Tending the herb garden, with thoughts toward school

Innocent fuzzy little fennel plants grow up to be prolific seed producers.

One advantage to ignoring the garden for awhile (like the entire ridiculously hot month of July) is that when you finally attack the chaos, the results are dramatic.  Getting started, though is a daunting task.  Where to begin?

My philosophy on tackling overwhelming tasks is to start with one big thing that is really bugging me and that will make a huge difference when it is done.  You can’t just start at one end of the garden and pick every little weed until you get to the end.  You’ll never get to the end.  There are an infinite number of weeds in there.

This philosophy is one that I presented to one of my daughters when she was in middle school and had a disaster area for a bedroom.  If she tried to tidy it, she would spend an entire afternoon and have one tiny tidy corner to show for it.  I  finally said to her, “Do you need me to write out directions on how to do it?”

“Actually, that would be really helpful,” she replied, without a hint of sarcasm.

So I did.  “How to clean your room in less than 10 steps.”  She posted it on her mirror, where it stayed until she got married.  This does not mean that the room was clean.  It just means that if she decided to clean it, she had a 9 step process to get it done.

But I digress.  It’s my garden that is a mess.  The fennel arches over the oregano like Snoopy the Vulture.  A bazillion seeds are poised ready to bomb the garden with an explosion of more fennel.  The oregano, meanwhile, is creeping back to the chives.  Chocolate mint bullies its way past the pineapple sage and into the chamomile.  The chamomile,which had its glory day in the sun weeks ago and is now turning brown, hangs over the thyme which makes a pathetic attempt to lean forward over the rock border to get a sunbeam or two.   Spearmint is getting much too friendly with the basil.  Lemon verbena has overshadowed the tarragon.  Weeds pop up with audacity and gill-over-the-ground wends its serpentine trail through it all.

Now the garden is reminding me less of my daughter’s bedroom and more like a school filled with teenagers.  I ponder my students as I hack and harvest and weed.

In this photo, the herbs had not yet run amok.

1.  Boundaries.  Certain boundaries are set in my garden.  Rocks and flat stones create the border.  Small fences establish perimeters for plants within the garden.  It’s really easy to cut back the mint because I know exactly where it has overstepped its bounds–the little white fence.  My students need boundaries too.  If I create clear boundaries, then it will be easy to keep behavior under control.

Unlike the lemon verbena, which is happily dominant in its spot, the lemon balm could more aptly be named lemon “bomb”–it ends up everywhere! Hmm…like the contents of some students’ backpacks!

2.  Space to grow.  Some herbs in my garden are bullies.  Some are over friendly.  Some are just so happy and thriving that they dominate the landscape.  I like my herbs.  But I like all of my herbs.  Lemon verbena is absolutely my favorite scent.  But I really really want tarragon too.  My students need space to grow too.  In the classroom, certain personalities often dominate at the expense of others.  If I give the overshadowed students space and attention, they have a chance to  thrive, too.

3.  The right spot in the garden.  I’m thinking that perhaps I need to grow tarragon someplace not so close to the lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is great, but my big thriving verbena is not great for the struggling little tarragon.  You know where I’m going with this.  Some students need to be separated for their own good.  Even if they are friends.

4.  Weeds.  When the plants are under control, I can see the weeds better.  This is definitely where the “10 steps to a clean room” comes into play.  I have to address the big ones first.  Which ones are the most problematic and/or unsightly.  There are some big, tall weeds that take up a lot of space but are easy to pull.  (Some big, tall boys come to mind here.  They can drive you crazy but respond to discipline.) Yanking them is like making the bed–it doesn’t take too much effort but yields big results.  The sneaky vines aren’t quite as dramatic, but they choke everything.  They are not hard to pull and a good weeding produces a gratifyingly large mound of debris, but you have to keep at them.  They never really go away.  And it only takes one to get the whole  garden back into a tangled mess.  (Certain girls with their gossipy ways, or sneaky rule-breakers, or cheaters seem to be like this.)

Taller fennel, but still not its full 3 ft. height or loaded with seeds.

5.  Eliminate excess.  Because I actually do not have a green thumb (it’s more like the Black Thumb of Death), I am very reluctant to rip out plants that volunteer to grow for me.  “What!  You want to grow in my pathetic little garden?  Why, bless you!  Welcome!”  This is why I have a ridiculous amount of fennel–I think I have to harvest every single seed, even though a bunch of them escape.  It is part of why garlic chives are everywhere–the flowers are so pretty but often go to seed  before I snip them.  In the classroom, as in the  garden, I have to remind myself that I can’t do everything.  In my desire to not have wasted class time, I tend to assign far too many tasks and then can’t follow-up on them all.  Focus, focus, focus.  That’s not just for the students; it’s for me.

Here is a “volunteer” that I’m glad to have!

6.  Rip out unwanted growth.  You know what?  I don’t like chocolate mint.  Oh, I like the flavor.  It’s the plant I don’t like.  For starters, it doesn’t really taste that chocolatey.  When it flowers, the blooms are a silvery green that look like they would like to be something prettier but are not.  Stupid ugly little flies are attracted to its flowers.  And it takes up a lot of space.  I think I would rather have orange mint.

Oh…  I can rip it out and plant orange mint.  It’s my garden.  Just because it has been in the garden for ten years doesn’t mean it has to be there forever.  Huh.  I’ve been teaching for a long time.  I wonder how many things I’m doing that I don’t want to do but continue to do just because I’ve always done it that way.  I’m not talking about ripping out the whole garden and starting over (ugh!), just a thing or two.

7.  Room for more.  With the bullies cut back and the weeds eliminated, I find I have space for some fall color.  I never thought of putting ornamental cabbage in here before, but now it seems like a fun idea.  As I ponder the personalities who will be returning to my classroom, I know that if I keep the dominant personalities  and the over-exhuberant students from taking over, there will be space for the new students and time for the fun stuff.

FYI, in  case you were amazed at how together my act seems,  the fact that I have this tidy little list of observations does not at all imply that my garden is under control yet!  (Or my classroom, for that matter.)  After an hour of hacking and weeding, my ponderings got the better of me and I ran up here to the computer.  So don’t look for any ornamental cabbages quite yet.  In fact, if I don’t get them planted before school starts, you may not find them ever.

Meditations from the herb garden: Graduating the seniors

My goal Saturday morning was to weed around the screen porch in order to find room for the flowers I bought last week, but by the time I slept in and enjoyed a mug or two of coffee, the sun was blazing in that part of the yard. The wise weeder seeks shade, and shade was by the herb garden.  Shade is usually over the herb garden by the time I get outside, which is why the herbs are looking pretty good and the screen porch is surrounded by grass stalks.

After some weeding, the chives emerged

After some weeding, the chives emerged.

The herbs are doing amazingly well.  Too well.  The oregano is boldly going where no oregano has gone before.  The fennel is popping up in the midst of all the oregano.  Garlic chives are settling in firmly everywhere.  And the lemon balm overshadows everything.  The regular chives are in there somewhere…I see a bloom or two peeking up…but they are dominated by the other happy aggressive herbs around them.  If I don’t give the chives some space, they are going to disappear.

So Saturday’s task was to open up the chives.  Give them room to grow.  That meant clearing out quite a bit of oregano.  Step one was to snip them and harvest them.  Step two was to pot a few manageable chunks into pots for gifting.  Step three was to rip what was left in the no-oregano-zone with reckless abandon. Ditto for the garlic chives and the lemon  balm.  Twisting and winding amidst it all were vines of gill-over-the-ground needing to be aggressively pulled.

When all the snipping and potting and ripping was done, three chive clusters stood blinking in the daylight.  Three wonderful little chive clusters who will bring me joy when snipped onto my morning eggs.  Three modest chive plants that will grow into impressive blooming plants with an abundance of purply-pink blooms for making chive vinegar.

Sprinkle a little mulch and they won’t look so forlorn.

Those tentative little chive plants reminded me of my juniors in French IV class.  Now that the seniors are gone, they are the class.  All year they were overshadowed by the dominant personalities of the seniors.  They were content to let  those personalities dominate.  They were content to hide behind the upper classmen: the next generation’s leader of the free world; the compulsive talker; the “you know you love me so don’t notice I haven’t  done the homework” schmoozer;  the quiet but practically perfect one; and the pathologically lazy hence always  getting yelled at one.

This week the juniors had oral projects to record.  As I listened to their projects, I was pleasantly surprised by how well they did.  These are the timid ones.  When they speak, their voices barely project to the end of their pencil. But  on the recorders (placed right up to their soft-spoken mouths  and with a volume dial so I can crank the decibals up to human auditory level)  their thoughts and their pronunciation were really quite good.   Like my little chives, there they were –quietly and invisibly competent.   And now, with seniors gone, they are exposed.  And now that they are exposed, they have no choice but to grow.

My herb garden looks a little sparse where I  cleared it.  School looks a little sparse these days too.  There is a gap where the seniors used to  be.  It’s not that they were “weeds” to be yanked.  My overgrown herbs  aren’t weeds–they were planted and nurtured because I wanted them.  But like the herbs taking over the garden,  it is time for the seniors to go.  Their personalities were outgrowing the space.

If senior-itis didn’t announce the need for seniors to move on to bigger and better, the spandex-clad Santas who ran screaming through the school the other day certainly did.  Teacher tolerance for the prank was in direct proportion to how much exposure they have had to seniors–the more exposure, the less tolerance.  Senior pranks are a lot like poison ivy–most teachers are allergic.

The seniors have new gardens to explore.  They will be a little tentative until they get established but then they will thrive.  In the meantime,  they have left space for the juniors to rise up and flourish.  And in two more weeks, even the juniors will be  gone for a bit, giving me some room to flourish.  I’m making no promises about what time I will be rising, but I’m hoping to get the rest of my weeding done.

Chives for winter

Someone I know–who happens to be quite a good cook–has a twenty year old bottle of chives in her spice rack.  They are yellow.  I’m not sure how one cooks for twenty years with a bottle of chives by the stove calling, “Use me….please use me…”  Unlike a good bottle of wine, chives do not improve with age.  They are best fresh from the  garden; however, they can be dried to get one through the cold, dreary winter.

With August looming, I need to get cracking on the herb drying.  I have not dried any chives yet.  This will spell disaster when the season is over and there are no fresh chives for my morning egg.  It took me awhile to figure out how to harvest chives.  Leaving the strands whole results in a pathetic wilted blade of grass.  Some people freeze the chives in ice cube trays.  That may be fine for soups,  but will not do much for my egg.  I like my dried chives to look like the freeze-dried ones I  buy at the store.  I want to sprinkle them on top of soups, or in my egg, or on cream cheese.  Mmm.

Since I do not know how to freeze-dry chives, I just snip them into bits and dry them in a pie pan.  I discovered this purely by accident.  I had snipped some fresh chives for  cooking but did not use them all.  After a few days, the snippets were dry and looked storable.  They tasted just fine.  So I now make it a practice to snip chives in summer. 

chives--snip with scissors

Here are my favorite uses for chives:

  • In scrambled eggs.  I get a lot of flack from people who know that every morning during the school year, John fixes me an egg sandwich with chives to take with me. : )  Chives are amazing with eggs.
  • In salads, especially if I don’t have any green onion.
  • As a soup  garnish, particularly clear soups but good with tomato soup, too.
  • To make a lo-calorie snack more la-dee-dah, spread a rice cracker with Laughing Cow cheese (or Weight Watchers cream cheese spread) and sprinkle chives on top.