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Growing a Phantom Green Thumb

I wanted to call myself a plant mom, but the gardens I grew up with and the garden I tried to grow did not look like the ones in movies or books.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I smelled a lot of botanical gardens. When I went last Thanksgiving, I armed myself with my sister’s Nikon D3500.

My friends armed themselves with hollow purses, tucking pineapple guavas, white sapotes, permissions into nooks. They said, “It’s not stealing if we paid to come in.”

It might be the only opportunity for us to try these expensive fruits, I thought. I did not join in their picking, nor did I try to stop them. I just watched the joy spreading across their faces. If I had my own garden, I would grow an abundance of fruit—that were expensive in supermarkets— so I could give them away. I wanted to give them this joy myself, to show that I loved them with the fruit I saved.

The botanical gardens showed the endless possibilities of what my future garden could be. It felt like window shopping. I loved the floral names, pretending I was treasure hunting for a future character, child, or car. Ficus. Magnolia. Comfrey. Just like my Mami, I dreamed of my own Garden of Eden one day: a beautiful utopia where we had enough.

My Mami tried to be a plant mom. She transformed the balcony of our third floor apartment into a garden of potted plants. It was naked when we moved in in 2006, when I was starting first grade. Over time, our little feets could not frolic on the balcony. Roaches scurrying around scared us, but Mami did not let us kill them. For good luck, she said.

While my fourth sister squirmed in a stroller and the older three of us flaunted our bowl cuts, we trailed after her in Asian farmers’ markets. Sometimes, she gave us Abraham Lincolns for sugar cane juice or boba. We bickered about who drank it last, how it was my turn. We were too young for phones, but knew where Mami always was.

Her favorite stalls reminded us of picture book jungles. Towering. Cordate leaves. Tubular flowers we have never seen. Their bright colors and good postures seemed to perform a plant pageant. We watched Mami graze the leaves like brushing water for dumpling folding with our fingers. Mami imagined each potted plant in our Los Angeles third-storied balcony. The price tags never stopped her. She strutted to the seller, her Cantonese clanky in our Mandarin ears. The sellers often were shocked we all came from the same mother. We drifted into nearby stalls, embarrassed at her aggressive bargaining voice. Then, Mami called us over. She beckoned us to hold our fourth sister’s hands as she set the giant potted plant in the stroller, into the Honda Odyssey, and through the elevator to our third floor apartment balcony.

When I was in high school, her boyfriend at the time gifted her potted dragon fruit cacti—an army of infant cuttings. Mami learned from his garden to crave abundance and self-sufficiency. Then, her balcony of smelly flowers became a garden of gnarly cacti, spiderwebs, and makeshift trellises. Mami loved them because they were easy. She threw food scraps at their bases and in the summer, our apartment balcony was the envy of all Asian immigrants.

I remembered how she screamed at Baba for forgetting to water them during her week-long disappearances to China or Fresno. Every summer, thousands of dragon fruit dangled like glistening dollars on a money tree. Our Asian neighbors grew green, begging for cuttings from her to start their own gardens. Their fruits never were as plump nor as abundant. They didn’t fill bowls of food scraps for their cacti. They didn’t demand their ex-husbands prune their plants. They did not let the roaches and spiders roam for good luck.

When I gifted her the vibrant red azaleas I thought she wanted, she sent me a video of their full bloom. Loud and rejoicing. When I came home, they were shriveled in the back of her garden. I asked her, going on leadership retreats, to babysit my panda paw and split rock succulents, but they turned black and brittle like marshmallows hovering over a bonfire where everyone was eyes closed, pounding on something.

Most people in our neighborhood, Lincoln Heights, were immigrants growing gardens. Some were lucky to find backyards and patios to transform. Some, like Mami, had balconies.

When I moved to Santa Barbara for university, I made my own greenspace to grow plants. I did not want Mami’s grotto in twisted fairy tale forests as mine. The university offered a plot of land thirty dollars a year, but I did not have the money. I had windowsill, space under stairs, and a patio—one per year. I bought my first plant child: a big beef tomato plant from Terra Sol Garden Center. Their name is Cowberry. At one point, they turned purple from root binding, but bore a tiny plump tomato which I ate on avocado toast. After transferring them into a pot for bigger soil, four flowers—the color of liquid sunlight—budded. Now in December, there are two pleasant flowers at the tip of the plant, reaching for sun.

I started to understand Mami and our immigrant neighbors more. They yearned to establish roots, having something familiar to feel like home. Only creating our gardens could bring the self-reliance, security, and pride we were looking for. Besides, I wanted to flex my prosperity, to show going to college was a worthy investment. Even if it's a little patio garden.

Wanting was the easy part. I am the kind of person to build stairs of soil in my middle school garden instead of helping out my peers water and weed the vegetables. I am the kind of person to throw away the soil our Sunday School teachers made us collect to bless the construction of the new church buildings.

It was no surprise when my old housemate, Rhett, told me his plants looked sad after I babysat them for the summer. Purple sage, money tree, lucky bamboo, and some psychedelic plants. That stung. I thought I did my best, watering them every other day, pushing them in the sunniest spot on my patio. One of the plants had trails of ants I could never get rid of and another frailed from sunscald.

“At least you didn’t kill them,” Rhett said, thinking of his previous experiences with our other old housemates.

It was also no surprise to see orange spots on the dragon fruit cacti Mami gifted me. I have never seen anything like it, so I looked on the internet. Overwatering? Fungus? Both. Botryosphaeria Dothidea grew from dampness. Neem oil was a prevention strategy, but it cost ten dollars. Copper fungicide killed the fungus but that cost eight dollars. Eight dollars for one use and then gathering dust in the supply closet.

When I came home from Thanksgiving break, my housemate, Richard, apologized, telling me one of my water rooting plants he was babysitting died.

I shrugged, “It’s okay. I can always grow another one from leftover food scraps.”

He biked with me to the food bank to expand this garden. Okra. Mint. A magenta flower.

“I don’t really do anything besides change their water so when they die, they are not really wasted. Don’t worry.”

Watching the gardening side of IG Reels and Tik Tok, I envied the gardeners who were taught how to be gardeners, who knew how to turn their passions into progress. I saw a video with a gardener mixing three types of soil for repotting a neglected plant. How did someone have money to buy three types of soil?

I wanted to make my thumb the shade of green I wanted it to be. The green where flowers got drunk. The green where neighbors brought tools to pick fruit dangling over sidewalks, where spring grew thunderous of bees.

I signed up for a horticulture internship a friend recommended and tried to connect with the CEO of a company that grew chocho, a protein-packed plant in Ecuador, who spoke at our environmental studies program’s 50th anniversary. He offered to form an internship just for me to write blog posts, recipes, and information on environmentalism for his company. He even wanted to play tennis to meet again. Then, COVID hit. I applied to another garden internship in the summer but missed their “we like your application and want to interview” email and they stopped hiring. I felt the world did not want me to go into the food growing industry, so I dipped my feet in the food writing world. It was easier to talk about consumption—taking rather than giving. But I am desperate to be a real gardener, one where I knew the resources to solve plant problems. I signed up to take a food agricultural environmental class next quarter, taught from a professor I met at the 50th anniversary. I prayed to the gods that the class does not get cancelled.

But for now, I am learning from my patio garden. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer encourages us to pay attention to plants because plants are teachers. My water-rooting plants taught me there are consequences in falling out of healthy habits like forgetting to water them creates a quiet, dirty environment for mold to prosper. The roots curling around the sweet potato pot—a repurposed plastic container that used to house Costco vodka popsicles—taught me that everything growing needs more space.

“Did you see my garden yet?” I asked Mami, every time she visited.

I gave her a teeny Big Beef tomato from Cowberry, the size of my thumb. A gift of gratitude. This charming ball was a survivor, who persisted among the plants root-bound, sun-bleached, infested. My pride and joy.

I started to feel wealthy like how my friends’ Asian moms seemed to feel whenever they gave surplus lemons, guavas, and starfruit to me. Giving the taste of my favorite foods to my friends and family without paying the values standardized by strangers made these struggles worth it. I started to feel my green thumb as mine for the first time and there was room for it to grow.

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