Gleaning the sunflowers: How not to fail at gardening

By Mark E. Griffin | May 18, 2023

  • The lone sunflower grown by Mark Griffin and his daughter in their backyard. (Photo by Mark Griffin)

The lone sunflower grown by Mark Griffin and his daughter in their backyard. (Photo by Mark Griffin)

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Gardening season is upon us. For people blessed with a green thumb, this is their moment to shine…they’re putting in the work now to reap the rewards later. For others, the idea of planning a garden bed is daunting, especially if you have bad track record for keeping plants alive. But as Mark Griffin tells us, there is hope for the most unskilled gardeners.


For most of my adult life, one general principle allowed me to sow the seeds of doubt in my own head about the prospects of raising a child. It went like this: if I am unable to keep a plant in my charge alive for a reasonable amount of time, should I really be trusted with a more complex organism?

Well, then I had one, and learned to love in a new way. Still, a haunted past with plants is tough to shake.

It started with the silver inch plant my freshman year of college – it turns out you have to water them!

Then, I accidentally killed my life partner’s favorite ficus by leaving it outside overnight in sub freezing temps.

Turns out plants don’t like that! More recently, I’ve treated other house plants to spider mites and scale.

So when we inherited raised beds in our new backyard, it was not carelessness or lack of urgency that led to the perfectly supple dirt going fallow for almost three years.

I simply did not want to let another innocent piece of greenery die by my hands.

So, last spring, as my daughter neared the ripe old age of four, I sought redemption. If not for my sake, then for hers. Dada can learn new things, too, right?

So, I sent away for sunflower seeds and, when they arrived, I placed them in the Bowl of Stuff in the kitchen.

Then they sat there.

And sat.

Towards the end of June, I had a notion: how about we plant these things? On a warm Saturday morning, the intrepid child and I dug out a raised bed to bury some seeds in the ground.

Then, I looked at my girl and imagined our future. People would come from all over to take Instagram photos in our backyard amongst rows and rows of giant sunflowers, holding their babies up, posing with their wedding parties, complete with honey bee photobombs.

We would become the pride of the neighborhood, and I would be redeemed.

Weeks went by, and the weeds thrived. But then, I saw three chutes appear,

Just days later, in one fell swoop, a rabbit took out two out of the three of them, allowing but a single sunflower to remain.

Eventually and miraculously, the sunflower unfolded to reveal a perfect circle of seeds surrounded by deep yellow petals, waving at us from across the yard.

I pointed it out to the Kiddo, who was amused, but approached the whole thing with a different, confident attitude: “Of course the flower bloomed,”

The sunflower in Mark Griffin's backyard begins to sag as the summer rolls along. (Photo by Mark Griffin)

The sunflower in Mark Griffin’s backyard begins to sag as the summer rolls along. (Photo by Mark Griffin)

Then, as the summer waned, the sunflower slowly lost its vigor. The petals dreadlocked, while the stem, as tall as the child who planted it, just started, kinda, leaning over.

It was time.

In one unceremonious hack, I decapitated my summer creation, then let it sit out on our porch where it was pillaged by the neighborhood squirrel. In full mockery, It did leave a single seed, that I then placed in the kitchen bowl with the other household jetsam.

Until the first rays of spring appeared again. This year, I think I’ll take a different tack in choosing this year’s crop.

Maybe it’s time for this dad to look a little closer through the eyes of his daughter, whose breezy focus on the positive comes more naturally than her predecessor. This year, *she’ll* be in charge of the garden, cultivating stronger yields to be reaped in the brisk winds of next season’s harvest. No photos allowed.



“For Those In Peril” by Ronald Hanmer

“Hackney Carriage” by King Palmer

“Lambs In Clover” by Jack Strachey

“Sunflower” by Neil Diamond

Mark Griffin

Mark E. Griffin

Mark E. Griffin is a storyteller who writes about science, nature, and any other places in life where discovery occurs. He lives in Madison with his life partner and daughter.

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