Growing Sunflowers in Quarantine

by Morgan Dykeman

Back in March, there were twenty sunflower seedlings on my kitchen floor, craning their fragile necks towards the sun dappling through the screen door. In January, before we knew how this year would fall apart, I planted their seeds in old egg cartons under a grow light in our basement. Later that spring, I would move them outside beneath a hoop house so that they could slowly acclimate to the Pacific Northwest’s lukewarm spring and be ready to find their new homes in my garden come June.

'Planting sunflower seeds in January felt like making a wish at 11:11...'

Planting sunflower seeds in January felt like making a wish at 11:11 or believing in the good will of strangers. Superstitious, but necessary. It was cold and snowy and wet and I hadn’t seen the sun in over forty days. My skin was pale-to-translucent and it was dark during most of my waking hours. As ridiculous as it felt to tuck those seeds into a warm, downy bed of damp soil at a time like that, it also felt like making an important promise to myself: the darkness won’t last forever. The cold won’t last forever. In the natural world everything has its season, and nature gives us hope in the promising renewal of spring.

Now, COVID-19 has taken all our best laid plans for the year and tossed them out the window. It feels like the apocalypse has landed, but I don’t have to tell you that. You’re living it too: back in March when doomsday predictions were coming faster than face masks and toilet paper were disappearing; in summer when we didn’t get to see our friends or family or go on those vacations we’d been saving up for. People we know are getting sick. People we love are dying.

I feel grateful to live on five acres in the woods where I can grow my own food and have my own water source, but I’m also terrified. In the United States, our public health infrastructure wasn’t ready for this. We pay exorbitant health insurance premiums up front only to pay out of pocket costs on even the most routine medical visits. Most Americans don’t have enough money saved on any given day to afford a $500 emergency expense. A hospital stay here costs much more than that, even with insurance. As our public health infrastructure crumbles, all the other systems we depend on are straining too.

'By the time election day rolled around, we’d had six months of uncertainty in all aspects of our daily life.'

We saw that strain in the chaos and doubt surrounding the Presidential election. By the time election day rolled around, we’d had six months of uncertainty in all aspects of our daily life. Are my kids going to school today? Will there be toilet paper or flour in the grocery store? Will I have a job tomorrow? Many of us thought that with the election of President-elect Biden, a clearer path out of this pandemic would appear, but at the time of writing this, President Trump has yet to concede.

Tending to sunflower seedlings in the beginning of the pandemic felt as ridiculous as it did to plant them in January. Every time I up-potted the batch, some of them died off. It was too cold outside in Spring for them to survive, so my kitchen table -- also my work space as my office closed down and I was forced to work from home -- became the impromptu greenhouse.

When I finally moved them out to the garden in June, I got the reward I’d been looking forward to all year: a field full of blooms, fresh-faced and looking towards the sun. Back in March, I thought we might be able to resume summer as usual. I imagined house parties around the bonfire, howling at the moon while the stars came out above us. I planned road trips into the woods, backpacking expeditions with friends, family get-togethers. As the virus’ spread got worse, not better, none of these plans came to fruition. But my sunflowers did.

'When I felt awash in the ebb and flow of the world tumbling down around me, I’d leave my house and walk amongst the sunflowers'

Before I cut down their fibrous stalks in September, my sunflowers peaked at 18 feet tall. Their heads were over a foot wide. Their petals were the brightest, clearest yellow I’d ever seen. When I felt awash in the ebb and flow of the world tumbling down around me, I’d leave my house and walk amongst the sunflowers, remembering what it was like to plant their tiny seeds almost a year ago.

I waited until the very last minute to cut them down. Their leaves and petals had dried up and fallen. Birds and bugs were slowly nibbling away at their skeletons. Yet, they had one more gift to give: I collected their seeds so that I could plant them yet again next year. As the United States reenters lockdown in the face of escalating COVID-19 caseloads, I’m dreaming about planting this second generation of sunflowers.

Why sunflowers? I asked myself enough times over the course of this year. When our food supplies were disrupted in early quarantine I was wishing that I’d planted squash or corn or something more sustaining. Sure, you can eat the sunflower seeds, but at the end of the day I grew them because they’re pretty, not because they’re useful. Shouldn’t I be spending more time doing apocalypse survival activities like hand sewing face masks for doctors and hoarding dry goods? Volunteering to deliver meals to home-bound seniors or organizing Zoom reunions with all my college friends?

Yes, I should do all those things, but amidst all this turmoil, the world needs beauty, too.

'Watering the sunflowers became a daily meditation for me'

Watering the sunflowers became a daily meditation for me as I paced around my house in a daily routine that has felt closer to surviving than thriving. A daily reminder that this, too, shall pass. And if it doesn’t, the world would still have the beauty these sunflowers provide. The sunflowers taught me that nature is resilient, that beauty can persist even in the most unlikely places or times. And this January, I’ll be planting them again.

Morgan Dykeman wields strength in vulnerability and an irreverent sense of humor to craft personal essays about feminism, relationships, eating disorder recovery, and life in the Pacific Northwest. She lives near Bellingham, WA with her car-enthusiast husband, senior citizen doggo, and three dozen house plants. She’s a tenacious advocate for social justice, a committed community organizer, and an irrepressible optimist. By day, she serves as a Community Liaison for a local elected official. When she’s not rallying or writing, you can find her buying more houseplants, to her husband’s great dismay.