Sunday, August 31, 2008

Benign Neglect (and a little rough handling)

"One must allow that a certain amount of carelessness in one's nature often accomplishes what the will is incapable of doing."

from Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Here's what the non-paved side of my house looks like.

...and like this.

Yuck! Lola and I joked when we moved in that we probably were never going to earn the neighborhood award for best looking yard. As much as the two of us like plants, we've never been big on yard work.

...and yet...

I find myself looking at parts of the yard now and thinking of things I could do. Most of these fantasies involve ripping out the lawn (more on that soon), but on a smaller, more realistic scale I ponder the side of the house.

My neighbor's side strip faces ours and hers is so beautiful. She has it planted with huge rosemary plants and lavenders. Smart choices for our sometimes droughty periods, and the plants look dramatic and unconventional. For all my container vegetable growing chops she is, I think, someone with the truest of green thumbs. She told me once, in an earnest manner, that "everything grows well here"...which I know is not true since north Georgia is pretty notorious for having very heavy clay soil. Maybe she amends it? I've got to ask her...

...then to the shovel! I have to admit to feeling nervous. Potting soil is one thing. Actual dirt is quite another.

Anyway, I bet that those particular plants do grow well, once they get into soil that they like. Herbs are the hesitant gardener's best friend and benign neglect is what they enjoy.

Here's the pot I'm growing.

That's a rosemary, a couple of basils, thyme, and oregano. All have done really well. I give them some water but they really don't seem to require much else - unlike my very pampered tomato plants. My theory is that these Mediterranean type herbs originated, and thrive, in parts of the world that are hot, dry, rocky. They don't like fertilizer and they certainly don't want to be fussed over. They just want to get down to the the job of growing...

...and growing! I've had to harvest often over the summer just from the one pot. I've used plenty of fresh herbs in cooking, but I've been able to dry a lot too. I actually prefer the flavor of dried oregano to fresh and fresh thyme, though its scent is bewitching, is nothing compared to the dried in taste.

To dry herbs, wash them, and lay on a flat surface that can remain undisturbed for several days. I use a cookie sheet lined with a dish towel covered with paper towels. I put the whole thing on top of the refrigerator. The important thing is that they stay well-ventilated. After about a week, this is what you'll see.

You can shred the dried leaves off of the stems into clean glass jars. Label and store for future use.
This method seems to work best for the more "woody" type of herb that has small leaves. (I'm sure there's a better way of saying that, a formal, botanical designation that I don't know. Yet.) I've found that basil, with its big, floppy leaves, doesn't take as well to flat drying. So I devised this little coat hanger dryer that I put in the kitchen window. Here it is right after I hung it.

Here it is yesterday. Please note that some of my neighbor's rosemary is visible outside the window.

Crumble the leaves into clean glass jars, label and store.

What a comfortable feeling it is to know that deliciousness is preserved and just waiting for you. And with so little effort! Herbs are truly giving, and forgiving, plants. My mint plant is an example of the latter quality (and yes, I know that I'm guilty of committing the pathetic fallacy, or something like it, all over the place here). I planted it with a tomato because, somewhere, I read that it made a good "companion planting". Perhaps it does... if your tomato has co-dependency issues and doesn't want to change. The mint was huge and gorgeous. The tomato was quailing. I had to do something, so I dug the mint up and shoved it into a pot. I didn't think it would survive such rough treatment. After all, I left pieces of root behind, but so far it's thriving. It's so lush that I'm thinking about dividing it and giving a mint plant to my friend Heather who is about to have a baby. Lola has been raising desert roses from seeds and the first seedling is also going to be a gift for the new baby. I love the idea of giving a gift that will grow as the child does.

By the way, the tomato recovered just fine.

Today's twist

Jane Bowles was an American writer who published in the years between 1943 and 1953. Although her output was small; a single novel, several short stories, and a play; many of her contemporaries, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, considered her to be one of the finest and most under-rated writers of the time. She was married to the composer/writer Paul Bowles with whom she had a loving, often long-distance, and very complicated, relationship. In spite of her marriage, her sexual and emotional relationships were primarily with women. Her novel, Two Serious Ladies, is, in my opinion, a vastly under-read modern classic. The two ladies of the title, Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Christina Goering, are both, rather frantically, seeking salvation, although neither seems to have any sort of religious talent or calling. Mrs. Copperfield's path is one of abandonment to dissolution. Miss Goering's is a severing of all that is comforting and comfortable. She deliberately puts herself where she is most fearful and uneasy. Of the two, Miss Goering, seems the most high-minded and moral, and yet she is thwarted over and over, perhaps because she can't, unlike the sentiment that she expresses in the quote above, ever allow herself to be truly careless.
Two Serious Ladies is an intriguing and puzzling novel and worth reading for the beautiful, askew, yet strangely illuminating dialogue if for nothing else. Jane Bowles' stories are just as brilliant and, if you're interested, I recommend the collection My Sister's Hand in Mine as well as Out in the World, a collection of her letters. Like many persistently blocked writers of fiction, Jane Bowles' output of letters was copious and the letters themselves are pathetic, newsy, incisive, and frequently hilarious. Also essential, for fans, - or anyone interested in the fertile literary and social scenes of New York, Europe, and North Africa after World War II - is Millicent Dillon's sensitive and illuminating biography A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles.

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