Go ahead, uproot my herbs!

The blue jay had his own plans for my sprouting garden.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Snacktime: A blue jay nibbles birdseed from the top of a sculpture in the backyard of a home in Greenwich, Conn.
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During the 22 years I lived in midtown Manhattan, I never gardened. When I moved to the Emerald City, I learned that gardening is practically a requirement for citizenship – a perfect opportunity to try my thumb at it.

My 6-by-8-foot redwood balcony wasn’t exactly a yard, but it was outdoors, and exposed to lots of Seattle precipitation and occasional sunlight.

To learn my new hobby, I chose to plant herbs – mainly because it bugged me to pay $4.99 for three scrawny sprigs of rosemary at the grocery store when I had noticed on walks around my new neighborhood that this plant grew in abundance.

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I purchased containers, potting soil, seedlings, and a trowel and got to work. I planted a different herb in each of the 12 pots I lined up on the railing surrounding my balcony. Every morning, I looked out my kitchen window and watched as fragile stems of cilantro, oregano, and marjoram waved in the gentle spring breezes.

One morning, I heard squawking. A cobalt-blue bird, looking much like a crowned blue jay, balanced on the rim of a hand-painted pot. With his sharp black beak, he yanked out a stem of mint. His vertical black eyebrows moved up when he turned and looked at me.

“Hey!” I yelled. “You put that back.” He took off for a conifer 10 feet away.
I opened the door and examined the wreckage. Three stems had been wrenched away, leaving quarter-size divots atop the soil. I called out after the jay, “I paid $1.99 for that plant, you little hoodlum.”

I sat at my computer and Googled “types of blue jay.” I discovered that my little thief was a Steller’s jay, and he wasn’t eating my herbs, he was using them as nesting material. Oh, no – how big a nest would he build?

I returned to the window. The jay landed on the rim of a brass container. He cocked his head and ripped out a pale green sprout of parsley, not three days old.

“Hey! This is not New York City – it’s not like there’s a shortage of green things here!”

I went out the front door, stomped down the stairs, ripped up a handful of grass, returned to the balcony, and sprinkled the grass atop the now-barren earth. I called after the jay, “Here’s some nice fresh grass; makes excellent nests.”

I returned to my office only to run out again within a few minutes. The jay was gripping a stem of tarragon. I opened the door and off he flew. My crop was dwindling faster than I had planted it. I didn’t know that much about gardening, but I did know that you had to give plants at least half a chance to grow before you picked them. There was little hope for these stubs.

I rushed to the closet and ripped a dry cleaning bag off my white suit. I grabbed the duct tape and scissors and returned to the scene of the crime. I sliced open the plastic and taped a piece over every one of the remaining seedlings and poked a few holes in the plastic.

Maybe the plastic would not only protect the plants from marauding birds, but also act like a greenhouse. Maybe the basil would flourish. Maybe I was learning something about gardening in adverse conditions.

I sat at the computer and concentrated on a spreadsheet. I heard a sound like a baby’s cry, “Awww, awww, awww.” I looked out the window for the source but saw no one.

I walked to the kitchen window. The jay was perched on the rim of a sage pot, sounding like he was crying. His mate alighted on a terra-cotta rim. “Awww, awww, awww.” It had to be my imagination. Birds don’t cry.

“Awww, awww, awww.”

“OK. Fine. You win. You can have my herbs.” I cut away the plastic and returned to the window to watch Mother and Father rip out all but one sturdy twig of rosemary. Despite their joint attempts at clear-cutting my garden, the rosemary didn’t budge.

I opened the door; they flew back to their castle-in-progress. I gently pulled out the stem, shook the dirt from its roots, and placed it on the soil. I returned to the window and waited.

Within a minute, both jays sat opposite each other on the rim of the rosemary pot, Mom helping Dad adjust the frond in his beak. The $4.99 price for three sprigs of rosemary was beginning to look like a bargain.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but I’d like to think that the last waggle of their dark blue vertical eyebrows, before absconding with the last piece, was a gracious thank you.

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