The Herb Garden

If you said the words “herb garden” to most people (dare I say – to a normal person?), he or she would probably think of cultivated soil filled with edible plants: Basil, Licorice, rosemary, mint, parsley, spearmint, coriander or Thyme.

I don’t.

Maybe because I’m a writer. Maybe because I’m … odd.

If you say “rainbows” to me, I am less likely to think of a colorful arc spanning the horizon than I am to think of fanciful ribbons tied in bows and falling (like rain) from the sky.

Say “elbow room,” and I conjure up a room filled with dismembered arms bent at the elbow. Say “hedgehog,” and I imagine a bully in a greenhouse, monopolizing every single honeysuckle and hydrangea in the place.

Which brings me back to the herb garden. Shoot me. I can’t help it. I see it completely populated with Herbs: Herbert Spencer. Herbert Hoover. Herbert Bayer. Herbert …

It’s a rather pretty garden, really. On top of a hill behind a big, brick Federal house. There are meadows rolling off in the distance, with a winding river – maybe the Susquehanna – gently lapping at its banks.

The garden itself is rectangular. Bigger than most herb gardens because, of course, the Herbs inside are oversized. For a kitchen-garden plant – gigantic.

All of the Herbs are, of course, waist deep in the dirt. Some are wearing jackets. One has on a frock coat. Another a jersey top. A third an open collar shirt. Some are clean-shaven. Some bearded. One is wearing a bow tie. All are gesturing with their hands.

The nearest to the walkway is Elizabethan poet George Herbert, hardly the most vigorous Herb in the garden. I see dust feathering his flowing hair, and I wonder if rain pools under his big, bib-like collar. A soft murmur comes from his unsmiling lips, and the words, “Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit,” follow me as I walk by.

The vigor of the next Herb stuns me in contrast, even before I realize that it is former President Herbert Hoover. He is wearing a business suit … at least to the waist. Below that, I am certain that he has strong, verile roots. As industrious in the garden as he was in his long career, he alternately digs into the earth with his bare hands, pulls out weeds, brushes away Japanese Beetles, or fixes his tie.

Humming alongside the former president is the composer, Victor Herbert. A small brown rabbit gently nibbles at the hem of his tweed jacket. He is my favorite Herb. He has a full head of hair, a bushy mustache (a bee hovering nearby is trying to pollinate his ear), and fine, deep-set eyes. As I wander past, his humming changes to words, and he joyfully begins to sing, “Toyland. Toyland. Wonderful girl and boy land.”

The next Herb in the row obviously does not appreciate the tune. With a cigarette dangling from insolent lips and fingers in his ears, he glares at the composer with contempt. The area around his torso is cluttered with cigarette butts and hypodermic syringes, and I don’t recognize him, so I bend down to read a small identifying label half buried in weeds. “Herbert Huncke,” it says. “Small-time thief and friend of beat poets Allen Ginsberg.” I move quickly past him, and on to the last Herb in the row.

By his dress and style, he is clearly British, clearly a gentleman, and clearly Herbert Spencer. He is wearing a fancy black bowtie and a stiff shirt collar. His baldhead is surrounded by a fringe of grey. Unlike the other Herbs, he has a fountain pen and a pad of paper in his hands, and is writing intently on the top sheet. As I lean over to see what he has written, I make out the words, “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”

There are other Herbs in the garden, too. Herb the pickle-seller, in a white apron with a fork in his hand. Herb the mailman, flipping through envelopes and peering nearsightedly at a foreign stamp. Herb the CPA, with a pen guard in his pocket, and yes, one of the pens is leaking ink. And Herb the Delicatessen man, who always puts extra pastrami in your sandwich if you slip him a one-dollar bill.

Which brings us to the end of the tour of my garden.

You have been introduced to all of my Herbs, and you have been alerted to the way that writers … or at least this writer … thinks.

Speaking of which, “alerts,” I mean, let me tell you a little about them, too. There is a lert. There are some lerts. And there are those lerts. I like the little lerts best. They are fat and round, and they sneak under fences and hide behind flowerpots. If you aren’t careful, they will …

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit

Copyright © 2010, Shelly Reuben

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