Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Cilantro

I'm finding that there are at least some new tricks you can in fact teach an old dog.

Last fall, I waited until late October, early November even, to take apart our little deck garden. I say little because it generates such a tiny fraction of what I remember emerging from the gardens of my rural childhood. In the course of it, though, this little deck garden can feel rather sizeable. When we put in the seedlings in the spring, we start by herding the ragtag collection of pots from the basement and friends' garages and barns, lining the pots with rocks for drainage, hauling and heaving soil from elsewhere, and then proceed to the fun part of actually nestling the little guys into their new homes. We have quite a bit of sun to offer them, so they seem in general to like it here. As long as it's summer.

Taking the garden apart at the end of the season is a difficult task for me. The crowd of plants we keep is like the best kind of house guest to me - it just sits out there being charming, ready to keep me company at a moment's notice, but I get to choose when I hang out with it. I can barely wait to see what it's done overnight each morning when I wake up. This means that admitting - come late fall - that the tomatoes really aren't going to get any riper on their vines, the basil really can't handle the frost, and the morning glories are done with their daily performances, does not come easily to me. Hence, last year, I dragged my feet for weeks, and then found myself poking through pot after pot of freezing cold dirt plucking even colder drainage stones so I could rinse them off and store them for next year.

In my every day life I frequently find myself repeating this sort of mistake, where the lesson and its solution are crystal clear but my stubborn will causes me to refuse to learn it. But the prospect of icy fingers seems to have carried sufficient weight that I am this year slowly, methodically, taking apart the garden before winter descends. I think I also decided that it was more respectful to the plants themselves to do it this way - return them to the earth somehwere when they've done what they can rather than force them to go on battling gravity and elements so far beyond their respective primes. Further, I know in the back of my head and heart somewhere that the chances are good that this month and next will be our last in this home. I may not actually have the late days of October and early days of November in which to complete the project.

Which brings me to the cilantro. We are extremely lackluster cilantro farmers. Our tomatoes do well, our basil, all the flowers we've tried so far, and even the peppers and eggplant we introduced this year and had to fight some pests to protect. But cilantro, though we love to cook with it, repeatedly gets away from us. Once it gets started, it grows fast, and you have to keep using it and using it or it gets too tall and stringy. We can't seem to muster the diligence to keep up with it. Today - day two of my Take Apart the Garden on Time effort - I admitted that the cilantro was ready to be uprooted. I squatted beside it, apologizing quietly for our delinquence, and began to notice that the roots seemed especially abundant for a plant that hadn't been encouraged to do its best work. I was impressed that it had managed to commit itself so completely to its pot. I could relate. This tiny urban home we've made here is the first in my adult life in which I've bothered to really settle into. We've got so many good memories from our life here, and I have to keep reminding myself that we get to take them with us, and that their existence doesn't mean it won't work well to move on.

I think we'll have to try the cilantro again, a third time, in our new home, wherever it may be. It's possible I'll be outvoted, but I think I'll at least campaign for it. Seems like there may be more to be learned from this good committed sport of a plant. It's also of course possible that I won't be outvoted, and then I'll wish I had been, as it's entirely possible I won't yet have embraced competent cilantro farming as a new trick worth learning.