Round Robin: One Job At A Time

LANSING, New York–Many years ago, when the only herbs I knew were thyme, parsley, and mint, my family and I went to live in Southeast Asia. There I encountered many strange herbs, including a lacy one with an intriguing scent and flavor that the natives called Chinese parsley. Some years later, when we were living in North Africa, I found the same herb being used. On asking its name, I was told it was Arab parsley. Since I needed it to make North African dishes, I bought seed in the market and planted it in our garden, where it grew tall and lush and lasted for many weeks. When we returned to America, I brought seed from my plants, which I finally learned were cilantro.

I planted them in the garden here, hoping to use the leaves in Algerian chorba (soup) from time to time. (This was more than twenty years ago, long before fresh cilantro was available in ­supermarkets everywhere.) My plants grew, but I was vexed to find them going to seed almost immediately. I tried to grow them in the shade, but that didn’t please them much. Whatever I did, they remained feeble and dwindly compared with their African forebears. When I sent some small bundles of the leaves to the farmers’ market, an East Indian customer threw up his hands in despair. “More!” he said. “I need more. In India, we use it like spinach!” I never managed to satisfy him.

I was puzzled why plants grown from seed of my tall, stout Algerian plants should behave so obstreperously here, where they seem intent only on producing seed for their survival. My first guess was that it must be the difference in the length of our summer days that caused the plants to bolt, but on consulting the atlas I learned, to my surprise, that the difference in latitude is not great. The correspondence between climate and latitude is tricky. After all, as my husband commented, Venice is north of Vladivostok. So there must be some other reason why cilantro is leafy in one place and seedy in another. Before I had a chance to unravel that issue, cilantro began to appear in our local grocery store, so I decided to devote the space that it had occupied in the garden to less recalcitrant subjects.

Speaking of which, isn’t chervil an obliging herb? Once it gets started in a slightly shaded spot, it will keep going indefinitely. When we still had an old sprawling wisteria out by the back door, a permanent colony of chervil grew under it, happily self-sowing every year. Coming up between flat stones nearby was a conquering horde of garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) and an equally irrepressible mint. None of them was neat, I admit, but they were handy when I was making soup or salad. I used to gather some of each, chop everything up together, and add it to my dish.

The chervil under the wisteria was plain Anthriscus cerefolium, but ah! I now have a fancy chervil, given me last year by a great plantswoman, Caroline Burgess, of Stonecrop: A. sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. She gave it to me in a small pot, telling me it was a fashionable plant these days. I planted it tenderly, thinking that its purple foliage, of which I’m exceedingly fond, showed promise. I then forgot about it until this spring, when I was on my hands and knees weeding and came upon a 14-inch-wide black-red, elegantly incised, low, lacy confection that was so lovely I shouted with surprise and joy, “The anthriscus!” It later sent up 3-foot stems bearing delicate umbels of white flowers, but it’s the leaves that count with this chervil. Now, is it going to be biennial or perennial? The books say it’s either one or the other.

The summer is winding down now. I love to think of the long, lovely autumn ahead, when the crushing heat is over and all outdoor jobs are leisurely. Going around with a pad and pencil and planning next year’s planting and “improvements” is so much easier than actually doing it. The hardest part of spring garden work is not so much the labor itself–digging, dividing, installing new plants, weeding–as that it all wants doing at once. It’s the nervous rather than physical strain.

I asked a farmer friend if he didn’t have a hard time in the spring, thinking as he planted his peas that he should be spreading manure, and when he was plowing for corn that he should be sowing soy beans. He replied, “If I let myself do that, I’d go crazy. I just take one job at a time.” What a smart fellow! I’ll try to do the same next spring. And meanwhile, I’ll enjoy this peaceful autumn.