With a fan-dominated online campaign, BTS fans grow a global garden.
Ankita Singh has taken up gardening, and she credits the leader of Korean pop group BTS for inspiring her to take up the new hobby. Ankita’s father has always been into gardening, but she wasn’t interested until she realized that one of her favorite musicians, Kim Namjoon, cares for plants of his own. Since the pandemic, planting has brought Ankita closer to her father, who has become something of a Namjoon fan himself. The Singhs, who live in West Bengal, India, now have a tradition to plant something new for every birthday in their family – and the birthdays of all seven members of Namjoon’s group, possibly the most famous band in the world right now, BTS. It’s an ethos that led Ankita to suggest all fans grow trees or plants in honor of Namjoon this past April, a campaign that’s been revived for his September 12 birthday on a grander scale.
Bangladeshi BTS fan Tanisha Tahrin unknowingly picked up the baton, suggesting back in July that in honor of Kim Namjoon’s 27th birthday on September 12, his fans grow trees and flood the internet with photos of the virtual garden. Some fans will start on his birthday, while others have been caring for their plants in advance at home, documenting their progress on social media, using #NamuForNamu (and a few others like #NamuForJoonie, and #NamuForNamjoon) playing on the first consonant of Namjoon’s given name, Namu, which is the Korean word for tree.
Celebrating members’ birthdays is par for the course in K-pop fandom, and ARMY – the name BTS’s fans have given themselves – are legendary for their commitment. Armies circulate goals for members’ birthdays, changing social media avatars, hitting major music sales and streaming landmarks, taking out ads in prominent public locations or media outlets, and even donating thousands of dollars to charities that align with the band members’ values.
For BTS’s leader Kim Namjoon, who also goes by the stage name RM, that means going to art museums, putting an out-of-print book on the bestseller list, and growing plants. He talks about the way caring for his plants inspires him in his work during interviews. Fans have seen even more of this passion since the pandemic, with Namjoon caring for his plants during a music video and the band’s quarantine TV show in the Korean countryside. We spoke with more than a dozen Armies via email, Zoom call, WhatsApp, and Twitter, and nearly all of them talked about Namjoon’s love of the natural world as a key trait – and the direct impact it had on their own pursuit of the hobby.
Miniq Foronda, an Army in her thirties from Quezon City, Philippines says, “His appreciation of nature reminds me of his humanity.” That is to say, it makes the rapper and music mogul feel like a real person to his fans. “Namjoon – and BTS as a whole – is a very popular artist, a global star. Yet he enjoys the simplest of things like being one with nature.” Miniq continues, “It just feels like he’s supposed to be so out of reach, but you can connect with him through a common love of nature.”
She’s not alone in framing the Seoul, Korea-based producer and songwriter as a conduit to a deep appreciation of nature, and vice versa. Mehak, a teenage fan from Delhi, India, confessed that she’s afraid to touch plants because of her fear of bugs, especially spiders. She has braved that fear to grow a curry plant in honor of Kim Namjoon.
To be clear, BTS and their company, HYBE, are not part of this campaign or others like it (a group in India donated to a tree-planting organization and planted saplings in his honor back in 2019.) BTS members often acknowledge various efforts – and effusively thank ARMY in general – on their official social media channels, especially on the app WeVerse or on live broadcasts on the app VLive. However, the campaign is a community-based, fan-run initiative, and one of several for RM’s birthday alone – which might make it all the more impressive.
As Sneha Mohis from Howrah, India, puts it, “Now with BTS, we are all trying to organize ourselves a little bit, wanting to exchange a little joy. When I saw the trend, I thought ‘I have such a big garden, [I’ll] share it with everyone and see if anyone feels motivated.’”
Many Armies learned about plants and gardening from an older relative like a parent or grandparent, but didn’t join in on the hobby until they became fans of BTS and Kim Namjoon. Like Ankita, it has brought them closer together. Eingel Calayag, an Army from Navotas City, Philippines, who is attending a college in Spain, gardens to honor her late grandmother, who also loved plants. “I am deeply rooted in continuing this hobby,” she says. “A part of her is kept alive while I keep her garden alive.”
Others are more experienced, like Miniq, who started gardening a year ago, thanks to a fan event celebrating Namjoon’s previous birthday. “I’ve been buying and propagating since. The fruit trees, we’ve had for a while. But the vegetables and herbs we started planting a little after the pandemic happened, and we were all forced to stay at home due to the lockdowns.”
For gardeners like Mehak, tending to edible plants is practical: “It can be used in day-to-day life.” The same can be said for @MistressOfKTH, an over-30 fan from Jakarta, Indonesia who asked to be referred to by her twitter handle (not uncommon in fandom communities). “I always bought my meals (junk food), but since the pandemic, I started to cook my own meals, in which I can eat more vegetables. I never did plant or garden before, but since I buy vegetables, there are some of them which can grow by themselves.”
The participants reflect the fandom at large: generally young (though more over thirty than one might expect, including this writer), diverse, global, and hyper-social-media-savvy. This isn’t the first time ARMY has tried to make the world a better place; see last summer’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter match BTS’s own donation. Some Armies, like Twitter user @MistressOfKTH, specifically look for fan campaigns related to social issues. Fans like Ankita and Sam, an Indian high school student, loved the idea of a birthday campaign that Armies with less disposable income (including students) could participate in.
Many fans hope to help the planet, or at least their corner of it. An early tweet about the concept shared a screenshot that said if BTS told their followers to plant trees, climate change would be over. As Sneha, who learned to care for trees from her parents, puts it, “Plant trees, save lives.” College student Mella, from Bodhgaya, India, says. “I thought about the earth and ecosystem and my natural kindness came out.” Tanisha, whose viral Tweet kicked off this iteration of the campaign, offers an important reminder: “We should plant trees always. Not only for Namjoon’s birthday project. Trees always save us. Always protect us from various natural disasters. So we should plant trees, more and more.”
For some, tending to another living thing has a calming effect – the same one that the musician they’re honoring has spoken about. When discussing why they garden, several armies brought up the same fan-favorite Kim Namjoon quote: “I always look at [my plant] and think, ‘You work so hard, I should do the same.'”
Bhavana, a software engineer from Nagpur, Maharashtra in India says, “Gardening helped me to find my peace of mind.”
While some have struggled with figuring out how much to water or other questions, all intend to keep gardening, and even trying more ambitious planting projects. Multiple armies expressed that they want a bonsai, including Mehak, who has overcome her fear of spiders: “I really want to plant some Bonsai and flower plants in my home to raise them and give unconditional love, because I’ve heard when we grow a plant like these, we just get attached to it so much as if it is our family. I’ve seen that too, Namjoon loves his plants so much and I really want to try that.”
Eingel, the college student in Spain, offers this advice: “The biggest part about taking care of plants, especially for a beginner like me, is knowing the needs of each plant you want to grow. The way we tend plants is like how we tend people. They have different needs, and you must grow accustomed to being familiar with each one. Otherwise, you might not be able to take care of them properly.”
Regardless of where in the world Armies live, what language they speak, how much money they have, how long they’ve been fans of BTS, or how much experience they have gardening, caring for plants has brought so many of them together, and gives them a common bond with one of their favorite musicians.
BTS fans can register their gardens with the Million Gardens Movement here, to join a global community sowing seeds of change.
Eingel, who has taken up gardening in their twenties, offers gratitude and encouragement to others considering the hobby: “I am so thankful for BTS, especially Kim Namjoon, because without them, I would not have finally taken this opportunity to hone my skills in planting right now. I would have probably postponed it to a later time in my life.” She says, “If BTS was able to get me to get my hands dirty for the beautification and preservation of the nature around us, they can do it with just about anybody.”