05 January 2015

Gardening with ME: Getting Started

In this post, I'm going to write about some planning and pacing ideas related to gardening with ME. I can only speak with my own experiences in mind, but if you suffer with ME or any other low energy issue; then perhaps this will be helpful.

Way before I was diagnosed I started thinking about how I could continue gardening when I was struggling to do even basic tasks, such as the washing up or some hoovering - in some ways chores inside the house are much more important than activities outside the house. But, as I can't work, there does need to be some flexibility in when necessary tasks are done to ensure that I have some enjoyable activities - otherwise life would deteriorate even further. So I needed to research and discover ways to help myself get back to gardening.

Over time, I've found that planning, pacing and making long term changes to the garden have become the most important tools to ensure I can get out in the garden, even for the shortest periods of time. Here are a few things that I've found helpful since the ME - and while they won't work for everyone or every situation; I hope you'll find them to be useful.

Planning and Pacing:
Keep a diary
Well chosen plants are very resilient and forgiving. A lot of the pruning I do doesn't tend to be at the 'right' time, but the plants still provide good foliage and flowers. However, keeping a diary of when tasks are done will provide you with a historical document, which you can use to plan tasks for the coming month.
Go garden walkabouts
Spend a little bit of time looking at the garden and thinking about what jobs need doing in the coming month or two. This will help you plan each session.
Break tasks down
Some tasks immediately seem overwhelming. If you can break them down into smaller tasks done over a series of sessions, then you'll find that they not only get done; but you can enjoy doing them. For instance, we only have a short run of hedge, but it took me a few weeks to get it pruned back, I just did around 10 minutes a day and enjoyed spending time with each plant and assessing how it was coming along.
This can be very subjective as a person that loves a well cared for lawn will priorities that over dead heading some bedding. Just make sure that you prioritise what you love and not what you thing others will.
Access your progress
Take photographs, or perhaps write a blog. This will help you realise just how much you've achieved - even if your sessions are short. Over the years keeping photos on my blog has helped me realise that my garden is heading in the right direction!
Plan to enjoy your garden
Make sure that not every session is a practical one in the garden. Try to include sessions that mean you're sitting enjoying, painting, drawing, or even writing about your garden from a bench or a comfy seat in the garden. This means that you won't only associate being in the garden with being fatigued and painful, but also with refreshing and creative times.

Choices and Changes: 
Low energy planting. 
I've changed my garden to a more shrub-based garden. This means that I only need to tend to each plant once every year or so and I can sit down while I do so - whereas perennials and bedding plants require a lot of input. Shrubs can also take a large amount of space, so over time a few meters cubed can be taken over with a lovely plant that doesn't need much attention.
Less watering.
I've looked at plants that don't require constant watering in the summer. Carrying water brings two issues; 1: it's very heavy. 2: if you only carry small amounts you have to spend even more time carrying the water, which also increases the distance I have to walk. So, plants that do very well in our clay soil and in the English climate are my best friends!
I no longer have hanging baskets. 
I find hanging baskets to be a constant sap on energy resources. They require daily (at least) watering, feeding, and dead heading. As I neither have the money for plant food or the desire to put so much energy into something that only last for a few months; I don't bother anymore.
Accept imperfection.
Progress and not perfection is an important motto. There's no point in draining yourself so that you've pruned or dead headed a plant to perfection if you need to spend the next week in bed and only resurface to have to repeat the same task again. Imperfection is fine if you allow it to be - as it will give you time to enjoy and appreciate your garden.
Some things just won't get done.
For the past few years, I've 'let' the grass grow so I could record the plant species present. While this was a valid reason, it was also because I didn't have the energy to cut the grass! Luckily for me, my wife likes daisies as much as I do. Finding out that I didn't have the energy to cut the grass could have been really stressful to me, but I just found a different way to enjoy my garden instead.
Choose battles wisely.
I don't have the energy to wage persistent battles with pests and diseases. If a plant repeatedly comes down with something - I remove it and replace it with something that's resistant to the problem or not affected by the same problem. It's the same if a dry spell means a plant dies - I just research a better native plant to replace it with.

My nephew assisting.
The best analogy I've heard about having ME is that it's like we're an old worn out battery: We takes ages to charge up and the energy doesn't last long. So make sure you listen to your body and choose enjoying your garden over wearing yourself out trying to maintain it. You could even get family members to help out - we all love to be the supervisor!

This post is part of Gwenfar's Garden #GardeningWithME if you have ME, feel free to join us in making others aware of ME and helping others with ME get into (or back into) gardening.

Next time I'll write about making sure you're comfortable in the garden.


  1. Tim, some really useful sessions there for with ME or other chronic illnesses that want to garden but feel it might be too much. Low energy planting, accepting imperfecting, giving up on resource (your energy) heavy garden items such as hanging baskets - very useful tips.

    It's not always easy to change your habits from when you were well, and takes time to learn to break the tasks down into sub-tasks. But as I know myself, this has made a massive difference in my on ability to Garden with ME. In fact a lot of this info is useful even if you don't have ME.

    I really need to get no. 6 under planning and pacing. I don't yet have a good chair to sit in and I need one that can stay in the garden in all weather - I don't want to have to keep getting it in and out of the shed. Your post is a reminder that I need to sort this!

    For keeping a diary, I'm using the Shoot Gardening website http://www.shootgardening.co.uk/. I add each new plant to the planner as I've planted it, and it sends monthly reminders of things you need to do, based on what plants you have in your planner. It's a useful way of keeping track of what you have and when it needs pruning.

    Great post - I'm sure others will find it as useful as I have.

    1. Hi Julieanne, I'm really glad that you liked the post and think that what I've written is useful. I agree, it can be so difficult to change habits and expectations from when you were well.
      I always liked the look of Shoot Gardening, but can't justify the expense (especially with baby on the way!). I use a free website called Grows on You for keeping track of what I have in the garden and keep a diary separately.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment :)

  2. Great post, full of sane advice. I'm sure my neighbours think I'm bonkers, because I spend hours sat in a lightweight plastic chair staring at areas of my garden before doing a small burst of activity and the returning to the chair. It works energy conservation-wise, and has made me a more thoughtful gardener too. And I completely agree that accepting shaggy grass and choosing unfussy plants is key! Mind you, our lives were transformed by investment in light weight cordless lawnmower and strimmer. Much easier all round. But I still plan on getting rid of the grass in the front garden...

    1. Thank you. That's a really nice comment. Great advice regarding the light weight equipment - I'm hoping to phase out the little bit of grass we have too, but everything takes a long time!


I really enjoy reading and replying to your comments, but please do not use this space for advertising!