Gardening with ME: facing some hard facts

Helianthus ‘Velvet Queen’

It’s never easy when something is staring you in the face that you are doing your best to ignore. It doesn’t matter where you turn, it’s there telling you it’s time to face some hard facts. The fact is my ME is getting worse, not better. The fact is if I want to recover, I need to give more things up so I can rest a lot more. The fact is, I simply cannot garden with ME as I have been in the last year.

Of course, it’s not just gardening of which I’ve still been doing too much. It’s other things too, such as trying to study, long-distance, for my bookkeeping certificate, helping my partner set up our new company, Zukini, as a platform to launch his video-editing Mac software, the day-to-day life stuff (from having a shower to paying bills and doing housework) and of not pacing out more carefully time spent with friends. It’s very hard when you are enjoying the company of friends to stop and say “I have to go and lie down for an hour”.

Climbing French Beans waiting to be picked (I’d already picked c. 2 kg prior to this)

Stopping gardening altogether is not an option. No gardening, what’s the point of life?! So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to continue gardening, but on at a further reduced level. I’ve come up with the following plan:

Paying someone to help me with the gardening: this I’ve already started, with a lovely guy, Chris, who isn’t a gardener per se, but is interested and willing. It’s only short term as he is looking for a full-time job (he is a chemist PhD), so I’m trying to make the most of him whilst I can. He has got lots done, from weeding and mowing to adding well-rotted manure and compost to the beds and planters in readiness for spring bulbs and garlic. The latter is so I don’t have to do any preparation at all, just push the bulbs and cloves in to the soil, which is the easy part.

Helenium ‘Lemon Queen’

Rethinking what needs doing: following on from making the most of Chris, I’ve made a very long list of tasks that need doing and am carefully prioritising these. Anything heavy or requiring physical strength is on top of the list, such as moving manure around, putting up more wire for my Morello Cherry espalier. This also means that I got him to pick all the climbing french beans, then take down all the canes etc at the start of October, even though they were still producing. The beans came out early so that the beds can be prepared for planting of spring bulbs.

Courgettes are fairly easy to grow with little maintenance besides watering and an occasional feed.
A good Spoonie Veg.

Cutting back on what vegetables I plan to grow next year: I’m working on a list of Spoonie Veg*, that is, vegetables that don’t need too much attention and are easy to grow and maintain for people with chronic health conditions like ME. I hope to blog about this in more detail over winter. To give you a quick flavour:

In: garlic, dwarf broad beans, dwarf french beans, peas, spinach/chard, beetroot, parsnips, carrots, courgettes and pumpkins. Except for garlic, I’ll be growing less of each next year, compared to what I grew this year.

Out: tomatoes, most brassicas (except kohl rabi and maybe kale), climbing french beans (the extra work putting up the canes), potatoes, aubergines and sweetcorn.

I’m reducing how many beds will be for vegetable production, and I will be throwing in some annual wildflowers and a few perennials for interest, but requiring little work, in that space.

Spoonie Veg example (below): Brassicas in cages to left in the dark (the angle of the sun, not normally in the dark), and to the right. Brassicas can be quite a bit of work, from setting up cages to protect them from pests, to ongoing maintenance over a long period of time. Not a good Spoonie Veg. In the middle bed there are some young Kohl Rabi plants. These seem to survive pests much easier and are low maintenance, so a good Spoonie Veg.

Accepting that the perennial borders might not always get well looked after: one of the reasons I stopped doing End of Month View a couple of months ago, is that my Long Shady Border was getting literally no attention from me and it was looking pretty messy and un-weeded. I just had no time to maintain it, as what little energy I had was focused on the vegetables. In some ways, this is where growing hardy perennials comes into their own, as they can manage for a time without too much attention. Most of the plants were in good health, some starting to take over(!), but the border was looking scraggly, the weeds getting bigger and and any thoughts about editing some sections were out of the question. Although I’m cutting down on the veg growing next year, I need to accept that I cannot go and use that ‘spare’ energy on the perennials. No, I have to do less, a lot less, and the point is to cut back. The perennial borders may continue to be scraggly. So be it.

Right: Actaea simplex (Atropurpurea Group) ‘Brunette’ in the Long Shady Border

Severe reduction in plant buying: this is going to be really hard, but I’m setting a rule that I cannot buy any new plants until any previously purchased plants have been planted out. In fact, I really need to stop plant buying and focus my limited energy (spoons!) on the maintenance of what I already have. Easier said than done though. It’s so hard to stop buying more plants. There is so much pretty out there.

Future garden help: in the long term, I’d like to find an experienced gardener that can help out say once a month, but I will worry about that next year.

After the Climbing French Beans have been removed (thanks Chris)

Overall, my aim it to try to continue to garden with ME but on a much smaller scale. I have to accept there will be weeks where little, if anything, gets done. I’m trying hard psychologically to be ok with this, which isn’t easy, as I’m sure you can imagine. But I need to face the hard facts as they are. If I want to be able to continue to garden in the future, I need to look after my health now.

* * * * *
*Spoonie comes from Spoon Theory, by Christine Miserandino. Her website But you don’t look sick explains it fully. For a simple introduction, I recommend Suzy Coulson’s How will I use my spoons today poster (right). I have c. 15 spoons a day and might use some of them thus:
  x1 spoon getting up
  x3 spoons shower
  x2 spoons x 3 for breakfast, lunch & dinner
That’s 10 spoons already.

I welcome your thoughts and comments. And if you blog about gardening with ME/a chronic illness, do link to this post in your blog and leave a comment below with a link to your post, so we can all find each other.

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  Gardening with ME: then and now
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9 thoughts on “Gardening with ME: facing some hard facts”

  1. I have been dealing with chronic stress this year, and I love the spoons analogy – there just aren't enough spoons to do everything I need to do, let alone anything I want to do. Ryan and I designed the garden partly with the assumption that there would be periods like that every so often, and that it needed to be able to take care of itself for weeks at a time without becoming a jungle.

    It sounds as though the choices you're making (although hard) are realistic, so I hope they give you the space you need to heal. I'm right behind you with "buying less plants" – a very painful necessity!

  2. I find spoonie theory quite useful for helping me think through what is realistic. Sounds like you've also done the right thing with the design of your new garden. You'll really appreciate it on the hard days.

    Buying less plants – a painful necessity indeed.

  3. I'm so sorry you are getting worse, but very glad that you have realised this and are taking steps. I know only too well how hard some of these choices are, one of the most helpful things I ever read in my worst days of ME was "Ironing? Forget it, a waste of your limited energy". And that from a GP specializing in ME!! Your list of veg that you still plan to grow looks very sensible, though I would add that, if you could find a way to get someone to put in some permanent plant supports in your raised beds, you could still grow French and runner beans, not to mention mange-tout etc, with very little bother, and add in some sweet peas for fragrance and a boost to the spirits. I also found that if you plant potatoes in individual holes, like bulbs, and pile on loads of e.g. grass clippings or just mulch (get somebody else to do it for you), then they are a trouble free crop and easy to harvest in a raised bed.

    The plant-buying rule is a hard one to stick to but it really does help, I had the same one, if I didn't already have a space made for it I couldn't buy it. It stopped me having to watch plants dying because I was too ill to get them in the ground because there was so much to do before I could get to that bit!

    Hang in there, and try and lose as many of the tedious and repetitive tasks as possible, saving your energy for the ones that feed your soul.

  4. PS I found that I had to get rid of anything that had a deadline attached. I found it almost impossible to rest when it meant I wasn't going to meet a deadline for something. Losing the boom-bust and rebuilding your resilience might mean some painful choices in the short term, but trust me, in the medium to long term it puts you back in charge of your life, albeit one reshaped by the necessity of managing your ME. Good luck!


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