and I soon had containers of herbs growing all over the house. While those first forays into herb gardening didn’t yield a lot in the way of herbs — though it taught me some serious lessons in fungal gnats, white moths, and spider mites — it (re)ignited in me a desire to return to the earth, even if only through the portal of small planters.
Since that day, I’ve grown herbs in some quantity every year. I don’t often grown them from seed any more — I am fortunate to have the means to be able to buy the dozen or so seedlings I will need each year. And the lesson in insects has dissuaded me from doing much indoor gardening either. I’ve learned that while herbs can come inside at the end of the season, they always bring in with them bugs which have infested too many of my houseplants to make it worthwhile endeavour. So with the exception of a solitary rosemary plant I keep inside all-year round, all of my herbs are seasonal and grown outside.
Every year I plant a few herb staples like oregano, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil and mint. Depending on what else I find and what tickles my fancy, I’ll also grow others as well. Over the years this has been everything from cilantro, tarragon, lovage, lemon balm, lavender, both versions of savory, half-dozen versions each of other basils and sage and mint. Yes, I’ve grown lots of herbs.
I love how my herbs smell. I love walking among them every day after work, checking on them, watering and weeding them, nipping off flowers to prolong the plants, rustling my fingers through their verdure and breathing their fragrances, rubbing a leaf between my fingers to inhale the essential oils … and clipping off a handful of this or that to be used in almost every dish that will follow for the next 5 months. Even those flowers that I pull off end up on my plates as garnish.
Herbs were like some gateway drug to deeper gardening, so as soon as I owned “land” again, I was back to digging up the sod and planting vegetables; with few exceptions, I’ve had tomatoes growing in some form or another most years as well. But more than the tomatoes, which I cherish (as you read in “Harvesting an Identity,” my piece last year on canning), my herbs are my one real and constant connection to this living earth. Few of my herbs overwinter. Most die off never to return; even those should-be hardy ones like sage and oregano rarely come back. Largely this is because most get planted in accessible planters and window-boxes I built a decade ago. I couldn’t even get mint to return — until I said “Screw it,” and, invasive herb or not, I just started digging up the lawn and sticking plants directly in the ground. Now (← as you can see on left) I’ve got something to give the dandelions a run for their money. I did the same with the dill last year when I scattered some seeds behind my shed along the fence with the neighbour: I hope he likes dill.
However, the one herb I’ve not mentioned, my one success at a perennial herb, is my chives. While some look to daffodils or tulips as a sure sign that winter has lost its grip, I look to my chives … the same bunch of chives I planted in a window box more than 10 years ago, a root-bound box of herbs so old that the chives are now sharing their space with moss which is itself about 4 years old. I’ve moved with that box of herbs to no fewer than 3 different homes over the years. And every spring I inwardly giggle when those evergreen shoots sprout up. And I know the inevitable purple flowers will soon follow … which I’ll generally nip early on and keep the chives going until the first hard frost. And I know it will be another great year filled with freshness and flavour. That’s why I chose to dedicate this post to my chives … and create a new recipe, Spring Tarts (recipe tomorrow), focused on delivering their springtime flavour.
These herbs were also my gateway to being a locavore … to being consciously a locavore. And this is the same gateway which has ultimately led me to sign up for my CSA share (community shared/supported agriculture) for what will be my third year starting next month. While I haven’t got the time or space to grow a huge garden, I can support others who do have the space and eat like they were my own heirloom veggies.
And so, once upon a time, I hated the family garden. It represented work. It represented indentured servitude. It represented poverty. Now, as man who has lived, lived without the land, lived away from the land, I now understand that my garden represents pleasure, represents freedom, and represents abundance.
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On the 7th of each month, participants in the year-long Canadian Food Project share their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences. As I personally think Canadians do have a food identity, the hope of the project is that we will bring clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. I strongly encourage you to participate by visiting the many other great voices and websites out there.