Gardening with the Flow

My life is a slow one. On any given day I have perhaps 40% of the energy I had before I developed my chronic illness, and this means plenty of rest breaks, bed days, and days where I have just about enough energy to pootle about but not enough to actually get anything done.

I say ‘of the energy I had before’ rather than ‘compared to other people’ because, like pain, it’s very hard to compare your own energy levels to someone else’s. And like gardens too – your microclimate, your soil, your wind direction, your space are all fundamentally yours, and comparing it to others is a slippery muddy slope. 

Last year, for example, we had about 6 weeks of haar in spring – the sea fog so common on the east coast – and this really affected our vegetables. The greens loved it – kale, chard, spinach, lettuce really thrived – but it put such a damper on our broccoli, cauliflower, and courgettes (where, believe it or not, we got about 3 courgettes from 14 plants).

But that was us, and here – friends just a few miles from here had a splendid growing season because it was not foggy where they are. 

And that is how the energy stuff works too – it’s relative, and I’ve learnt (slowly, badly) to take each day as it comes and to make the most of what my body and brain have to offer that day. Just like the haar, there’s no point fighting it. But instead of spending our time and energy trying to make things right for the courgettes, we chose to make the most of those excellent kale conditions – and good kale goes a long, long way.

There are so many ways our ‘going with the flow’ approach informs our gardening. Our space is structured but with wild edges, and we’ve long banished the notion of weeds from our thoughts and vocabulary. We pootle, but in an organised way, with lists and spreadsheets and a general plan in our minds that allows us to work away at small things without feeling like we’re constantly doing battle and running ourselves ragged. 

It informs our veg growing too – given the choice we’ll always pick growing kale over carrots, because it is unfussy, just keeps on going, grows practically anywhere in our space, and can be harvested again and again. Once it goes to flower, you get delicious flower shoots to enjoy and sometimes, just sometimes, it will keep going for another season after you’ve removed the flowers. I suspect it wouldn’t do that in warmer areas but here, in our space, with the haar and the wind and the clouds, it clearly feels at home. 

This is one of the ways in which I garden as a disabled person: by going with the flow, and trying not to put too much pressure on myself or my garden. I grow both veg and flowers, but veg are very much the focus because they are an easy way for me to contribute to our household in meaningful ways when traditional paid employment is not possible. By growing our own and figuring out how to make the most of my abilities, experience, space and energy – by choosing kale! – I’m not just spending my time and energy in a way that I enjoy, but also in a way that directly benefits us: I literally put food on our table. 

But there’s more to it than that because growing veg, and talking about it on the internet, and teaching others how to do it, and running our small community garden, and the myriad of other things that have come about from our garden journey, has been an invaluable part of making my life one of joy, and of finding ways to recreate those parts of my former lives that I wasn’t able to do any more after I became disabled. They’re things like teaching, writing, organising structures, helping people, building confidence – and the garden (in italics, because if this were a talk I’d be waving my hands at the space and the air and all around) has allowed me to do that: to find purpose and meaning and joy.

I often talk to non-disabled people about slowing down and living more quietly, and for me so much of it comes down to these five things:

  • Celebrate the small things as though they’re big things.
  • Separate your needs from your wants.
  • Live fuller lives with less stuff.
  • Act as though you are the most important person in the world.
  • Literally slow down.

And to me, gardening addresses all of these. It’s a constant celebration of small things – a new flower, the first tomato, that juicy pea eaten straight from the pod. 

Knowing what your plants really need – light, water, warmth, soil – and seeing how meeting those needs allows them to flourish. 

Spending your time, energy, and money on growing things, rather than buying things – and reusing and refurbishing whatever you can. 

Allowing yourself time to just sit and watch the flowers, and listen to the birds, and creating a space that is both beautiful and useful but that is, fundamentally, all about you and what you enjoy. 

And taking your cues from what you’re growing, and its need for downtime, and the pace at which things progress there – if it’s good enough for the kale, it’s good enough for me. 

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.

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