I’d like to share with you a story of success. Not to sound flippant, but you know that feeling you get when it seems your child is slipping into a pit of despair?
Yeah, so do I.
For me it’s panicky and helpless. My best efforts fruitless at reversing their course knowing that my role is to support from the edge; theirs to lift themselves up and out. Many families in my circle have had this experience as their kids have transitioned to distance learning in these pandemic times. Ours among them.
This is why right now, as the academic year begins again, I am sharing our story of turning a certain distance learning induced Despair Pit into a Peak Life Experience.
Certainly there must be children who are thriving with Zoom-based school, which is absolutely wonderful. My hunch tells me many are not. That many are struggling to stay joyful, eager learners that feel connected to their community. That their families are struggling to keep them engaged with the hard slog of school at home.
My hope is that this story will inspire families to be on the lookout for pivot points. To notice when a small shift might make a big difference. To feel as excited about these magical, teachable moments as their kids are. Here is our story . . .
The Boy Who Was Saved By a Plant Sale
Fog, Flowers, and Friday the 13th
“Wow, I can’t believe how lucky we are to be here, TOGETHER, enjoying our forest, our yard, our garden!”
For a week or two this naive exclamation leapt from our lips. We felt lucky to kick off our mandated pandemic response with work and play from a home we love. It was mid-March 2020 in far northern California’s coastal fog belt, yet a stretch of eerily blue skies and bursting spring blooms eased our family’s transition to what would become our new normal of sheltering at home. When you are accustomed to overcast skies and perennial temps hovering around 61˚F, actual sunshine warming fragrant lilac blooms is intoxicating. This must have been partially to blame for our naivete.
As quickly as it had arrived, the staycation vibe began to disintegrate as the ubiquitous fog rolled back in and the reality of the world’s situation continued to decline. This sobering mix chased us out of our sun hats and back indoors with its chilly marine mist and permeating anxiety. With more time inside, a refocus on responsibilities and proper schoolwork returned. Simple requests of our eight-year-old (Can you please wash your hands before eating? Help your baby brother with his jacket? Read for 20 minutes?) catalyzed a reaction we had rarely seen in our generally even-keeled son Sylas. A moaning, flailing, feet-slapping, sob-scream that refused to be mellowed by any balm but time.
Nothing sparked a visceral kid-fit like asking him to engage in schoolwork. To his defense, the most freakish Friday the 13thever (March 13th, 2020 – the day school campuses closed in California and much of the United States) was also the conclusion of his first week at a new school. He was now—in essence—a boy without a country. He had one foot in his old school and another testing the waters of a new school community.
Where did he belong? And how to engage with a new group of kids and teachers as they Zoomed into our living room? As the distance learning progressed, each meeting reinforced his discomfort. To witness the rapid downward spiral of your child’s emotional well-being is terrifying. To see it triggered by school when both you and your husband are teachers feels like water running through your fervently cupped hands. Our boy had somehow slipped into a dark hole of despair.
Even on the toughest days, with thick fog holding us inside, we would inevitably creep outdoors—because we all found fewer struggles there. With a redwood forest to explore, a yard to roam, and gardens in which to putter we were grateful indeed. It was in said garden where we unearthed a moment—a pivot. We picked up the wafting scent of a paradigm shift.
When gardening with kids a certain amount of loss is to be expected. You pull weeds; they “help” by uprooting freshly emerged carrot sprouts. You try every trick to preserve a small harvest of blueberries from consumption by birds and chipmunks; they just eat them green. You pick choice flowers for a bouquet; they harvest the entire plant.
To defend our plants, we talk about them as though they are close friends or extended family. “Do you think the fuchsia likes it when you pick all her flowers to push in your wagon? Let’s be Plant Protectors and look for flowers she has already dropped instead!” Being Plant Protectors is an important job, and the plants show their thanks by producing bountiful fruits, flowers, and veggies.
With this mindset, my eldest son and I set about finding space for planting in a favorite garden bed gone rogue. The burst of quarantine kickoff sunshine produced a small forest of Calendula seedlings which now covered all available real estate. As Plant Protectors we couldn’t just turn them under! We knew a few friends who would like to add some to their gardens, so a half dozen or so pots of seedlings were assembled—hardly a dent in the thriving three-inch-tall forest.
The moment. The pivot. The hint of a shift.
Mom, what if we saved these Calendulas by potting them up and finding them new homes with more people?
We certainly could do that. But how will you find them new homes?
I know! I could have a PLANT SALE!
And just like that a new project—rich with excitement, ambition, anticipation, purpose, and learning opportunities—was born. I had reservations about an event that would bring humans together during a pandemic, but I figured we could find creative workarounds. How could I staunch this ray of light sneaking through our cloud cover? Sylas jumped at the pursuit of starting his own little plant nursery and, like a banana slug on a kale leaf, he pulled himself back into the sunshine.
Soon other plants that needed new homes were discovered in our Spring Garden Cleanout. The peppermint and spearmint were invading everywhere they could. The parsley bed was so crowded that all the plants seemed to merge into one. And little bushy lemon balms were popping up in the most random places—even under the porch steps.
In just a few days, the limiting factor of our 8-year-old‘s burgeoning plant nursery was the lack of containers for transplanting. We had exhausted our stash and also every possible pot-ish piece of recycling including sour cream and yogurt tubs, nori snack trays, a random to-go cup, and a coffee bag – creative reuse at its finest!
What we didn’t realize at this juncture was how the plant nursery was on the verge of extending our reach beyond our quarantine bubble—ushering us towards reconnection with our beloved community and helping us all feel rooted once again. It began with a simple Facebook post accompanied by a photo of a Nancy’s sour cream container brimming with Calendula sprouts:
My *budding* entrepreneur has been hard at work in the garden saving and separating little plants with the hopes of having a sale soon at the end of our driveway. I’m out of every imaginable pot though! Any local peeps have a stash of yogurt containers, etc. waiting to be repurposed they’d like to donate?
We were flooded with pots. And inquiries:
Is that parsley? My garden needs parsley!
Exactly when is this sale?
Can we see his plant list?
This was getting real!
People left pots in bags for us hanging on their gates, stacked by their mailboxes, or at our doorstep. On one donation reclamation mission to retrieve more pots we found ourselves awestruck in a garden of a friend. She invited us for a tour and as we walked we were inspired by her ability to maximize every available nook in the small space between cottage and adjacent forest edge. In addition, her love of creating tiny, inviting spaces for garden leprechauns to “visit” was enchanting. I could see the wheels turning in Sylas’s head. As a botanist and science teacher I adore plants, but my actual gardening skills are amateur. Standing in the immaculate garden sanctuary of a skilled gardener lit a fire in our boy and his gardening dreams gained detail – grayscale replaced with technicolor.
Head whizzing, wagon full of hand-me-down hay and black 4” pots, we headed for home in high spirits. The buzz of connection, despite the awkwardness of making friendly small talk with fellow humans six feet apart wearing cloth masks, made us a dizzy kind of happy.
Supply and Demand
With a few weeks of separating, potting, and tending plants under our belts Sylas felt ready to set the official date of his Plant Sale: May 16. A Saturday. “End of are driveway.” His poster was posted—along with a list of available plants—and something that hadn’t occurred to us flooded in: Pre-orders! This project rapidly turned into a basic business skills course with spreadsheets to keep track of the who’s and the what’s. And with a complimentary delivery option to cut down on what I feared may be too many cars to fit at the end of our driveway while maintaining social distancing protocol, also the where’s.
Orders were recorded and inventory assessed. Demand was high and supply was not low, but also not high. As we scavenged for more plants to pot two things became clear:
- Gardening feels good. During this time of quarantine we are not the only ones seeking solace in the garden. Nurseries are sold out of starts and supplies. People with more free time at home than they may have ever had, combined with an underlying sense of anxiety concerning food acquisition, are turning attention towards home gardens like our generation has never seen. These plants were in demand.
- People want to support children right now however they can. While adjusting to pandemic life is challenging for all of us in one or many ways, the consensus is its especially difficult for children. Pulled from their schools, their friends, their emotionally stabilizing sense of routine, and substituting it all with Zoom meetings does not fill the holes even though teachers are trying with all their hearts to do so.
As the plant sale momentum continued to build, a friend extended her gloved hand of support and offered to have Sylas rescue volunteers from her gardens. Another afternoon was spent in another magical garden, connecting in real life—from a safe distance—with another human beyond the quarantine container of our immediate family. What a joy! And what good fortune that our boy could now add chives, borage, and motherwort to his inventory.
“Plant Sale Ahed”
The night before the Plant Sale neither Sylas nor I slept well. We were just too excited! Sylas is the type of person who wants to be early, if not the first, to arrive at anything and everything. When he rose at dawn ready for the big day he asked if we could start the plant sale early, even though he chose the times. But you know what? This is when you grab your mug of tea and say, “Sure kid, let’s do this thing.”
With every available inch in our old pickup crammed with plants, tables, and signs, Sylas scrunched himself into a ball to fit in the passenger seat. We rolled slowly up our long gravelly drive, through our beloved redwood forest laden with an ominous and blustery morning mist, and unloaded box after box of adoptable plants at the top.
We unfurled tables and he organized plants by type. We set up a Sanitation Station with hand sanitizer and thank you notes to greet customers. As he finished hanging the cardboard “Plant Sale Ahed” sign his first customer pulled up with a smile and a wave. All in perfect timing, my son. And right after her, another, another, and another.
After 20 minutes, in what we thought was just our typical fog, rain began to pelt us with big, cold drops. While not expected until late afternoon it had arrived in a hurry and with vigor. It dumped and we got drenched. I kept Sylas on a steady drip of hot cocoa and his spirits stayed high. I thought for sure the rain would keep people on their sofas, cuddled up by the hearth – there was the complimentary delivery service after all! But customers were eager to interact and pick up additions for their gardens (at exceptionally reasonable prices, mind you). They came in droves. Some offered to buy the whole lot, but our green businessman thought it best to save supply for others. Regardless, after a few hours we were soaked to the bone and bordering on a complete sell out, so we chose to close up shop a tad early and warm up by our own hearth carrying with us the satisfying feeling of success.
One of the hard things about communicating while wearing masks is missing facial expressions. However, we could tell through the rain and inconvenience (our home is not exactly on the beaten path) people were smiling under their masks and feeling uplifted by participating in the fruition of a child’s vision. Some even brought small gifts like cuttings, seeds, and more pots to help the burgeoning plant nursery business. The friend who builds magical hangouts for her garden leprechauns brought a beautiful book about doing the same. And though our masked chit chat was awkward, and our social skills rusty after being in such isolation leading up to this moment, Sylas felt remarkably comfortable talking with adults about the plants they were “adopting.” And I couldn’t help but notice how nearly all adults asked the same question:
“So, whatcha saving up for?”
Despite my eyes being the only visible part of my face, I’m sure anyone could have felt this mama’s heart beaming with both relief and joy when hearing her son’s answer:
“A greenhouse. I want to grow more plants.”