Living with MS: Gardening as Healing

Last updated: May 2020

“There’s something about taking a plow and breaking new ground. It gives you energy. ” — Ken Kesey

During my childhood, my parents grew a huge vegetable garden. As part of its labor pool, I’d done my share of weeding rows, putting by quarts of pickles, stemming berries for pies. I won’t romanticize the hard work of it. Yet, as an adult, I returned to gardening as a first-time homeowner in Chicago in 1991.

MS changed the rules but not my desire to plant a healing space

At my condo, I grew an experimental container garden with a drip system, growing edibles organically, mostly from seeds started on trays in the spare bedroom. Then we moved to a house with a yard, and I made plans, which suddenly changed with a move to Seattle, to a house in the woods, in 1999. There, I grew a few patio tomatoes and peppers and a charming little herb garden—all the trees would allow.

We recently moved to a smaller house. It's flat south-facing yard off the kitchen, guarded by a fence, practically begs to be planted.

I’ve entered this new gardening dream both hopeful and tentative. MS changed the rules – and the expectations – about how my body works. But it won't change my desire to plant a healing space.

Reframing the task

“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul. ” – Alfred Austin

Gardening doesn’t happen without sweat, pain, dirt, and patience. But that doesn’t mean it must be inaccessible. A person with MS can still garden by making some thoughtful plans ahead of time.

MS-accessible garden beds

We’re building raised beds to elevate the garden height specifically to spare my back and prevent dizzy spells. I’m still mobile, but I don’t know what my MS future holds, so we’re spacing these beds – three in all – four feet apart to accommodate a walker or wheelchair. The beds will be narrow enough to reach across. We’ll build them to ensure side access, with the tops of the bed walls laid with wide boards for seating.

Frankly, I can’t wait. Sure, there’ll be stiff muscles, blisters, and splinters. But I’ve already met frogs and salamanders, birds and squirrels, breezes and, yes, even butterflies. I’ve come to appreciate the way nature truly heals with every step I take outside.

What’s gardening, if not a daily opportunity to recharge?

What I've learned from both gardening and MS

“In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.” – Alice Walker

Two things I learned from my family's garden:

  • It takes a lot of patience
  • It’s worth the effort

MS reiterates these lessons.

It takes time and patience

When I “hit a wall” with MS, my legs grow heavy, my words slur, I need extra naps, and thinking processes slow or even come to a screeching halt. It takes a lot of time and patience to live a life with MS. There’s always something that needs compensation.

But with self-care comes patience. This can produce more and longer periods of time without fatigue and symptoms. With relapsing-remitting MS, I note both fallow and fertile times in my body. But eating right, getting sleep, medication, and mild, regular exercise are fruitful endeavors – just like water, sunshine, compost, and weeding are critical to the garden’s success.

A little work everyday leads to a bountiful harvest

A little bit done every day can mean a harvest of good things ahead. From my new garden-in-progress, that means radishes in June, cucumbers in July, sunflowers in August, and tomatoes in September.

With my body as an MS work-in-progress, that means fewer or lesser symptoms and more energy and opportunity to live my best life.

“Garden as though you will live forever.” – Thomas Moore

Baby steps

During those first days post-diagnosis, MS information overwhelmed me. Finally, I realized it’ll take the rest of my life to understand it all; taking things one day at a time became more important trying to find ways to control the uncontrollable.

My new garden will be smaller than my parents’: three raised beds planted with easy, short-season vegetables—radishes, green onions, cucumbers, carrots. When tomato and pepper starts to arrive locally, I’ll transplant a couple.

Like gardening, MS requires much time and patience

It’ll take time – it already is, and we’ve not yet completed the beds! But learning to live with MS also takes time. Seven years post-diagnosis, I know some things now that I didn’t know before. Living with MS isn’t easy, but now I know how to coax it to success in this new normal.

Living with MS, like gardening, demands waiting, watching, nurturing, breathing, and listening. Mistakes will be made, but life, in all its myriad forms, will persist.

“A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.” – May Sarton

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