Gardening is the trendy thing to do these days, but I promise you that’s not why I decided to start digging in the dirt. It was a combination of my mother’s and my own dreams: To have a lush, homegrown paradise full of delectable, edible plants. My mom’s fantasy was fueled by her years-long desire to have her own garden of Korean vegetables. My fantasy was fueled by years of playing Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley, thinking I could grow things in real life, too.
We started planting seeds together, but she soon went back to work after receiving both of her Covid-19 vaccinations. I, the sole remote worker, was left to raise these seedlings on my own, lacking the bits of ancient knowledge she retained from her parents and her Korean-language fluency that I had hoped to rely on to learn what these sprouts needed to grow.
Their care was left up to me. The black thumb of the family.
The early bird freezes to death, actually
At first, I dove into gardening by relying on my instincts. This was a mistake, because I have no instincts. I had seen gardeners on TV and YouTube planting seeds indoors to get a head start after the last frost of the winter season. I knew dirt and seeds went in all sorts of containers, including milk cartons, so our family saved up a few to start some plants.
The first batch of seeds were sunflowers. They were from a ginormous monster of a sunflower that grew at the front of our house last year. It came from a packet my mother bought with a label calling the plant a “mini” sunflower. That label was wrong. It wasn’t “mini” at all.
To our collective surprise, that beast of a flower grew and grew and grew until its petals reached the roof of the house. The giant sunflower head nearly bent the stem in half from the immense weight of the seeds it eventually produced. After watching a couple YouTube tutorials, I nervously cut off the flower’s head and dried it to harvest the seeds. I didn’t know what I was doing, but apparently I did just enough to keep them alive through the winter.
In fact, the seeds were almost too alive; they sprouted way faster than expected.
The moment those seeds were planted in the crudely cut, cardboard milk carton, they popped out of the dirt like they just couldn’t wait to get the hell out of those shells. Their little necks stretched up and up, reaching for sunlight and only finding the dim light of the room. Together, they quickly outgrew their carton — which would’ve been a great sign to transplant them outside, if it weren’t for the cold weather. The nights were still dropping to borderline freezing temperatures that would’ve surely wiped them out.
The crowding got worse. The seedlings began tangling themselves amongst each other. In the end, they were sent out where there was more space to grow. It was late April; the weather was warming up by then anyway, and sunflowers seemed pretty resilient as long as there was sun.
Nope. It was too early. Whoever said “the early bird gets the worm” clearly didn’t think of plants. A sudden bout of hail and freezing nights killed over half the seedlings. A fierce windstorm snapped the stems of the rest. I could almost hear “Taps” playing as I surveyed the little plant bodies flopped lifelessly on the dirt.
Only one survived. A single, stubby little sunflower that didn’t grow tall enough to get hit by the wind. Its leaves were browned at the edges from frost damage. It was barely holding on.
From YouTube Gaming to YouTube Gardening
I wanted to do everything as correct as possible with the next batch of seedlings, but I still wasn’t sure about the details. So I turned to the next best teacher I could think of — YouTube.
YouTube Gardening was an absolute rabbit hole. There were plenty of helpful, instructional videos that popped up during searches, but there were also a bunch of distractions that I didn’t expect to face. Why, sure, I’d like to know what happens when you bury a fish head under a tomato plant. I’d love to spend an hour or two on this gardener’s channel as he documents his battle against an army of groundhogs. And look at that amazing dog harvesting his own vegetables from the garden! And the dog picking and eating a tomato!! Boy, I wish that were me. Now, what was I looking up again?
The various personalities were another surprise. Not all of these gardeners were the stereotypical “country” type. Many were urban gardeners, and some had the enthusiasm of a gaming YouTuber hopped up on Red Bull rather than a quiet plant lover. Instead of greeting viewers with a “What’s up, gamers!”, this guy gave an energetic “What’s going on, growers!”
It was hilarious. I guess YouTuber/Influencer culture can be pretty similar in all fields, whether you’re mired in games, e-sports, makeup, or plants.
These videos weren’t just funny, they were also helpful. I learned how to avoid seed starting mistakes, and got those plastic seedling trays every gardener seemed to own. I didn’t plant them too deep and watered them from the bottom-up. When the tiny, green heads of baby sprouts peeked out of the dirt, I celebrated. I was doing something right!
Nope. Wrong again. The sprouts grew, but they had long, thin necks that stretched for sunlight. Instead of robust bundles of baby lettuce, I grew “leggy” seedlings. And they were the leggiest, floppiest, weakest sprouts you could imagine. How was I supposed to know the windowsill didn’t provide enough light for seedlings? There are tons of pictures with plants on the windowsill — they always looked perfectly green! And no one ever told me they needed a little breeze to strengthen their stems. That’s some plant whisperer shit, I know nothing about that.
Frankly, they were a mess. I was so happy to see them grow, but now they were so weak that they were dying. YouTube didn’t have any videos on how to revive seedlings from the dead, so I could only pluck the wilted from the healthy and hope the rest could survive my bad decisions.
Sole survivors and signs of hope
As much as budding plants represent new life, they also bring a lesson about death. Yes, that’s melodramatic as hell, but it’s also very true. I’ve learned that some seedlings are bound to die no matter what. Even the people who grow plants for a living can’t stop their plants from dying. I could do all the right things and my tomatoes could still die. I could do all the wrong things and there’d be a miraculous survivor. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.
You’d think that, as someone who experiences an existential crisis on a near monthly basis, this would be the most depressing hobby I could get into. But, actually, it has made those moments of dread feel less heavy and burdensome. To garden is to learn what makes plants live or die. And that sort of knowledge comes with a level of acceptance that can ease one’s anxious thoughts.
For every sprout that died, there were some surprising survivors as well. That one sunflower that managed to live through hail and harsh winds is doing well to this day. It has grown taller and greener. It has more leaves to catch more sun. I’ve been rooting for it every day, waking up first thing in the morning to see it still standing strong.
And, on the day I brought out the remaining leggy seedlings to transplant them outside, I made a pleasant discovery: a stray lettuce seed had taken root between two stepping stones. It was now a precious little plant with soft, spring green leaves. An imperfect, but healthy, baby lettuce.
I didn’t have to do a thing to raise it, yet it was bigger than all the seedlings I’d been growing for the past two months.
Ah, goddamn it. I really do have a black thumb.
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