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The woman with the black thumb

After 17 years of failure, a kitchen garden emerges in a house notorious for being a graveyard of plants. Hopefully, the locusts will stay away

A herb patch. Photo: iStockphoto
A herb patch. Photo: iStockphoto

My wife of 17 years has many fine qualities, but growing plants is not one of them. Try as she might, she cannot get her enthusiasm to catch up with her gardening skills. Her attempts over the years to grow herbs, flowers and even rough-living cactii and bougainvillea have failed. I am not sure how you can kill cactii, but I think she has, I was beginning to believe that maybe she has a black thumb.

Everything she grows eventually dies.

There is little doubt that she loves plants. The problem is this love appears one-sided.

She is greatly interested in everything plants produce, and as a nature-loving vegetarian supposedly in touch with her Indian roots since her teenage years, she throws around words like organic and sattvik, claiming to follow the culinary tenets of yoga and Ayurveda (I am just not sure, though, which veda recommended a bottle of Bira or a peg of Balvenie to cleanse the system).

Be that as it may, for years she has dreamt of a kitchen garden, of thrusting a hand outside a kitchen window and plucking fresh coriander, basil or mint—and, of course, handing it over to her husband to use. I have no problem with having fresh herbs to cook with, but they have just not been made available to me in line with her dreams.

So, I have watched with interest, curiosity and not a little wariness her repeated attempts at a kitchen garden. I may give her an “F" for results, but I give her an “A" for tenacity. Plants have withered despite her attempts to water them regularly, mulch them lovingly and change the soil. Of course, if she has been so bold as to leave them behind and go on holiday—making arrangements for someone to water them—they have unfailingly perished.

But the clouds of doom and gloom that have hung over our balcony for years may finally be lifting.

Encouraged by her yoga teacher, who is similarly inclined to an organic, sattvik lifestyle, the wife recently started repopulating a balcony made barren by previous plant massacres. First came a new lot of soil, then some green planters. Then came a wee rosemary shrub, then two, then basil, thyme and aloe vera (don’t ask, I don’t know). As I write this, they are conspiring to add romaine lettuce and purple basil to the mix.

Just as she was trying to raise a new generation to life and leaf, along came a formidable rodent, who jumped into the balcony, bit through a plastic mesh and unleashed a trail of havoc. I was, fortunately, in another part of the country, so I escaped the three-day battle against the rat. My true love hates rats. Indeed, she cannot bring herself to read Geronimo Stilton, a children’s book series about a mouse’s adventures in New Mouse City (the mouse is a journalist, our daughter helpfully points out); or watch Ratatouille, a darling, animated movie about a rat that wants to be a chef; or watch a frolicking squirrel (“it’s a rodent"). When I ask her the “name of that rat book", she jumps and says, “My God, don’t say rat like that." It’s all true, no exaggeration at all.

As the visiting rodent spread chaos and confusion, the house was vacated, and after much shouting and flights of fear and fantasy—from the seven-year-old, who sent me a message insisting it had a blue tail and blue snout—the animal was evicted from the house.

The fledgling plants were forgotten in this time, but, lo, they survived without water and attention.

Perhaps, that’s just what they wanted—a little space. Peppermint was added to the herb garden after this episode because she read somewhere that it keeps away rodents.

In the event, the herbs—and a cactus—are flourishing, and the wife looks very pleased, like a cat that has eaten a bowl of cream and decapitated a rodent, although that might be the wrong analogy to make to her.

I am proud of her. If I suspected I had a black thumb, I would have given up long ago. But the wife is nothing if not tenacious. The kitchen garden is up and running, but let’s be cautious. Given her luck with gardening, who knows what might happen.

So, before that freak swarm of locusts touches down, I have started plucking and using the herbs. Since I’ve never had the patience to grow anything, and have always bought my herbs from the local store—except during a semester teaching in Berkeley, California, some years ago, when I used to pluck rosemary from the roadside, where it grew wild—I am enjoying the access to the wife’s herb garden.

The other day I had to jazz up the seven-year-old’s leftover pasta for general consumption. There was home-made pasta sauce, to which I added leftover roasted vegetables. It seemed incomplete. I suddenly remembered the kitchen garden and plucked a branch of lush, fresh basil, tore it up and scattered it over the pasta. What a difference it made.

The rosemary is going into the child’s roast chicken soon, and the peppermint is being used as a substitute for her latest craze, chewing gum. When her mother gives her a peppermint leaf to chew on, the peppery bursts of freshness enthral and distract her precocious but easily distractable mind. I will be reorienting my cooking to use whatever I can from our (temporary) herb garden. You never know when her luck might turn and when those locusts might come visiting.

Rosemary chicken

Serves 2


1/2 kg chicken full-legs, cut into three pieces

8-9 garlic pods, crushed

1 sprig rosemary

1/2 tsp fresh pepper

Soy sauce

Salt, to taste


Marinate the chicken in fresh pepper, soy sauce, salt and garlic for 2 hours. Place in a baking dish, nestle rosemary into the chicken, seal with foil and cook it in the oven for 40 minutes at 170 degrees Celsius.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

He tweets at @samar11

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