Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Herbs, again

The fact that I planted herb seedlings this Memorial Day brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s description of remarriage, though on an admittedly different order of magnitude. Me trying once again to grow something is truly the triumph of hope over experience.

It is also on some level a refutation of my newfound belief in core competencies. After reading Laura Vanderkam’s “168 Hours,” a time management tome that reassured me that the best things to spend your time on are the things you’re good at, I decided to stop dwelling on all the talents I don’t possess, all the skills I haven’t developed, all the intellectual pursuits I haven’t pursued, and concentrate more of my attention on what I already know I can do.

But even in adopting that philosophy, I recognized the downside: I was essentially giving myself permission to avoid all potential challenges. By finally admitting that I don’t want to learn yoga and I don’t seem capable of understanding the finer points of the health care debate, I was throwing in the towel.

Plus I don’t have that many core competencies. If I gave myself permission to focus on only those skills for which I possessed both interest and aptitude, my day would be restricted to writing newspaper features, baking cookies, going running, and taking walks.

So in a way, it was a relief to realize I still wanted to try growing herbs this year, even though my inaugural attempt last year didn’t yield very impressive results.

Last year, one of my four attempted crops grew: the garlic chives that my friend Jane gave me to plant. She assured me they were foolproof, and she was right. They grew, they spread, they flowered, and best of all, they reappeared this spring.

Not so with the three seedlings I bought at a nursery last year: basil, rosemary and thyme. They never grew beyond the size they were when I put them in the ground, and after one or two recipes’ worth of their leaves, they were of no more use to me. They dried up, and were apparently reabsorbed by the very same soil that was expected to help them grow and prosper.

But with the warm weather this month came the same old fantasy. Other people smell spring and imagine they’ll take up running or do a spring cleaning; I imagine myself finally having all the fresh oregano, cilantro, mint and dill I could possibly want, and all at a moment’s notice, easy as walking out the back door and into the garden.

So I decided to try again. I started small and worked hard: three herb plants – basil, rosemary and oregano – and a few hours in the garden, first weeding, then troweling a hole, then tamping in the dirt around the roots.

As I watered my young charges, I tried to convey to them a sense of hope. No, I’m not a talented gardener, but maybe they could choose to hang in there anyway. Maybe the circumstances of soil, sunlight and temperature will be propitious enough this year that they’ll flourish in spite of my inabilities.

Like a little kid, I couldn’t resist going outside to check on them several times in the 24 hours since they were planted. They look the same, which is not a bad thing. So far, so good. Rain is predicted for tomorrow, which sounds promising even if I don’t really know that they need more water just yet.

So yes, adhering to one’s core competencies is probably a good idea, or at least a safe one. But maybe it’s possible to develop new core competencies. Maybe I’ll not only be lucky this time but actually get good at herb gardening.

Go ahead and grow, little seedlings. I’m rooting for you every step of the way. And if you do prosper, maybe I’ll take another look at some of that coverage of the health care debate and try a new yoga pose or two. If I can get good at gardening, it may be time to rethink all my assumptions about core competencies.

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