Eight or nine years ago, my uncle gave me my very first tomato plant — and some horse manure to go along with it. Little did I know that little gift was going to give me a passion for something that I never had the slightest bit of interest in prior to that time. When I was a teenager, we had a garden but I’d do anything I could to get out of working in it. Thankfully, I had a part-time job, so my brothers got stuck helping out in the garden and I was able to escape that drudgery. Fast forward…..well, let’s not worry about how many years….and I was driving home with a tomato plant and a bag of horse poop in the car….
That first tomato plant ignited my love for gardening and now I can’t wait to get my hands in the dirt each Spring. There’s just something about planting those tiny little seeds or plants, watching them grow, and then reaping the benefits of all the work and tender loving care you put into them.
Gardening can be therapeutic and growing our own food can ensure we’re eating food that’s grown the way we want it to be grown. It can also be a lot of work, and when you have a chronic illness, it can be difficult to keep up with all the things that have to be done for your garden to thrive. Back in my Air Force days we had a saying, “work smarter, not harder.” Applying that mentality to my gardening has been extremely helpful in allowing me to do something I love without wearing myself out.
As with anything else, it has taken some experimentation and patience to find better ways of doing things, but here are some of the things that have been most helpful:
- Start small. If I could make only one recommendation for someone just starting out, this would be my one piece of advice. It’s easy to add on later if you find that you enjoy it and are up to doing more work in the garden, but if you start out too big and can’t keep up with it, you might get discouraged and give up on it completely.
- Use raised beds. This can be a little more expensive than just digging up the ground, but they have a couple of advantages. First, you don’t have to bend over as far to do any weeding, pruning, harvesting, etc. Secondly, although you will still have weeds, you probably won’t have as many as if you start at ground level. Using the raised beds leads to the next thing that’s been helpful for me….
- Get a lightweight stool to use in your garden. For times you’re going to be out there for a while, such as when you’re weeding, this is an invaluable piece of equipment. I also use mine when I’m cutting lettuce. That takes a while, and if you’re bent over cutting, it can really drain you quickly. My husband got me a nice stool to use, but I found it to be a little too high and too heavy to move easily, so now I just use his plastic step stool that he uses when he changes out the bird feeders. I take put my cushion that’s made for sitting on the bleachers at games on top of it, and I’m all set for whatever chore I need to do.
- Grow up. For plants that like to vine, training them up a trellis can save you a lot of bending. My husband built me a wooden frame that he attaches to whichever box I’m using for the cucumbers, and he uses garden twine to string a trellis for them to climb. Of course, you could always use a ready-made trellis or you could even use tomato cages to allow them to grow up and out.
- Grow only things that you really like to eat. There’s no need to waste energy growing things that you don’t really want to eat that often. I’ll give you an example: we’ve planted bell pepper plants for several years, because we do like them, but we found that even after sharing with our neighbors we were still having to throw some away because they went bad before we ate them. Guess what I didn’t plant this year…..
- Limit your gardening work to the coolest hours in the day and do a little at a time. This is probably a no-brainer, but sticking to an early-morning or late-evening schedule and breaking up the work can pay big dividends in energy conservation for those of us who don’t have much energy anyway. We’re early risers, so I go out first thing in the morning, and I almost never spend more than 30 minutes to an hour out there. That allows me to get some of my work done without wearing myself out.
Growing your own food can be such a rewarding experience, and for me at least, it’s great therapy for those days when I’m feeling down or cranky, or just plain out of sorts. It’s something that I was afraid I might have to give up once I became ill, but just as with other things, sometimes you don’t have to give up what you love; you just have to make adjustments to make it work for you.
Are you a gardener? Please share your tips for working smarter not harder!