Inch by Inch

Even though my vocation for more than a dozen years was food, I’m a relative latecomer to vegetable gardening. It wasn’t something my parents did – I remember tomatoes a couple times, I think, and an excellent accidental watermelon one summer, which took root in the sandy soil of our play area from the previous year’s watermelon seed spitting contest, and some blueberry bushes planted along the side of the house when I was in late high school that wouldn’t have started bearing until I wasn’t living there any more. I wished for apple trees and a vegetable garden in the backyard, but mostly in the same way as I wished for a swimming pool or a pony or a treehouse – none of the latter bunch of which were within the limits of our HOA.

In 1996, I made my first abortive attempt at herb gardening – in containers on the deck at my mom’s townhouse when I was living there alone, after she and my brother had moved to Indiana. Everything succumbed, because with no experience, I did everything wrong – too little water, too much sun, too-large containers. Then Chimp and I lived in a long series of so-called garden apartments, and it wasn’t until we got to Fresno that our garden apartment had any area where I could actually garden. We had a little patio and a little patch of dirt about the same size as the patio. I bought herb plants and a rotating compost bin. The plants flourished – with more than 300 days of sun per year, my basil grew three feet tall. Progress. The compost bin became host to a massive colony of soldier fly larvae. (Some people do it this way on purpose, (warning: grody bugs at that link) but it was not my speed. Too…larval.)

So it wasn’t until we landed here in our little southwest Pennsylvania burgh that I started to garden in earnest. We started in 2010 with a few pots of herbs and some extra tomato plants a friend gave us tucked in along the side of the porch, and surprised ourselves by getting a bumper crop of tomatoes. Every year since then, we’ve expanded the garden in either size or scope. In 2011, Chimp put in four 4×4 raised beds for herbs in for me, which he tended, then in 2012, two more, and we also had some longer beds tilled that season.

I started mostly with herbs here, just as I had in Fresno, because I like them used in cooking at approximately the prominence most people use vegetables, and that gets expensive fast. So that first year we had the raised beds, we filled them with basil, dill, parsley, and cilantro, with a little mint tucked in to a corner of one bed.

By 2012, I had improved enough that I started to be able to walk out into the yard a few days most weeks. I started experimenting with vegetables in earnest, and we grew peas, radishes, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, beans, hot peppers, mustard greens and chard. This year we added carrots, beets, fennel, cabbages, leeks, kale, and broccoli. We started a lot of plants from seed this time around, and I’ve even done some succession planting, though with my limited energy, not as much as I’d like.

***

spring_garden

This spring we had the slopingest bed enclosed with native stone from the retaining wall we’d had to have replaced, which brought us to this stage at the beginning of the gardening year.

So part of why I’ve gone garden-crazy is finally having the space to do so, and part of it is that we don’t live within easy reach of Whole Foods, our local supermarket is not very super, and the growers at our farmer’s market lack adventurousness in their cultural choices. So if we want something special, or a lot of something, our best option is to grow it ourselves.

As with everything else, ME/CFS is also part of the reason. By necessity, my days’ activities are much the same: I’m at home, lying down, 98% of the day and 98% of the time; I don’t go to work, or to the store, or out with a friend, or on vacation. The garden fills up a lot of the space in my life that’s been vacated by the things that fill most people’s days, and the tasks it requires of me give me a similar sort of sense of purpose and sense of accomplishment that other roles used to.

It also gives me a little bit of autonomy back, in a life where I have to be helped with an awful lot. The garden gives me something to plan for – comparing varieties, setting up schedules, laying out plots. It gives me a reason to be excited to get up in the morning – to see what has germinated, or blossomed, or ripened, or is just big enough to pick. It gives me day-to-day responsibilities – planting, transplanting, pinching back, harvesting. It gives me problems to solve – pest and disease problems, succession planting, crop rotation.

And because my stamina is so limited, it gives me what I consider an energy multiplier. I can’t do much in the greater scheme of things; I have little in the tank to expend, and just about all of my physical exertion, ten or twenty minutes a day on good days, goes into the garden. But what I get back from Mother Nature for those minutes is enormous. I consider that I put in 2%, Chimp puts in another few percent here and there on the heavy tasks I can’t manage, and with sun and rain and time, Mother Nature takes it the rest of the way to 100%.

Despite how prosaic it is, there’s still something sort of miraculous to me about the fact that you can put seeds into soil and get plants to eat. It feels even more so to me because of being chronically ill. Gardening is one of the very few areas where my physical limitations make little difference in the end result. It matters not a whit that planting those seeds takes all of my effort. Once they’re in the ground, my energy level doesn’t factor in at all – I get the same radishes, the same beans, the same basil, that anyone who turned the earth would get. It allows me to be a success in a life where I don’t feel like much of a traditional one most of the time. I can’t make money anymore, but cutting our grocery bill significantly throughout the summer, and a little bit in the winter, too, lets me feel like I’m helping rather than just sponging.

***

summer_garden

This is what it looks like in full swing.

As a person with limited energy, I do have some special gardening strategies. Because I can only stay upright for about 20 minutes total, I can’t put in a day-long blitz. I also can’t endure temperatures over about 73 degrees. So I generally do whatever gardening I’m going to do right after I eat breakfast, and that’s my physical exertion for the day. I have a small, lightweight basket that I keep right next to the door with my seed packets in it, fastened together in families (roots, brassicas, leafy greens, herbs, etc.). My gloves and wide-brimmed hat are on the same table. I have a chaise lounge right outside the door where I can sit to fill containers and start seeds, and I leave my spade and fork and shears at hand there. If I’m going out into the yard that day, I can tuck the tools into the basket and still have room to harvest into it.

I limit my activity to one or two tasks, depending on how long they will take, how far they will require me to walk, and how much standing I’ll need to do. If I’m having a good day and filling cups with soil and starting seeds, I might be able to spend 20 minutes filling two sets of 12 cups each, because it can all be done sitting down right outside the door. If I’m having the same sort of good day and harvesting beans, which requires walking out into the yard and then standing, reaching, sitting, and pulling, that will pretty well take the stuffing out of me in a few minutes and has to be the only garden task for the day. Other days I do a little bit of transplanting, clean up damaged or spent plant material, pinch back, or harvest. This short period in the morning is enough to keep after the garden if I can do it most days of the week.

I also make choices about what to grow based on the illness – some crops work with me better than others. I like those that turn around and show a large reward in a small area fast, like radishes and salad turnips, and those that yield for a long time with one planting, need little tending and suffer minimal pest problems, like herbs, beans, squash, swiss chard, and kale. With herbs, I look for varieties that are noted for being slow to bolt, so they won’t need to be re-planted halfway through the summer. With vegetables, I choose those that yield early and for an extended period, instead of all at once, and which are said to be especially tasty. I started eight feet of green beans and eight feet of Roman beans at the beginning of the summer, have had almost more than we could use for many weeks now, and I’m hoping they might keep going until frost. I grow a variety of summer squash called Zephyr that is much better-tasting than most yellow squash and very productive, and this year we’re also growing an unusually delicious zucchini called Costata Romanesco too. Spring plantings of chard and kale will also go all summer for us, and we happily use them for saag paneer in lieu of fast-bolting spinach.

***

When I came to live in this house with Chimp, early on he gave me the rundown of the neighbors on our street. Across the street and one house down from us is an elderly lady by the name of Marge. Looking out the picture window on the front of our house, I couldn’t help but notice that June the riot of color that was the huge flower garden along her driveway. She keeps a beautiful garden, and each year she keeps it going until the autumn, when the springtime hanging baskets give way to mums. But I have to admit that I didn’t really get it. Flower gardening seems like a lot of work for me – evanescent results, and inedible to boot. But sometime this year, it occurred to me that Marge and I have a lot in common. Admittedly she’s more mobile than I am, despite having most of a half-century on me. Though I haven’t had a chance to meet her, I expect we’re doing some of the same thing with our respective gardens – drawing personal satisfaction from a project that needs us every day in a life stage where our society has less need for us.

I ought to get Chimp to roll me down the hill to Marge’s house before frost comes.

***

Just for fun, here’s a slideshow of this season’s harvest photos. Anything you see in here that required serious digging (carrots, beets, potatoes) was Chimp’s or my mom’s harvesting.

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21 Responses to Inch by Inch

  1. Jenn says:

    love to read your posts – let us know if you finally meet Marge :-)

    • Jocelyn says:

      We finally managed it! Chimp noticed her outside a few days ago on a cool evening, and asked me if I wanted to go meet her. So we drove me two houses down (our hill is very, very sloped and it would be treacherous in a wheelchair) and parked me in a wheelchair where I could look at her spread. She hemmed and hawed and said it wasn’t as pretty as it had been, but it looked perfectly wonderful to me!

  2. A says:

    Beautifully written. I cried at the end, read it to my husband and cried again.

  3. lewwaite says:

    as someone once said, “Let’s roll!”

  4. Alison says:

    That song! We had to learn it in first grade when we planted a memorial garden at our school. I haven’t heard it since then but I still could sing along and knew most of the words. I guess I really liked it.

    Gardening looks like a good way to spend one’s limited energy. I love the pictures. It would be exciting to get up in the morning and look for progress. Mostly though I just want the free herbs! I love to use them excessively too but it’s so expensive. I’ve tried to grow mint, basil, and cilantro but it all died. (I didn’t try very hard though.)

    Thanks for sharing your garden with us :)

    • Jocelyn says:

      Oh, how sweet! I’ve been carrying it around in my head for almost 30 years from a record I had as a kid. Obviously I have fond remembrances of it too.

      Having grown all of those guys a number of times, if you want troubleshooting help, feel free to drop me a line. I’m happy to help a fellow herbhead!

  5. kathy d. says:

    Congratulations! What a fantastic accomplishment. It gives you things to plan, a sense of purpose, tasks to look forward to — and wonderful gifts as a result of your work. It is also beautiful to look at and healthy, to boot.
    You should print out some of the photos and frame them. (I would print out the entire middle section of photos to have the colorful foods around me all year-round.)
    Can you freeze or can any of the produce for winter use?
    It must be a joy to see these seeds grow into lovely plants — and food.

    • Jocelyn says:

      Thanks, Kathy! I put those harvest photos in an album on facebook, so I have them at hand in another way. It is really fun to be able to share how the garden is doing. Chimp does a little bit of preserving – our major item in that category is curry base – tomato sauce pre-spiced (with our own spice blend that I mix) that we freeze in containers so we can thaw it and make quick curries throughout the year. You just heat it up and dump in your protein (paneer or chickpeas mostly for us), or you can use it as an additional flavor in a lot of Indian applications. That’s the cuisine we lean on most, being vegetarians. He has blanched and frozen beans and squash for us too. And he made some dilly beans this summer, and said it wasn’t as difficult as he was expecting and he thought he might be interested in doing more of that in the future.

  6. Tamara Epps says:

    This was a wonderful post to read, and is similar to how I feel about cooking. Though I am only now beginning to learn the art of batch cooking and then freezing, I feel a similar sense of accomplishment when, after days of work, I have created enough meals for 6 days, which greatly decrease my food bill. I would love to garden, but don’t have the means to start that currently, but reading this post has definitely made me hope that in the future it will be completely possible, no matter what my health is doing.

    • Jocelyn says:

      That’s awesome, Tamara! Congrats on the new accomplishment. Chimp does batch cooking as well. I was the cook before I fell ill, and it was my favorite hobby. Chimp…not so much. I make the shopping list and the menu, because I’m the one who cares the most about what we eat, and he does the execution in a day-long blitz on Sundays. It’s definitely cheaper, at least compared to the way I used to operate when I worked at Whole Foods – not surprisingly, when you shop every night, you can spend a good deal, even with a 20% discount. The great thing about gardening is that there are so many ways to do it, from small to large. Pots on a patio, or a raised bed kit are great ways to start for sickies – manageable and pretty much no weeding.

  7. Yocheved says:

    Excellent post! I love gardening too, what little I can do.

    Personally, I prefer the Arlo Guthrie version of the song, though. :-)

    • Jocelyn says:

      Thanks, Yocheved! My favorite version is on a Noel Paul Stookey album I had on vinyl – got it when he played our church when I was a kid. Unfortunately, I have neither the album nor a turntable at the moment. I considered getting a cassette off of Amazon and digitizing it for the purposes of the post. I still might – despite the album being heavily Christian and me being heavily not anymore, it’s a great one and it’s be fun to hear it again.

  8. Rachel says:

    I am only well enough to have a tiny window box and am trying my 2nd batch of basil. The first batch died, but I am not giving up.:)

    They would call a talent/knack for growing things “green fingers” in Britain when I was a little girl. I was in a part of Britain that had a harsh climate, so growing plants by the book did not always work. You really needed green fingers too. I used to laugh at it when I was a healthy child, but now I am ill, I appreciate and enjoy the hobby those elderly English pensioners had many years ago.

    Someone should make a collection of the best posts out of the better ME blogs like this one, and put them in a book.

    • Jocelyn says:

      Rachel, in the States it’s called having a green thumb. And I didn’t think I had one after my total failure in that first go at gardening and killing some houseplants. But after getting some confidence by succeeding with herbs, I decided to branch out. I really did start with the easiest vegetables – tomatoes, squash – and have worked up to intermediate stuff (carrots, leeks). So there’s hope even if you start out by killing things! Drop me an email if you want to/have the energy to talk about growing basil. I have done that a fair bit now and might be able to help you troubleshoot. Thanks for the kind words, too.

  9. Karin says:

    Jocelyn, wonderfully written. I would like to ask you if you get to do any exercise for your body or are you just fine anyway? Maybe a stupid question, but as I dont suffer from the same disease but have lost a lot of muscles I just wondered…

    Karin

    • Jocelyn says:

      Not a stupid question at all, Karin. On days when I don’t go out into the garden, I do about a minute of assisted range of motion exercises. The hallmark of my illness is something called post-exertional malaise, which means that if I exert myself too much (with exercise, stress, mental effort, anything), I get worse. Exercise is bad for people with ME/CFS, and because that’s so distinctive to the disease, it’s used as a method of diagnosis.

  10. kathy d. says:

    Ditto on your exercise comment. I have days when I can do 15 leg and arm lifts, then days where I can do 10, then days where 3 is enough. It follows no pattern at all. I think if post-exertional malaise (which is a poor word for what happens to us) were understood and the reasons for it known, we’d be much better off — in diagnosis and perhaps treatment. Resting is the only remedy, I find.

  11. Zander says:

    Mhmm! I’m developing a taste for paneer so this post sounds extra delicious!

  12. Louise Bibby says:

    I loved that post Jocelyn. You are such an inspiring person. I am having a bit of a rough trot with a non-CFS health setback at the moment, and have been feeling sorry for myself. Hearing how you manage to garden with such little energy just put it all in perspective for me. It also confirms a theory I have that finding or rediscovering a purpose for our lives while living with CFS/ME is a huge key to managing the illness powerfully. To hear you speak of the joys of vege gardening I can really tell how much joy it gives you. It also makes me want to make more use of my huge back garden. I’ve always planned to start a vege patch (for 12 years!), but maintaining the rest of it, plus being a single Mum, running an online business and a household has given me a good excuse not to so far. I do have lots of fruit trees but they pretty much look after themselves. You have now inspired me to put in at least one raised bed this spring and see how I go (it’s now spring in Australia). My daughter would love it. I love the idea of finding the longest yielding veges, and having had a herb garden in a previous life, I think I’ll put in a few herbs too because I’m using them a lot more in juicing and cooking these days.

    Thanks again. You truly are an inspiration and I always love reading your blogs. I like the idea someone suggested of picking the best blogs and putting them into a book. I could actually do that (with my prof background & energy levels), so you might hear from me later about that. I always have so many projects in my mind but not always the energy to follow through. You just never know though … :-)

    Cheers

    Louise (PS So happy to hear you met Marge!)

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