On the first day of spring this year, my friend Julia and I went to Home Depot during our lunch break to buy little plant friends for our desks. We spent a good twenty minutes wandering the aisles, wondering which specimens might flourish under fluorescents. One of the gardeners, perhaps noticing our hesitation/agonizing, assured us that most of the plants would, in fact, do okay in a cubicle. Now I have a tiny cheerful cactus topped with a hot pink puff that I look at throughout the workday. People tell me it’s adorable when I’m bringing it to and from the kitchen on Fridays for its weekly watering. So far it’s doing just fine.

I’ve never been particularly good with plants, but I’m not one of those people who kills them just by looking at them, either. I guess I would describe my attitude toward potted plants, pre-cactus, as ambivalent. Acquiring a pretty little living thing, though, seems to have awakened some dormant urge to grow stuff.

A few days later, in fact, I bought a potted basil plant at Whole Foods for less than I would have spent for one of those plastic clamshells of basil leaves. I told people that if I could get enough off it to cover a pizza, it would be worthwhile. But in my head, I saw myself with a huge flourishing planter full of basil and fresh pesto every other week. I would become a successful herb grower.

The problem, as it soon became evident, is that basil wilts both if you overwater it and if you underwater it. I did a lot of Googling about basil care and the consensus seemed to be that you should water it every other day or so, but more if the soil seemed to be drying out, and maybe less if it wasn’t getting much sun. Okay. So it took me a few days to figure out that my basil actually wanted to be watered every day. But that moment of realization—after I desperately flooded it with water one morning and came back half an hour later to find that the limp stalks had all perked up—that was empowering. It was addicting.

All was well for a couple of weeks. The plant grew new leaves, I pinched off the big ones, the little ones grew big, and then I pinched them off too. Pizzas were delicious. Eggs were delicious. Fresh herbs were right on my windowsill, and I was keeping them alive.

Now my little plant and I are miscommunicating again: the stems are turning brown from the roots up. Again, people online aren’t really definitive on what’s going on and what to do. Someone said it’s ok, only worry if the leaves turn brown too. Someone else said it’s because the roots of the little stalks are suffocating each other, and you should take them out of the soil and snip at the roots vertically, like you are cutting hair, to thin them out a little bit. I am not sure I feel up to making that sort of mess. But while I consult Google and wring my hands, the brown is inching up the stems. Maybe the pot is just too small. Maybe the shoots are too tall, too leggy, and cutting them down would make it easier for them to draw the water up. I don’t know. I’m not really a gardener.

This is generally about the point in a new hobby where I give up: it’s not quite working out like I’d imagined, I don’t know why it’s not quite working, and figuring out how to make it work might take a lot of effort. I forget that new things aren’t necessarily supposed to be easy. Maybe this is why, when people ask me what I like to do in my spare time, I say, “Read.” I’m good at reading. It’s pretty straightforward.

It’s funny. If I choose to run away from big, scary things, the ramifications are big, so I’m realizing at last that I have to dig in my heels and tackle them. (Maybe someday I’ll even realize it’s possible to do this with grace and humor.) You’d think it would be easier to stick with hobbies, since failure doesn’t have as much of an impact. But failing is still failing, and as much as I hear failure is good for helping you grow and learn and change, I still don’t like to do it. Because what if I kill the basil by trying to fix it? Except oh wait, it’s already dying. (Maybe.)

I’m finally sick of agonizing, though. I am just going to have to get over it and try something. And if I fail a little . . . well, maybe it will teach me how to care for the next potted herb I buy. Because yes, having herbs is still cool. Just maybe they have a learning curve.

So, I’ll figure out how to be a successful herb grower—if not one with a giant flourishing planter, at least one who gets her hands dirty. Maybe I can learn to cultivate an attitude of humor and grace on a small scale first. Either way, it’s basil. It just isn’t that big of a deal.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    I predict you’ll feel better if you read my post this month. I’m working on one about my own super sad plant adventures.


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