Tucson, Arizona — Growing up, I believed plants were for eating. As Korean Americans living in the Midwest, we grew buchu, or garlic chives, and kkaetnip, or sesame leaves because first, they were hard to kill, and second, because they’re relatively common ingredients in Korean food.
All you had to do was mix a handful of buchu with savory pancake mix then boom, a snack. Or cut and wash a kkaetnip and boom, a wrap to eat with lunch. It also helped that both plants were relatively easy to take care of. Low commitment, yummy outcomes. What more could you want?
But little did I know how plants would become even more important to me as I entered my 20s.
Welcome to My 20s
At the beginning of my senior year at college, I lost my appetite.
I thought it was because I was stressed so I ignored it, only to find that it lasted more than a few days. But I’m a senior, I told myself, I’m supposed to stay stressed. So I didn’t do anything about it, even though every so often I was googling “Am I depressed?”
I got my first plant at my friend’s wedding as a guest gift. It was a small succulent, an echeveria to be specific. I named it Agnes, immediately bonding with the small living thing that was approximately the size of my fist. I was oddly diligent and proud of that plant, never missing Tuesdays, which I designated as watering day.
Agnes was quickly joined by Alfred, Buford, and Wilfred, whom I brought from my parents’ house in Peoria, Illinois. And then another friend gifted me a second echeveria at my chapbook reading event named Suki. I joked that I had five kids and described them in detail, like how Buford, my philodendron, was like Rapunzel and getting out of hand, but I still loved him, even as I started to lose affection for myself.
The Real World
Then I graduated and nothing happened. And the depression got worse. I moved back home and brought my five plants with me.
During a doctor’s appointment where my mother tagged along, I broke down as my doctor asked about my mental health. Afterward, I signed up for therapy. Along the way, I lost both echeverias and wondered if it was reflective of my mental health. However, my three other plants were thriving to the point that I had to split Alfred into Al and Fred, two different pots.
Then my dad got relocated to Arizona and I had to let go of my plants. Maybe this would be a good transition, I thought. I carefully vetted who would receive my plants and then decided that I’d get new ones in Arizona.
But I didn’t last in Arizona too long. I felt antsy being at home and also had a sense that if I didn’t force change, nothing would happen. At the tail end of January, I flew out to Wilmette, Illinois with the hopes of a fresh start.
Upon arriving, I quickly acquired a plant from my aunt as well as a new plant friend from the local grocery store. A new home and a new beginning meant I’d make new friends, so might as well start with some plants.
But right as I was set to start working as a barista, we went into lockdown.
How to Measure Time
As the days blurred together, I held even more tightly to my watering schedule. Saturdays became important, something to look forward to because it meant watering Edna and Margaret. I also started “growing” spring onions by placing the roots in an empty peanut butter jar.
Similar to how watering days gave a bit more definition to my weeks, my spring onions also measured time in physical ways. Witnessing the tiny stub grow to half the jar, then the full length of the jar was a simple joy and reminder that time was passing.
As the pandemic continued to rage on, I decided to fly back to Arizona and be with my parents again. I cut up the spring onions I grew and entrusted my plants to the landlords, who carefully wrote “Margaret and Edna” on the chalkboard in the kitchen.
Back in Arizona, I felt the sharp contrast in scenery more than before. The greens weren’t as deep as those from the Midwest. And though Arizona meant mountains, it also meant a landscape that looked the same all year.
It didn’t affect me too much at first, as I was more relieved to be with family. But eventually, I felt stuck again. The beautiful scenery of the mountains seemed to mock me in how unchanging it was.
So I fixed it the best way I knew how; while doing groceries, I picked up a succulent. And coincidentally, a few days later, my mom dropped off a mini poinsettia plant in my room.
Two ways to measure time, two ways to create more shape in my week.
Onwards, With Plants
Time is moving, regardless if I feel it or not. Plants help me realize that. I want to grow buchu and kkaetnip as well as other herbs while also getting more household plants because when I feel like nothing has progressed, realizing that a plant is a bit taller or that its soil is dry reminds me that yes, a week has passed.
The pandemic definitely hasn’t helped with the perception of time. It’s been especially odd for those of us in our 20s as we’re trying to figure out life without being a student and how we fit into and engage with the world.
Still, there have been ways that I’ve been reminded that this is a long road and progress requires time. Though it’s been a blur, I remember the past year through friendships new and old and accomplishments like collaborating with new friends, getting on Spotify, and publishing stories about being Asian American. And life will only continue to get blurry for me, especially as I’m applying for grad school in Korea and anticipate moving abroad in a few months.
Though I learned to lean on plants during rough mental health periods, I can still practice growing plants to manage my sense of time and remind myself to care for myself. When life gets hectic as it’s bound to, I’m glad that my early 20s taught me how I can measure time with plants.