Determination Pays Off
By Rachel Plummer | Photography by Ariel Fried
His cheeks are pink from the heat, hands dry with dirt, and his eyes squint from the hot sun peering down on him. Swatting bugs seems to be routine in his steady motion of pulling weeds. Twelve-year-old Ryder Sieh is starting his summer break like every other kid.
Except he has to tend to his garden first.
It all started three years ago with a pocketful of soybean seeds. As Ryder, then nine years old, watched his soybeans grow, the gardener within himself began to blossom. “I picked up soybeans from farmers one year and I planted them,” he says. “So, I ate the soybeans.”
His mother, Tonya O’Shea, told him there was no room in their small yard for a garden. She figured he was just a kid and he would lose interest in the subject like most kids do when they randomly start a hobby. Despite his mother’s orders, Ryder found a spot in the family’s yard to start his small secret garden, which was located in between the gazebo, the shed and the fence. He took corn seeds from the birdfeeder and packets of seeds from his mother’s closet. Every day after school he would quietly work in his garden. Ryder’s mother would question why he was always so muddy. The amount of dirt almost gave him away, he says. “That was tilling side effects.”
He had no prior gardening knowledge, he just remembered watching farmers till their soil. He could not ask for tools because his garden was forbidden. Not to be deterred, Ryder snuck a big orange hammer and used its backside to till the soil. He laid rocks and bricks down to avoid stepping on his crops. His secret garden resulted in seven plants.
“I had not a clue,” Tonya says. “He was that enthralled in it, like that adamant about it. He was gonna prove to me he could do a garden.”
The family eventually moved, and Ryder was allowed his own section of the backyard for his garden. The space is much bigger than the family had originally intended. “I just told Grandpa, a little bit more.” Ryder says. “Grandpa, a little bit more.”
This year’s garden consists of carrots, red and white onions, tomatoes, beans, strawberries, cucumbers, Lady Bell peppers, broccoli and cantaloupes. Ryder wants to help his family save money by growing fruits and vegetables. The immediate family gets first pick then the remaining vegetables and fruits go to grandparents and neighbors.
“When things come up I get excited because it looks good and I am going to get compliments from people driving by our house,” he says.
Ryder has found a new, more mature group of friends due to his gardening. He visits his neighbor Tom and they talk about everything from gardening to lawn care and pesky critters invading their yards.
“It is not normal for a 12-year-old to go talk to a neighbor about our riding lawnmower and belts that it needs, you know what I am saying,” Tonya says. “I mean you don’t hear of it.”
While pulling weeds, Ryder stomps on mole holes trying to fill them with dirt. The main culprits responsible for getting into his garden this year are the moles, but deer, raccoons and rabbits are also among his list of animal adversaries. As a defense tactic, Ryder has placed sharpened sticks and chicken wire along the garden’s perimeter. The family hovers over their mother’s phone as she looks on the Internet for different methods to catch moles. “Man, the stupid moles are crazy,” he says. “They are all over the place eating grubs, and the dumb rabbits, too.”
Like most kids his age, Ryder is always on the move, but Tonya says she will look outside and find him standing in his garden, kicking up dirt. She laughs as she describes his stance similar to an old man. Although he originally disobeyed her by starting a garden, she says he could have done something much worse. Tonya is proud of her son. Gardening makes Ryder happy, gives him self-satisfaction and keeps him out of trouble. His mother says it is a place of solace for him. If he is upset, he goes to his garden.
“I just go out there and pull out weeds really hard,” he says. “It calms me down sometimes.”
His family supports Ryder’s green thumb. If he has questions, his mother will look for answers via Pinterest. If the Internet does not provide answers, he will call his grandparents. A close bond has formed between Ryder and his grandmother Sharon because they share a common interest in gardening. She cans all the fruits and vegetables he gives her and creates dishes such as rhubarb pie, homemade tomato sauce and red hot cucumbers. The red hot cucumbers are described sweet as candy and Ryder says they are to die for. His stepfather PJ and grandfather Jay help by working in the garden. His siblings, Keghan and Alexus, contribute to the garden by eating Ryder’s produce.
His garden is more than a garden; it is a place that brings the entire family together. “I guess everybody benefits from his thoughtfulness,” Tonya says. “You really do reap what you sow.”
Rachel Plummer is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is working to obtain a journalism degree. She is unaware of where her career path will lead her, but she has an intense desire to travel the world. For the moment, she is enjoying the opportunity to be a storyteller.