It is often said that gardening brings a myriad of health benefits, both mentally and physical but what if your health is such that anything – even just sitting outside in the sun – is an energy-zapping, rather than an energy-giving thing? That is what this column is all about – how to garden as a disabled person.
Or rather, gardening with my particular kind of disability: an invisible one. I have ME/CFS and POTS, conditions that affect everything I do, and that are similar to ‘Long Covid’ in their range of symptoms. As a result of them I’ve had to give up my job as an academic, and gardening has quickly filled the gap left by that – or rather, it has done so slowly, over many years, some of which I spent bed bound in darkness and silence, unable to tolerate light or sound.
As I came out of my hibernation (as I like to think of it now), gardening beckoned, and while it hasn’t ‘healed’ me, it has changed the way we live for the better. The rhythms of the garden really suit me now – when the plants slow down, so do I, and when they just sit there soaking up sun, so do I.
I can’t speak for all disabled people obviously, but my range of symptoms mean that I have both physical and cognitive impairments, and they really affect the way I garden. Our paths, for example, are much wider than they need to be, because I might get dizzy with no notice and will need to sit down there and then – and they’re also wide enough to accommodate a rollator/walker, or holding my partner’s arm when I have no energy to get back inside on my own. It’s a small thing, having wider paths – and something that visitors to the garden don’t necessarily notice – but it makes a big difference in how easily I’m able to use our space.
It also affects how productive our garden is – wider paths mean less growing space. That’s fine where we are, up in the Scottish Highlands with a big garden to grow food, but if you only have access to a small growing space then it can really make a difference to your productivity, particularly if you, like us, grow your own food in a bid to live as self-sufficient as you can.
‘Productivity’ is quite a loaded term in my corner of the disability community because the kind of disability I have is not one that can be easily accommodated by a traditional workplace. When you become disabled that ingrained desire to be productive doesn’t go away, and being unproductive is something you beat yourself up about. Or I do, anyway.
For us, gardening – and growing our own food in particular – is a direct response to that: I might not be able to contribute to our household in the usual way, by having a job and earning money, but I can contribute with the food I grow. And it’s a massive contribution: I’d be hard-pressed to find a job that I enjoy doing as much as gardening, and that pays what we consume in organic veg all year round. Over the years this has expanded beyond the veg: I knit and sew and mend our clothes; I make some of our cheese and most of our jam (Seamus, my partner, makes the rest); and together we bake our bread, make cider, beer and fruit wine. For us, rethinking what it means to be productive has placed the garden at the centre of our lives.
And doing that has been by far the most beneficial thing to help manage my symptoms and make peace with my disability: it’s given me permission to slow down and live at the pace my body needs, and it has also provided a way to calm the brain weasels of productivity and busyness.
I hope to talk more about this in future issues of Scotland Grows magazine, and to share the many small and big things we do to make gardening with disability not just possible and rewarding, but something that permeates every aspect of our lives. How ‘no dig’ beds and a messy wildlife garden are a practical way of dealing with only having limited energy, and how sowing seeds in big multi-cell trays sitting down at the kitchen table is a way to ration that energy and make it go as far as possible in a sustainable way. How taking time to sit around dreaming and planning and watching the garden is never wasted time, and how taking our cues from the plants is a way to ensure the necessary rest breaks and to stop striving for more and better and faster. And how the joy of that first broad bean of the year – eaten straight from the pod, of course – is a massive reward for all that quiet thinking and planning and pottering.
Mairi MacPherson lives in Fearn, near Tain, in the Scottish Highlands and has been growing her own fruit and veg using natural, ‘no dig’ principles for 6 years alongside chickens, ducks, a rabbit, dogs and cats.
An academic by training, Mairi is passionate about growing as much food as organically as possible and sharing that knowledge and experience with others as well as passing on tips and tricks for growing your own with limited mobility.
You can find out more about all the things Mairi is involved with on her website.