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Big ol’ confession time: I’m a murderer of kitchen plants. When it comes to life skills, gardening goes on the shelf of “knowledge sets that absolutely passed me by in life” (alongside things like cooking and car maintenance). When I started this piece, I had three shelves affixed to my kitchen window that were meant for vibrant greenery, but were really just holding the corpses of plants I wasn’t ready to admit I’d failed yet. The truth is, I love being surrounded by plants. I’m from a rural-adjacent, heavily wooded city, and living in Los Angeles—a city that’s more dust and dead grass that anything else—has only deepened my affection for greenery. At the same time, though, I’m absolutely inept at keeping any sort of plant alive—unless you count cactuses, which you really shouldn’t, because they thrive on neglect.
But hope springs eternal, and I found myself determined to stock up on kitchen plants even I could keep alive. Why kitchen plants, you ask? Why not heap some aspiration on top of aspiration? Not only am I absolutely incapable of gardening, but I’m also basically incapable of cooking, too; I figured learning how to keep herbs alive might, in turn, inspire me to figure out how to season foods (or possibly, vice versa).
I kicked off my journey where so many of my other planting failures have begun: the friendly neighborhood Home Depot. I spent a lot of time staring at plants with what I hope was a critical expression and tried to narrow down my selection. I read the labels on the small potted plants, which all seemed to insist they were supposed to be planted in an actual garden but also declared they were perfectly suited for life in a pot. I ended up following my nose on this one: I picked up mint, rosemary and an oregano plant that looked a little listless. That’d be my rescue plant, I figured. I also grabbed a basil plant at the grocery store near my house. Four little plants; surely I could keep at least one of them alive.
When I got home, I made a little study guide about what each plant needed and did intense research (on three whole websites!!) for tips. It was a refreshing change of pace to make literally any effort at all when my normal gardening philosophy is “If they die, they didn’t want it enough.” I made the early parenting call to only water my plants with water from my Brita filter, just in case it made a difference to them. I also attempted to learn something about light: All my windows face West, directly toward the sun, for half the day, so I could keep my kitchen plants in my kitchen window (where I firmly believed they should be living, anyway).
As I jotted down my plant care study guide, I quickly tried to calculate how likely it was that I’d actually be able to meet the different demands of all these fussy plants. Honestly, things weren’t looking good. But as my bar was to keep the plants alive—not to breed thriving, prize-winning beauties—I still had hope.
The basil plant I got ended up being hydroponic, meaning it needed to live in a cup of water at all times. I also discovered (through my research) that basil plants are actually doomed from the start; they live for a handful of weeks before “going wooden” and then die no matter what you do. I made a mental note not to get too attached to my basil plant, and then made another mental note to text the five different roommates I’ve had who all thought they were just bad at tending basil. I really couldn’t believe I’d been conned so hard by Big Basil, and I also couldn’t believe it was never advertised to me that basil plants just kind of die and there’s nothing you can do. I wasn’t really looking for a lesson in existentialism, so thanks for that one, Gelson’s Market.
The basil, already identified as the drama queen in the group, took the first opportunity to go rogue. Literally the first morning it was already dramatically droopy. I checked its cup and found it had sucked up a half cup of water overnight. As soon as I refilled its cup, it bounced back in a couple of hours. Over the next few weeks, I continued to be baffled by how much water this guy could guzzle down—it would let me know the second it was thirsty by completely wilting anytime I went more than 12 hours without paying attention to it. However, at least it was predictable, looked great and smelled amazing.
Unfortunately, I don’t think basil’s built-in inevitable demise really fits my mission to find an unkillable kitchen plant, so it’s been booted from the running. I look forward to having it for three more weeks before watching it succumb to a predetermined death I cannot prevent!
I want to be fair to myself (and my potential skills as a gardener) by first acknowledging that my oregano plant was a little janky when I bought it. None of the oregano plants at the store were in great shape—and I didn’t want to roll the dice on the equally spotty looking parsley plant—so I picked the oregano that at least looked like it had character. I have, several times now, formed an emotional connection with the scrappier plants in the store—that, I’ve imagined, have been picked over like the last kitten in the box. Because of this, I have a decent collection of raggedy succulents, both living and deceased.
When I got home from the store, I worked hard to try to rearrange the more flattened part of the plant to look presentable. And in doing so, I definitely heard something that sounded like “crucial roots breaking,” so I was a bit worried from the beginning that this plant was living on borrowed time. It held up really well for about two weeks, but then, out of nowhere, it completely flattened out. I was ready to plan a plant funeral when the plant sprang back with a little extra water.
Right now, the prognosis looks pretty good, but I wouldn’t recommend even the healthiest oregano if you’re looking for an unkillable plant; the stems and leaves are super delicate and seem pretty susceptible to drooping. Its instructions for watering are also a bit obtuse; my sources recommended watering whenever the soil is dry but NEVER OVERWATERING. A plant expert might know how to properly balance those two commands, but I just kind of dumped water on it a few times a week and hoped for the best.
The rosemary plant was on a different level, prep-wise: You’re supposed to give it as much soil downward as the plant is tall. The only experts also insisted that I give my rosemary plant proper drainage, because it can’t sit in water; they specifically recommended putting some gravel in the bottom of its pot. This seemed…like a lot of effort, but I was semi-excited to start my new life as an effective gardener who went to such lengths to keep plants alive. Accordingly, I stored some gravel in the bottom of the rosemary plant.
The rosemary was a lot of work upfront, what with having to literally landscape a special mug for it with extra supplies. However, taking that step in the beginning seems to have paid off, because this plant hasn’t given me a single complaint since I brought it home. Another perk: The rosemary requires the least amount of watering, because it can sustain itself from the evaporation from the gravel water.
A week or so into my rosemary care-taking, I was able to stunt all over my boyfriend when we were making dinner. I sprinkled my own personal brand of rosemary over whatever we were eating.
This plant feels pretty unkillable, as long as you’re willing to meet its simple requests for space and drainage upfront. Plus, I’ve always loved the smell—and rosemary potatoes.
I’ve had a soft-spot for mint ever since I was very small and my dad showed me you could chew on spearmint leaves for good breath, so this one was a no-brainer. It was a full, healthy plant when I bought it, and I’ve had to do virtually nothing since to keep it that way! This plant hands-down made the least amount of trouble for me. Its only “catch” is that it theoretically requires more water than the other plants (instructions are to keep the soil moist, always), but honestly, having to water your plant seems like a pretty small ask in return for its consistent health.
I would say that, considering the entire social contract with plants is the presumption that you have to give them water, having to check on this one every couple of days is a pretty small ask. Therefore, I’d like to declare this mint plant the least killable! If you need me, I’ll be busy crafting a tiny crown out of construction paper for it and desperately trying to remember what it used to be like to work in an office.