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How a quarantine garden brought me closer to my tween daughter

An illustration of a mother and daughter gardening

“I want to plant a garden.”

My 12-year-old, Ella, said this soon after (distance learning) school officially ended. Instead of giving her a panicked answer about how I’ve killed every plant I ever owned — including succulents — I just smiled.

Because this was only one of her many grand summer plans that also included learning to use the sewing machine, making desserts with coconut flour, embroidery, organizing the chaotic mug cabinet, journaling and learning French.

“I don’t know anything about gardening, but why don’t you research it and we’ll see,” I said, thinking she’d forget about it.

She didn’t.

Ella spent days reading about gardens, watching YouTube videos and looking at pretty garden photos on Instagram and Pinterest. At meals, she surveyed us about our favorite vegetables, even asking her picky, non-vegetable-eating older sister, Marina, what she might want.

But it was when Ella mentioned the garden idea to my mom and my aunt that the garden went from dinner conversation to reality. My mom is exceptionally crafty and creative, and my aunt is a skilled gardener and goal-oriented worker. If Ella wanted a garden, they were the ones who were going to make it happen.

Tools for the job

One Sunday while I was still asleep, Ella and her grandmother set off to a home improvement store for wood slats and cement blocks. As I sipped my morning coffee, they creatively assembled a box in which to grow vegetables, balancing the wood pieces on the blocks ... no tools necessary.

Later that afternoon, I went with them to a neighborhood nursery, mostly to help carry stuff. Ella, normally a very shy kid, asked the staff how much and what kind of soil to buy, as well as what plants would work best in our very sunny space.

As we walked around, we also learned that berries and vegetables shouldn’t be planted together, tomatoes and peas needed cages (why?), and plant food is a thing.

We came home with tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, green beans, sugar snap peas, romaine lettuce and corn. Later, my aunt brought over some potted plants: chili peppers, lavender and strawberries, as well as some flowering succulents. She gave Ella the “proper tools for the job,” including garden gloves, shears, a new lightweight hose and other accessories.

A garden was happening, whether I liked it or not.

The simple life

Before the COVID-19 quarantine, Ella was a busy kid. She was finally figuring out how to navigate her first year of middle school while going to ballet class five days a week. She was also preparing for the Youth America Grand Prix, a (high-stress) ballet competition in New York.

Most days she’d leave the house at 8 a.m. and, except for a quick trip home to change, wouldn’t be back until after 8 p.m. She ate most meals in the car, and homework wouldn’t be finished until 10:30 or 11 p.m.

It was a lot. We knew it was too much. Every day either she cried or I cried — sometimes we both did. I knew something had to change, I just didn’t know how to slow things down.

Then, in March, everything was stopped for us.

Suddenly there was so much free time: time to sleep in, time for hot breakfast, time for graphic novels, time for Netflix. And now, time to garden.

Sprouting

I pretty much ignored the garden after that first day. As I said, I’m not good with plants, plus I had to work, make meals, clean up and do other day-to-day things.

Every morning, though, Ella diligently watered her baby vegetables and potted plants. Once, after a particularly windy day, some small, beanlike seeds fell from a nearby tree into the planter. Ella spent hours removing each seed by hand so they wouldn’t sprout and invade her vegetables.

My pale inside child was now often covered in mud, tanned and sore after using an entirely new set of muscles.

My aunt started coming over on weekends to help with the rest of the yard. She taught Ella how to remove whiteflies from the hibiscus bush and also discovered that we have a fig tree and an aloe plant in the backyard. These things all fell under Ella’s dutiful watch.

Then one evening, Ella asked me to come take a look at the garden. I hadn’t gone out to see it in weeks. But now her baby plants were tall! Tall enough for me to understand what the cages were for (otherwise they’d flop all over the place), and there were small flowers blooming everywhere.

“That’s where the vegetables will be coming in,” she explained.

Green thumbs

Something snapped in me when I saw that garden.

I’d never grown anything before, let alone food, and here my 12-year-old was tending to something that would eventually nourish her family. It was stunning. I was proud. Who knew she had the patience and skill for it?

Instead of staying inside when she went to water, I started coming outside with her. She explained which plants were her favorites (tomatoes), which ones were giving her trouble (darn sugar snap peas), and which ones were the most surprising (corn).

We also talked about things on her mind — the sadness of not seeing her friends during quarantine, the stress about online school, the many other things she’d like to accomplish on her growing list of projects (which now included a paint-by-numbers kit).

Quitting time?

Then one week, the garden sprouted so much that it could barely be contained in the planter box. The peas basically died. The lettuce was overlapping into the cucumbers. The corn was taller than us. And more beanlike seeds from the tree had fallen in.

The chaos killed Ella’s inspiration and even made her moody.

“Why did you make me get so many vegetables at the nursery,” she whined.

Instead of watering, Ella stayed inside watching TikTok videos.

But now I was the one obsessing about the vegetables. I thought about them all the time, peeking at them constantly from my bedroom window.

Ready to eat

Before the garden, when Ella and I would communicate, it was often about what needed to be done. Why wasn’t she ready? Did she have her ballet clothes? How much homework was left? Did she have enough to eat?

Now, though, we actually talk.

Instead of angrily demanding that she finish what she starts, which is what I would have done before quarantine, I told her how much I loved hanging out and learning about gardening from her, and that I hoped she felt inspired to keep going.

“You taught me enough,” I told her. “I can tend to it if you need me to step in.”

So far, though, I haven’t.

Just last week, after Ella trimmed the plants to look more orderly, we cut the first two heads of lettuce and ate them for dinner. One tomato has turned red, with dozens more popping up. The bell peppers are fattening up. We even have hope for the peas.

And as I write this, Ella just walked in from outside and plopped two beautiful, ripe figs on the table.


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