MS Life: How I Make Gardening Easier and More Fun

Having MS can make the work of installing and maintaining a growing space difficult. I wouldn’t be able to garden at my new place had I not found ways to adapt.

Tips for adaptive gardening with MS

Our yard’s landscape is typical for a home in the country: grass, flower beds, shrubs, trees. Four 8’x4’x30” raised beds contain vegetables and herbs.

The landscape

When it comes to gardening, I avoid shifting between standing and sitting due to balance issues and dizziness. I use several garden pads to create a “lily pad” of cushions where I sit or kneel. As I move around the yard, this “leapfrog” approach, from pad to pad, means I don’t need to stand up. I also use a portable kneeling stool with handles for sitting when I need some elevation.

The raised beds

My husband built mine based on popular plans easily found online. I opted for the 30-inch height so I can garden standing up. Each bed includes a wooden rail to lean upon. We added 4-foot spacing between beds, a recommended pathway width that allows for a wheelchair. I don’t use one now, but with MS, you never know.1

Tools

For planting, I use — I’m not kidding — a clam shovel. Its longer blade and smaller scale make it much easier for me to wield. My go-to hand tool? The serrated soil knife. A foot-long, from tip to end of the handle, with handy 1-inch marks on the blade. It looks like a small sword with a jagged edge. It’s perfect for digging holes, planting bulbs, and cutting away roots.

I use a garden journal to plan and record everything. My MS brain isn’t going to remember these things on its own! Here, I track what I’ve done, what’s been planted, and where I’ve buried my bulbs.

Soil practices

Good soil makes your gardening tasks so much easier. For instance, I rarely, if ever, need to fertilize because the soil is enriched by compost. In the fall, I put down a thin layer of compost, then mulch, in the landscape to prevent weeds, which saves me a lot of work. I layer my raised beds with compost and mycorrhizal fungi over a foundation of composting materials called hügelkultur.2,3

Planting choices

When picking plants for the landscape, I choose those that don’t need constant fussing. I avoid the invasive ones or those with a messy growing habit. Who needs the added work?

Also, I practice the “right plant, right place” strategy — which considers a plant’s growing needs and current light conditions, to avoid relocating plants later. I plant perennials almost exclusively to avoid replanting my whole yard every spring, though I do plant a few colorful, easy-growing annuals in containers. For the raised beds, I plant many things from seed. If done right, it’s super easy and super cheap. I choose plant starts for long-season vegetables like tomatoes. Also, consider how quick-growing plants may crowd or shade other plants (cucumbers and zucchini, especially).

Some recommend soaker hoses or drip irrigation for adaptive gardens; simply install, connect to a timer, and done! But I don’t...I look forward to my morning water sessions, to “check on my babies.” Plus, it’s a surefire way to get me outside! For ease, I use a lightweight expandable garden hose for hand-watering, using an ergonomic nozzle with multiple settings.

Self-care

Gardening offers both rewards and challenges. These tips may help you enjoy more of the rewards while reducing some of the challenges:

  • Stretch. On top of MS, I also have arthritis. Stretching loosens things up before, during, and after gardening.
  • Hydrate. I always keep a large bottle of water on hand. I also make sure it’s super cold to keep my core body temperature down.
  • Avoid the heat. I stick to yard work in the early morning or late afternoon (in the shade).
  • Do a little every day. I prefer 15 to 30 minutes every day over three hours on Saturday.
  • Keep your phone nearby. I use mine to take pictures and listen to podcasts, but if I fell, I could use it to get help, too.
  • Take a bath. Even with stretching, I may still feel stiff. Warm Epsom salt baths (I like lavender) offer relief from aching, spasming muscles.
  • Practice acceptance.Energy levels, range of motion, cognitive clarity, and pain vary greatly with MS. I accept this and adapt my schedule and activities based on how I feel in the moment. “Powering through” isn’t an option.
  • Get help. I ask for help with digging big holes, planting trees, and laying compost and bark.
  • Relax. Don’t stress about a less-than-perfect yard. Fix what you can, when you can. Marvel in nature’s resilience and imperfect beauty; I certainly do!

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