Getting dirty

I drone on endlessly about being in nature. The scientifically proven benefits are well-known. The personal stories are countless. While much hasn’t been said about how people with chronic medical conditions and pain can easily incorporate nature-based activities into their daily lives, we should be an important part of the conversation.

I’ve touched on the beauty of hiking (even just walking or laying) in nature as a hobby. How about something simpler? Something that can be done in the middle of the wilderness or in a tiny studio apartment… gardening! When I use to hear the word “gardening”, my brain went to images of elderly women clipping roses in a perfectly manicured yard. I had no interest in it. Even though I loved the outdoors and grew up in a very rural area, gardening felt so confined. It sounded both boring and like an activity that required perfection. But I’m here to tell ya, it’s actually pretty awesome.

Let’s look at gardening as an umbrella term. Have one struggling fern in your living space? Gardening! Propagating a windowsill full of herbs? Gardening! A courtyard with a few neglected planters or one full of as many varieties of plants as you can fit in the walls? Gardening! Or my current situation, a house with an overwhelming front and back yard? Definitely gardening!

There is something incredibly satisfying about watching a plant grow. Knowing you have a hand in its lifecycle solidifies that connection. I’m starting slow on my projects, but I’m already seeing some results.

I’ve got a few vegetables, heaps of herbs, as well as some new ornamental flowers and bushes out this year. It took quite a bit of time to get all of these things going. I mostly planted from starts to give me (and them) the best chance. All of my edibles are in planters to help mitigate weeds. I planted items that are known to do well in my climate. I only have one indoor plant because I have a limited amount of energy and I’d rather it be spent outdoors. Everything I’ve chosen to do has been low-cost and low-effort.

Gardening while navigating a broken body can be complicated. Okay. Not “can be”. It is complicated. I get mad at myself when I can’t achieve my gardening goals. I should be more patient and forgiving with myself, but that level of peace is a process. When I speak to my unbroken friends about how their bodies feel after gardening, I’m brought back to reality. Most of us are over 30 years old. Besides the chronic physical issues, age is a huge factor in how we feel after gardening. A sore back, tight hips, tired feet/legs, and aching hands are common complaints across the board. 

So, what are some of the best ways to cope with and navigate gardening? Weeding has been the most aggravating to my symptoms. I tend to change positions often. I’ll be bending over at the waist, then move to a squat, stand back up and continuously switch my legs into a lunge position, finally throwing in a full sit down and scoot along the ground. With both migraines and gastroparesis, bending over at the waist is a bit of a recipe for disaster. That position works best for me when I have an empty stomach and no budding headache. Using a sharp spade helps with pulling weeds and digging small holes. Buying gardening tools that feel comfortable in your hands and do most of the work is key. Sharp and light shears, strong rakes and shovels, ergonomic watering cans, a gardening kneepad and stool on wheels are all helpful.

Any plants that need a hole dug in the ground, I make sure to do only one in a day. Mowing the lawn comes with breaks. I take a seat between rows to mitigate symptoms from POTS and nerve pain. Cutting branches and pruning plants are chores that I save for my best days. It takes strength, time, and concentration to do that task well. You know your body. Listen to your symptoms and keep track of which actions cause flares. On my worst days, I just look at the plants. If I have the energy I’ll walk over and do a visual inspection of them. I’m one of those people who occasionally talks to my plants. Sitting on my porch or laying looking out the window brings a smile to my face. If my body is broken for an unusually extended period of time, I let things go. After all, it is just a garden. Nature is spectacular at taking charge when humans step back. A few more weeds or a missed harvest isn’t worth stressing over. Plus, knowing that there is always work to do in the garden is a motivator. I know that it makes me happy to be out there. When I’m sick, I can’t wait to step onto the dirt again.

Hopefully, this little love letter to gardening sparks your interest. You can start your nature obsession with a single plant and a spray bottle. Find a flower that makes you smile or an herb that you love to use in your cooking. Succulents take almost no upkeep. Resources about caring for any plant you can imagine are ubiquitous online. There are so many ways to garden that will fit into your chronic symptom life. There doesn’t need to be anything overwhelming or perfect about it. This spring and summer we deserve to have fun, smile more, and get dirty.

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