Chronic Illness, Gardening

New Garden, New Life

The good news is it looks like we will be able to extend our stay in this place until 2023, which means we can do some gardening here this growing season.

The bad news is I have no idea where my health will be come spring so there’s a lot to consider.

There are two garden beds here. The first is closest to the back of the house and is on a slope that goes downward toward the yard. There are chipmunk burrows in the side and we sometimes see them sitting outside their holes! No matter what happens, we will try to do a basic garden there with mostly an array of herbs and edible leafy greens such as mustards, lettuces, mizuna, arugula, dandelion, chicory/raddicchio, various basils, cilantro, radish, and more, because they have been sorely missed in our diet and the stores and markets here just don’t carry the variety we enjoyed in the city. I’m on an anti-inflammatory, low-histamine diet, so I won’t be able to grow many of my old favourites like tomatoes. We’re going to try carrots, but I’m unsure about how well root crops will fare here with such shallow topsoil. Since we’re renting, I’m not planning to buy soil.

This is the first garden bed closest to the house. It slopes down at the back. The larger bed is in the background.

For the first time ever we will need to rent a tiller. I don’t like the way they disturb the soil and in our last place, I dug the entire yard by hand! I went out every day after work and did a little at a time for weeks. Here, the two beds are intensely packed with pernicious weeds and towering thistles that could not be pulled by hand even if I were healthy. It would take a team of people.

The second bed, which is further away from the house and much larger, is particularly full of them. There are blackberry brambles on the east and west sides and everything in between is thick with some of the toughest weeds I know. I don’t think anyone has touched the garden in several years. The bed is at a lower elevation and there is a moat along the south side that filled up in the fall after a series of heavy rains. It was dry when Davin first started coming here in late summer. Because the weeds are so dense, I’ve never been able to get a good sense of the soil there, but it is slightly elevated above the rest of the yard and using the weeds as indicators of the kind of soil that might be there, I think it drains well enough for most veggie crops. As I’ve said before, the land here is quite wet and boggy from September into fall. It’s even squishier toward the back leading to the trees and beyond. I suspect it will be very wet and muddy come spring.

This is the second, larger bed with brambles on the left and right sides and a shallow moat/trench in front.

The shed is falling down and useless.

In the larger bed, we plan to focus on low maintenance, direct-sown annuals that we can plant and mostly forget about. Annual cut flowers such as marigolds, cosmos, zinnias, and trailing nasturtiums will be planted there. We’re using it as an opportunity to grow crops we’ve never had the space for in small, urban gardens: sunflowers galore, rambling squashes, and watermelons. All of these crops should do okay without much intervention as long as the soil drains well, but still holds some moisture, as I suspect. I am super allergic to anything in the helianthus family, but they will provide pollen and seeds for the creatures that live here, and something pretty to look at from the kitchen window.

At the old garden I cultivated perennial, biennial, and self-seeding crops for a decade, so even when I was at my worst health and couldn’t do a thing, the garden provided. Here there is so much land, but I have been surprised by how little there is in the way of leafy greens and edible weeds to forage. Apples, blackberries, and pears aplenty, but little else in between their seasons. Even dandelions are poorly represented. I suppose I should not be surprised since the land is primarily a vast swath of lawn, a monoculture that has been encouraged in the decades since this house was built.

This is the back side of the bigger bed. Note the thistles and dense, tall weeds. You can see some of the blackberry vines to the left side of the image.

Another big consideration as we attempt to garden here are the wide range herbivores that live here alongside us. Chipmunks, rabbits, voles, and sometimes even deer will be our competition for succulent greens, and there are also squirrels, raccoons, and skunks to consider, too. The only herbivore we don’t seem to have are groundhogs, knock on wood. As I mentioned, chipmunks have made burrows in the slope of the smaller bed, and rabbits either live in the brambles on the west side of the big bed, or they just pass through. There’s a very distinct rabbit highway that passes from east to west across the bed and into the brambles. In the winter we’ve noticed a lot of bunny poops following that path.

It will be an interesting hands on education, to say the least. In the various gardens I tended over two decades growing in the city, I was accustomed to competing with munching and digging mammals, but the variety in this space rivals all of my previous gardens put together! Fortunately, they did not seem to have any effect on the potted plants that were brought here in late summer, but they were perennials and bushes protected by plastic and fabric barriers, not tender new leaves springing up from the ground’s soil. We really need to limit how much we spend, so we’ll have to do the best we can by erecting barriers made of chicken wire and bamboo stakes.

I’m still struggling with coming to terms with the reality of my illness, which has no cure, and what that will mean for me as a gardener going forward, even if I do manage to get to a more stable place and am no longer so chronically bedridden as I have been these last few years. In addition, I am also facing the challenge of not having long term gardening space where I can set down roots and build slowly at my body’s pace. We have this growing season to clamber something together, but as the next one is an unknown, our goals will be: minimal effort, thrifty solutions, and a focus on annuals.

Whatever we do here will be temporary so there is no sense in planning for long term use. For the most part this will be Davin’s garden as he will have to be the one to dig the beds and enact consistent care. Since it will be his labour, he will set the boundaries on how much ground is cleared and what is grown, not me. I’ve always been the one in charge of the gardens. They were my project as well as my profession for over 20 years, so it’s incredibly strange to be in this passive position for many reasons. In another life, in another body, I would be diving in and making the most of the land here regardless of the temporariness of our situation. But this is my reality now.

“Strange” is really just a nice word for devastating, but I’m trying to move forward, accept my life within a chronically sick body, and learning how to make the best of it.

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