Loves gardening, but not very good at it. That description fit me perfectly. The 12 or so scrawny hibiscus planted in a row along the edge of my lawn would agree. In my defense, I dug the holes deep and lubricated each one with copious amounts of manure before sticking the young saplings into their final resting place. Like a doting father, I gave each plant an early morning shower with the water hose.
I never shirked my duty and would talk to them like children as I stooped low to peer at the leaves for bugs. Then I’d run my fingers along the stems to check for other plant maladies.
But they were doomed from the start. Poor soil and a malicious Jamaican sun transformed my pet project into a forlorn row of spindly kindling wood. Despite my best efforts, the unfortunate gardener had struck again.
My luck with gardening wasn’t always a downhill struggle; a wee sapling of an avocado tree clung to life and seemed to enjoy the spot I picked for it. The ginger lilies by the side of my house were in constant bloom, especially since I grew handy with my favorite pruning tool – a machete. I had three beautiful frangipani trees, two Julie mango trees and an unruly bed of Mexican petunias that were pretty to look at but apt to spread if not carefully watched. My bougainvillea hedges were a riot of color during the summer, not to mention the pink oleanders that led up my driveway.
It’s been years since I left my garden home in Jamaica for the United States; and I’ll admit, I had a good run. But the memory of my ill-fated hibiscus plants still makes my green thumb wilt.
Maybe this year I’ll finally be able to make things right. Each spring the cooks in my kitchen volunteer time and energy to fill four large concrete planters on the fifth-floor terrace with herbs, flowers and vegetables. Each concrete planter is four feet high and eight feet square with a tent- like covering for shade. The state of Georgia experiences all four seasons, which is perfectly fine with me, because I need time to assuage my fears. Maybe I am still haunted by the ghosts of hibiscus past? Am I superstitious? I am determined to prove myself wrong. So as Old Man Winter releases his icy grip on the earth, I thaw enough courage to join the team in charge of this year’s chef garden.
Chef says we should make sure that we do some research on what plants are best for our small garden. He said, “We should think about the best frost-tender vegetables and herbs, because whatever we choose to plant in the next few weeks must be able to withstand sudden temperature changes. According to the climate chart, Atlanta is in zone 7b, which means that there is potential for cold snaps well up into the end of April.”
I stand with the other cooks in a semi-circle around him, hands respectfully clasped behind us. “The best part of planting a garden is the learning process involved. It requires commitment and a willingness to get your hands dirty,” he says. It’s obvious that he’s on a roll and you can see his enthusiasm for the subject building.
“You will sweat, being outside in the July sun can be hot work, but sweat builds character and you’ll learn first-hand how plants grow. Imagine being able to put seeds in the earth and watch them grow!”
His excitement is infectious, and if he had said, “Charge!”at the end of his speech, every cook would have run out the door screaming, ready to dig into the earth with their bare hands.
It was good meeting, and we finished prep for dinner service in an animated mood. Even as tickets came in and plates flew out the kitchen, gardening was all we could talk about. Now, the gardener in me would have loved to plant scotch bonnet peppers, callaloo, gungo peas, pineapple and sugar cane, but I’m a long way from Jamaica.
Instead, I chose to apply my green thumb to lima beans, eggplant, peppers, tomato and cucumbers. I can already imagine myself cooking with all the fresh basil, thyme, oregano, sage and mint just picked from the garden. I may be pushing my luck but a planter filled with various types of plump lettuce would be ideal. I’m excited by all the possibilities. In the next few weeks, as I head to the nursery to buy compost and select plant seedlings, I’ll be thinking about warm spring breezes and a privileged cook working in a small urban garden, planting dreams, wishes and memories.