Whatever is in there, dying or struggling to hang on, we must all un-name ourselves black thumb…and just by basics of all basics, grow a couple plants. If they’re edible, even better. And if you ever eat just a sprig of basil, a knot of ginger, that you grew yourself, well then you’re a god.
A few years ago, I decided to pull the plug on growing decorative plants. I love gardening and I always have, but I started to feel like my time in the garden would be better served if I at least got a little bit of food out of it. I’d devote the same time to growing well, things that looked nice but could also be eaten. I read up on food scraps that could be easily grown. Not wanting to give up the lush atmosphere of my little balcony, I found foods that would grow bushy to keep the aesthetic going. I found ginger grew nice and straight up, not unlike some useless stalky, poisonous and okay looking, look-at-only-plant. I traded up desert spiky Bougainvillea for rosemary, a lemon plant, and lots of chili peppers.
Any seed left over on a chopping block, or the butt end of a vegetable that still had roots on it, I’d throw in the soil somewhere. In two weeks, I had green onion, ginger leaf, small pieces of romaine lettuce, a tomato plant’s mini baby leaves popping out. A piece of mint I’d pocketed at a restaurant, placed in water for a week, was now happily claiming its space in a pot of other small things.
It’s not as if I was trying to save money or the world, or anything like that. I just wanted the satisfaction of growing a few things beyond the basic herbs that most people have kicking around in a pot somewhere. I also enjoyed the challenge of dissecting a lemon seed, germinating it in a wet bag, planting it and seeing if it would actually grow. And it did.
To tend to a garden, even one plant, is peaceful. Sometimes the more finicky the plant, the more the gardener grows, contributing to and then becoming that preferred atmosphere. It’s a thing of beauty and patience. Care and attention that anyone can do. I gave away most of my pretty plant things and went with food scraps. The only plant-plants I own now are either big, or live indoors. The rest is food.
I actually found it to be a little more work, and therefore more rewarding than my previous iteration of gardening. While I am lucky to live in a country with a year long growing season, it’s the insects, not the weather that largely impacts what you can and can not grow in Taiwan at a given time. Aphids on every joint of any pepper or tomato. White flies nesting and rotting out the oregano and thyme. And then there’s the maintaining:basil gets woody and grows way less leaves if it’s not kept pruned, squat and green. Mint spreads all over for a short time, then dies if not kept short.
All the more, it was just as peaceful and demanding of my attention as it was before when I was peeling dead elephant ear off an ornamental piece of vegetable that I couldn’t even eat. Flowers are beautiful and they’re made for bees and frivolous lovers. Gardening is the closest thing to zen I have in my life, next to cooking food. They are activities that make me shut the fuck up and lose track of myself. Similar to cooking, you go into the garden with a plan to do this or that, and more often than not, a new task will present itself. The present moment is funny like that. While you could say that being in the moment is like removing the blinders and experiencing what is, it’s also the opposite. The present moment is like a set of blinders that blocks out all the other horseshit, due to its unpredictable urgency.
As of now, I have the following things growing on my little balcony. Ginger, chili peppers, basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, sweet potato leaf, green onion, chives, lemon, and turmeric. I actually haven’t had to buy chili peppers or ginger for over a year. Not that they’re expensive or anything, it’s just nice that in some small way, I’ve managed to produce a few of my own things–and most importantly, they are things I use often. I’ve for sure cut down on a few hundred stupid plastic bags I would have gotten from the supermarket.
Soil is interesting. It is like a living incubator for the living plants that we eat. Plucked from the ground, vegetables remain alive and growing. Praise be that they have no nervous system because we are devouring them alive. But it amazes me that while the death of things can be slowed down in the fridge, they are brought back to life in the soil. A piece of ginger will slowly dry out in the crisper, but will grow in the dirt. Whenever I need some for cooking, I dig up a root, snap off what I need, and simply bury it again. That’s pretty amazing.
Sure, gardening is a kind of skill learned one way or another. It does involve a sense of intuition at times, and it requires a certain consistency to keep things growing healthily. But it’s a nice barometer on life and how things are going otherwise. A mirror in some ways, and a good ‘check-in’ with yourself activity. Best of all, you are maintaining the lives of little green animals that pay you back in food.