These 7 tips make it easier for me to keep growing.
The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body but the soul.
alfred austin, english poet (1835–1913)
In my first year of gardening, I was so excited to plunge my fingers into the warm earth that I went overboard. My husband and I filled up each of our four garden beds with so many fruits and vegetables — from cucumbers and tomatoes to blackberries and even pumpkins.
I had never gardened before and, in my zeal, I underestimated how severe the withering effects of summer heat would be on my body. Carried away by the pleasures of spring, it was all too easy to forget the muggy and oppressive North Carolina summer to come.
With so many plants to tend, by June, I found myself working well beyond the window of cool temperatures in the early morning. Just a few minutes of exposure to high temperatures was all it took to sap my strength and render my legs as weak as noodles. In talking with my neurologist, I learned that heat sensitivity is very common among people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Fortunately, my weakened condition was only temporary. I learned that to recover, I needed to retreat into the air-conditioned indoors and rest with cool towels on my legs. Then, I would usually rebound quickly. While these episodes didn’t worsen my disease, they seriously hampered my ability to be as productive or derive as much enjoyment from gardening as I had hoped.
Plants may come and go, but wisdom is perennial.
I won’t say that my first year of gardening was a complete failure. I learned so many valuable lessons — about myself and gardening — that I don’t regret it at all. This knowledge helped me plan for a much more fruitful experience in the future. If you’re considering taking up a spade, and I hope you are, the following tips might help you reap the kind of garden that serves both body and soul.
The most important thing to remember while gardening is to take care of yourself. Your health comes first, which means that above all else, you must limit your exposure to the heat.
Working in the early morning or early evening is a must for me. Where I live, mosquitoes and pesky gnats thrive during these times too, so I keep a spray bottle of nontoxic repellent close by. And just because the temperature is cooler doesn’t mean you’re free from the harmful rays of the sun. At all times, be sure to protect your body with sunscreen, wear a hat, and stay hydrated.
Working with raised beds means I don’t have to bend as far to weed and water the plants, reducing the strain on my already weak leg muscles as well as my back. We edged our beds with recycled timbers, but you can use stones, bricks, or railroad ties to define the walls of your own garden, which should be no wider than what you can safely reach across while seated, kneeling, or leaning — 3 feet for me.
Putting together a border is the most labor-intensive part, but after that, all you have to do is fill your garden directly with good quality potting soil instead of working with hardened earth. No backbreaking tilling required!
A friend makes it even easier by slicing open a bag of potting soil and planting lettuce directly in it. She keeps this handy garden on a wheelbarrow that she can roll in and out of the shade as needed. I plan to try this clever hack myself one day.
I began growing herbs in pots on my deck this year, as I tired of having to walk to my garden for just a handful of thyme. In addition to thyme, I’m growing rosemary and parsley, which I like to crush and mix with olive oil to season my veggies. Because parsley prefers partial shade, I keep it on top of a little dolly (platform with wheels) so I can easily whoosh it under a bench during extreme heat.
I’m also growing strawberries in a pot. The white flowers compliment my colorful “million bells” plant (or Calibrachoa) and later, these same blooms will yield succulent berries for snacking. If you happen to live in a city, you’ll definitely want to consider gardening in containers. These make the most of limited space and are entirely portable.
My favorite plants are those that require the least care and come back every year — such as grapes, raspberries, and blackberries. Some herbs, like rosemary and thyme, survive the winter, as do my Calibrachoa and Gerbera daisies.
Pumpkins are not only easy to grow, they’re also fun. We plant these at the edge of our raised bed, let the vines ramble freely into the yard, and just sit back and marvel at how big the pumpkins grow. I’m also a fan of dwarf fruit trees, such as my North Star cherry, because I don’t need a ladder to pick the fruit when it ripens.
To tote plants and equipment, I use a very small, lightweight wheelbarrow. It helps decrease the number of trips back and forth to the garden, and I highly recommend that you also use some sort of little cart or wagon to ease the toil.
My wheelbarrow is stocked with other essentials such as gloves, a garden trowel, a small spade, and a watering can. Adaptive garden tools with ergonomically shaped handles, along with collapsible buckets, garden scooters, and power trimmers can make the job even easier.
Last year, we planted bee balm (or monarda), a gorgeous perennial with summer flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Our little friends are amusing to watch and they pollinate our garden at the same time.
I also keep a compost barrel in the back of my house where I dispose of kitchen waste such as apple cores, potato peels, and any fruit or vegetable past its prime. Worms find their way in and turn this refuse into nourishing material that we later add to our raised garden beds. Without fail, every year a stray seed germinates from the compost and we get a “volunteer” pumpkin or tomato seedling — a welcome surprise!
Our thornless blackberries (or rubus ulmifolius) have completely taken over one of our raised beds and we just let it go. We get far more berries than two people could ever eat, but we have plenty to share with friends and family —both berries and new plants that root themselves.
A potted blackberry (with a recipe attached for cobbler) is the perfect housewarming present for new neighbors. In return, our friends share their extras with us. We also exchange tips and learn from each other’s mistakes and triumphs. Plants may come and go, but wisdom is perennial.
One of the best nuggets of advice we ever received was from a dear friend who sadly passed away 3 years ago. Some of his last words continue to inspire me: “Whatever you do,” he said, “be sure and grow something different every year.”
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