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Why You Shouldn't Start an Herb Garden after You're 60

Bill Meredith

One of the most fundamental laws of science states that energy tends to flow from more concentrated to less concentrated forms. This may sound abstract, but in fact it has practical applications. The energy required to build and maintain a well-ordered structure or system represents a concentrated form; and as we all know, such structures or systems tend to wear out and break down. As things break down, the energy that went into building them is released in a form that physicists call entropy. In simple terms, you must spend a lot of energy working to create something orderly, like a garden, but the minute you stop working at it, it goes to pot. Entropy accumulates, and chaos results. My post-retirement life is an example.

About ten years ago my wife decided she wanted an herb garden. I'm not sure why, for she uses only a few kinds of herbs in cooking; perhaps it was because she saw a picture of one in a magazine. Whatever the reason, the result was that a strip of lawn was plowed and she went shopping for herbs. A selection of them appeared from various nurseries, and they were set out in neatly arranged clusters and rows. Nature, in the form of ecological succession, took over at that point. Many herbs are only a few generations removed from their ancestral weeds, and they refused to stay where they were planted, spreading invasively and crowding out their less aggressive neighbors. Simultaneously, real weeds moved in, some of which looked remarkably like their domesticated relatives. The ultimate humiliation was that the little plastic tags that identified the herbs had a distressing tendency to get lost or disintegrate from exposure to sunlight. So even before the first season was over, a substantial amount of entropy had accumulated in our corner of the universe.

The full extent of the chaos didn't dawn on me until the following spring when plowing time arrived. I had assumed the herb garden would be plowed and planted anew, like the regular garden; but my wife informed me that the herbs were perennials and I would have to weed and spade around them. Unfortunately, I was not intellectually equipped to do this; I could recognize most of the weeds, and even recalled the Latin names of many of them, but I did not know one herb from another. My wife didn't know most of the herbs either, but it didn't seem to bother her as much; she looked at it as another opportunity to go shopping. So she went and bought a book on herbs, and also brought home a new array of specimens to be planted.

Each in our own way, we began putting more energy into the system. I started reading the book, trying to learn how to recognize herbs so I could impose some order on the arrangement of the garden. While I did this, my wife experienced an energy surge and planted the new herbs wherever she could find an empty space; thus obliterating all remaining traces of the original orderly plan. In the long run, this did less damage than you might think, for the book wasn't much help. I was discovering that at age 65 my brain was not as receptive to new facts and details as it had been at 20; the names I learned one day were forgotten 24 hours later. And a few days later, when cleaning the house my wife picked up the book from where I had left it and put it on a shelf somewhere among her collection of an estimated 3,000 cookbooks. I've been looking for it without success for the past nine years ... I know it's there somewhere, because we never throw anything away.

Over the years, garlic, leeks and chives became hopelessly intermingled with wild onions, while mint, fennel and tansy crowded out everything else. Here and there, peering timidly out from under the weeds were small, isolated patches of stunted green things that a friend suggested might be thyme, chamomile and sage. The only thing that was holding its own was horseradish, which was valiantly surviving among a mix of curly dock and cockleburs. Finally, this fall my wife admitted that things were out of hand, and I got permission to dig the entire garden up. My own energy level has diminished considerably; the garden area is only about four feet wide and 30 feet long, but it took three days to spade it up, sort out and transplant the surviving perennials, and apply a layer of mulch.

The garden looks pretty good now. The unadorned strip of mulched soil running through the lawn has an orderly simplicity about it which I find satisfying. I know the appearance of order won't last; by next May the weeds will come back, and my wife will again bring in an assortment of new herbs to be strewn at random through the cultivated space. But I look forward to seeing whether any of the anonymous herbs I salvaged will come up next spring; perhaps by that time I will find the herb book and be able to figure out what they are. Chaos still looms, but hope springs eternal.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith