The first time I saw rosemary growing green and free was when I was five years old. I had followed my grandma Bunny outside, and we walked around to the back of her house to the slopping patch of yard where the garden was. She had scissors in her hand and snipped at something fragrant that lay relatively low to the dirt. I was excited to be in the backyard at all, I wasn’t allowed to go back there by myself, because beyond the garden, the slope rolled into a steep downhill. Wanting both to know what she was doing and be helpful, I stayed close and asked if I could help. She handed me the scissors and showed me where to cut. I was startled by the vibrant, soapy smell that rose from the cuts I made. Even now, that is one of the memories that the scent of rosemary takes me to.
My father has always needed to have a garden. They’ve varied in size and content over the years, but they’ve been ever-present in our lives. During the five years we lived in a house with almost an acre of land, he took his gardening responsibilities very seriously, bringing in a small tractor to uproot the blackberry brambles that had taken over the lower half of the yard. I don’t remember any herbs growing live in that house, only a large bouquet of dill hanging on the wall by the sliding glass door. When my sister or would make tuna fish salad, we’d take our bowl over to the dill and shake it a little to make the (dusty) dill rain down onto our food. The last year we were at that garden, he planted corn, squash, tomatoes and lettuce while the apple and pear trees that had come with the house stood nearby. That was when we started calling him “Farmer Mo.”
At the house my family lived in during my high school and college years, rosemary reemerged. It was planted in the small front yard as both a decorative shrub and the go-to herb of the house. Our neighbor would come over and snip off large sprigs to float in her bathwater, when her two young children started to make her crazy. On Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings, I would walk out to the front in my pajamas, waving to the people playing touch football in muddy park across the street, to cut an armful of branches, to place under the turkey, so that as it roasted the aromatic scent of rosemary would infuse the meat and stuffing.
My parents moved to the house they live in now three years ago. One of the first orders of business (after building a fence around the backyard so the dog wouldn’t escape) was to plant rosemary and lavender in both the front and back yards. When I go home for Christmas, there are still rosemary plants to snip for turkey roasting, although the only one who sees me out there in my sweats and slippers now is the neighbor’s cat. I choose to take on this holiday “harvesting” task because my parents’ back porch is beautiful to me. Clay pots and plastic ones stand together, planted with hardy herbs year round, and with strawberries and heirloom baby lettuces in the summer and fall. A small maple tree grows in one pot, for no other reason than it was found as a volunteer in another part of the yard and we respect such things.
Everytime I visit the place that will always be home, the morning or night before I leave, I make a little baggie of rosemary to take back with me. It lasts for weeks in the vegetable drawer of my fridge, a little bit of Portland in my Philadelphia life.
These days I buy my rosemary from the family run produce market across the street from my building. For a dollar I get four or five generous twigs, and I use it often, stripping the leaves from the branches for salad dressing, soup or roasted chicken. I’ve tried to grow rosemary in my “apartment garden,” an old wooden ironing board set up along the window covered in pots, but have always failed. I would buy little rosemary starts at Reading Terminal Market, but they died in a matter of days.
All fall I meant to buy one of the Christmas tree shaped rosemary plants they were selling at the grocery stores as hostess gifts. I thought that if I started with a bigger plant, I could make it grow, but I kept forgetting to pick one up with my milk and cereal.
When I returned from Portland on December 31st, my friends brought me a surprise. A rosemary tree. It was the end of the season for these trees, so it was on sale, a good bargain. It was also dried out and close to death. I went out several days later to buy it a new, bigger pot and fresh soil.
This rosemary plant has been living in the apartment garden for a couple of weeks now. I’ve been watering it frequently, and I often brush my fingers over the leaves to better carry the smell with me. This morning I walked over to the window to greet the plants and the day and saw that my rosemary tree was starting to lose it’s cone-shaped exactness as bright new leaves forced their way towards the light. I joyfully thanked it for thriving and went to the kitchen to make coffee, thinking how I could get my hands on an apartment sized bay tree.