growth, Outdoors

How It Begins

A starter flat of small green plant seedlings.


They have begun to die. Once bright green leaves no bigger than a pinkie nail, already shriveling to brown. I rushed. Didn’t read the instructions. Too much compost in the soil. Too early a move to the big containers. I’ve lost at least half or more. It’s a massacre. 

This year begins in defeat.

At the start, I kept things modest. Just two trays of starts. I pressed a handful of those seeds, small as sand grain, into the soil. An invitation verging on a plea. Come, join us. I can’t promise a sunny season. Not a square of fertile soil along a creek fed by Lake Champlain, not even a square at the community garden, that wide open sky and the company of so many neighbors, all those lovely sniped and tamed rows of chard and sungolds.

If I could, I surely would. But here we are instead. This small tray sitting in a window next to a freeway, barely enough sun in a day to be called daylight despite facing south. They stacked us here, one  right on top of the other, gave us balconies where these plants, if they make it, will live behind the metal bars painted white and looking out over a parking lot. The downstairs schnauzers, two of them, bark for nine hours a day. 

This year begins in self-pity.

The starter mix I make up from skimming internet articles. There is some reason that peat moss isn’t great and I’m sure I don’t want to know. Mix the insidious stuff with vermiculite and something else. I know at least to bake it sterile. So that I do, for an hour at least, let it cool. 

There is so much basil at the start. Three varieties and nearly a dozen of each. In those first days, they poked up. Last year so much grew that the freezer filled with tupperwares of pesto. It could be so this year?

At first I move them from one window to the next. Rotate the little flats in their trays. There are so many, three to a compartment, more, and which means eventually the need to cull. Never a pleasant task, choosing who lives and dies. I choose the fattest from each little pocket to carry on. Leave the others out in the pile of detritus. But then, inexplicably, they all begin to follow, each one shriveling and graying, as if they see the fate of their siblings and decide they just don’t have the will to go on. The few little round leaves that haven’t given over yet are thin and turn white.

A few of the other starts seem to be hanging on. They may be rosemary or may be dill. It’s all too small yet to have much of a scent. At least that’s what I tell myself. I’m afraid to get too close, honestly. I dribble water into the containers and keep my distance.

This year begins in shirking.

I could do something differently. This doesn’t require an advanced botany degree. These are plants growing from containers, after all. There are only so many variables to control. But it fills me with utter sorrow that I don’t know already, that I didn’t learn sooner. Of course there is some way to adjust the acidity of the dirt. Of course there is a temperature that could be reached, an angle of the bulbs that fill the gaps when the sun rises too high above the balcony to reach them. But I don’t do this. I turn away from them, trying not to breathe on them or get too close. It’s as if some part of me can’t bear facing the devastation. Needs to feel the grief, the utter sense of failure, in this contained way. 

The idea that my garden could grow flavor, sharpness, tang and heat seems beyond credibility. It borders on perverse. Such elements of pleasure do not fit here. 

This year begins in shriveled imagination.


I have to start all over again. The Ace of Pentacles, the lush garden of prosperity. 

This spring begins in surrender. 

These plants aren’t withering because they weren’t Meant to Be. They’re withering because I messed something up and haven’t fixed it. There are so many things that can’t be fixed. Things too big for us, that crush us with their impossibility. An entire Antarctic ice shelf calving off into the sea. A Supreme Court gleefully hurtling us towards the most vile and dangerous version of our nation. 

But there are things we can fix. Like the fact that these little plants are thinning and curling at the edges. And there is something I can do. In a burst of commitment, I dig up an envelope in the bottom of the plastic bin. And another. More basil seeds. Bush basil and curly basil and purple basil and Thai basil, so many varieties. In the first go, I planted dozens and only three have survived. Not three varieties. Just three. Three tiny plants still hanging on in their little brick of starter mix. I’m afraid to take them out, not sure where to move them so that they can thrive. But maybe it’s not too late for another go.

This spring begins in getting back up.

This is foolish. The seeds are old, the envelopes yellowing. Even the starter mix, all that’s left, is one small dried-out container from last year, labeled in faded blue Sharpie. 


Up to the next size pot, a promotion sort of, leveling up to big girl pants. So now there is cilantro. Recognizable, fans and stems. Sprouting up from the full-sized yogurt containers, then pots. Actual planting pots! And thyme. And dill. And in the terra cotta, the little pots with holes in the bottom for drainage, basil. Leaves full and still growing fuller.

This summer begins in brimming.

The plants at first, their need, they make me feel small and brittle. I still notice the urge to give up. The memory of them sitting in their cramped quarters, green-foam mildew forming at the edges. They were impossible. Too hard to fix, too easy to kill. Best to turn away. They didn’t matter anyway, did they? These rottling little sprouts. Grow or don’t grow, what do I care? The rest of life goes on. There is work. And the kid. Another supermarket run, a bill to pay, a meeting to attend. What difference does it make whether or not the basil takes root here? I have gone whole years without basil. Seasons of my life without any kind of garden. It’s fine, we all survive, no one will know the difference.

But from that impulsive leap of Act II, Take II, nine little containers, a few seeds each. After having to discard so many withered babies, it seemed these would barely make a dent, definitely not make up for the loss. But at least they would be something? This time, I don’t get impatient. I let them take their time. Let them flourish and thicken before promoting them to the big girl pots.

And those three from before? They live. Still small but still alive. This is a happy thing, but not just that. It feels a little heavy. How they were always there, ready to thrive, ready to respond to the simplest of gestures. How easy it would have been to just walk away. How close I came. How I actually considered it, how defeat is always just one door over from the other choice.

This summer begins in dogged faith.

Maybe when my fingers first pressed those tiny grains into the soil, it wasn’t me calling to them, but the other way around. Come, join us. I buy a block of parmesan cheese at Aldi. I do this for one reason only. The pine nuts are already roasted. Not enough of them, I will have to supplement with walnuts. But I believe this: There will be pesto. Lots of it. 


Out on the balcony, they reach for the sun, some of them tall enough now that they are starting to topple and I have to prop them against the balcony’s white metal bars. I combine the little plants into bigger pots. Three then four, maybe more now. It’s impossible to tell now which rode in on the first wave and which the second. They all flourish now, a lush field of happy siblings. Fragrant, curling, fat and bright. Luxurious, blanketing, bobbing. None of that strange mold or white edges, everything is drinking and drinking heat, sunlight, moisture in the air. 

Everything, incredibly, lives. 

This season begins in a garden.

Three small pots with different young, green herbs growing in them.

Images: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “How It Begins”

  1. for some
    it is stone
    bare smooth
    as a buttock
    into the crevasse
    of the world

    for some
    it is extravagant
    water mouths wide
    washing together
    forever for some
    it is fire
    for some air

    and for some
    certain only of the syllables
    it is the element they
    search their lives for


    for them
    it is a test

    -Lucille Clifton, the garden of delight

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