Life after Cancer – Gardening

Gardening can help you reconnect with your life.

On the last day of cancer treatment, I think every patient should receive a medal and a garden trowel. The medal is to acknowledge the horrific journey you have just completed and the trowel is to encourage you to get outside and do some gardening.

Cancer treatment can save your life but it is a brutal experience. I know this because I have been through it. I am a breast cancer survivor. At the end of my treatment, I was grateful to be alive! I was also feeling beat up, worn out, and emotionally traumatized. I needed to recover from cancer treatment.

Gardening has been a surprising and vital part of my healing process. I am sharing my story here in hopes that it may help you if you are coping with cancer or another serious illness or you love someone who is.

My Cancer Treatment is Over, Now What?

For those of us fortunate enough to survive cancer treatment, there is life after cancer.

After I completed treatment, I felt as if I had crossed some kind of ephemeral bridge that disappeared into the mist as soon as I stepped off it at the other end. There was no going back to the old me. The only choice was to move forward into uncharted territory.

As far as I know, there is no roadmap, with the destination “you are recovered” marked on it with directions on how to get there. At least I did not receive one. How do you begin recovering from a devastating life-altering experience?

You start by doing something, anything.

I did things like gradually increasing my daily walking and resuming my healthy eating habits. Volunteering gave me a sense of empowerment that helped me get back to my work, which is trying to convince you, me, and everyone else to live more lightly on Earth.

Taking up gardening again both soothed my soul and healed my body.

You may not realize that gardening is good exercise. Almost any kind of gardening requires physical activity like moving around, carrying stuff, and using tools. These activities can help you regain your strength, energy, and stamina.

Gardening has intangible benefits, too. It can refresh your spirit and reconnect you with your life. The act of growing something can remind you that you are part of nature, not separate from it.

Besides reconnecting me with my life, gardening gave me a feeling of doing something worthwhile. By healing myself, I was healing a tiny spot on Earth.

Gardening Helped Me Heal after Cancer Treatment

At its most basic, gardening is about helping something grow with your own hands.

Hanging Basket with Plants and Flowers
Hanging basket with plants and flowers – Photo iStock/Antony Kemp

Close your eyes and picture yourself gardening. What comes to mind? Do you see yourself pruning roses, digging a hole for an oak tree sapling, harvesting bell peppers, taking out your lawn, or _____?

I saw myself spreading mulch on our drought-stricken patch of land in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

Moving a Mountain of Mulch

Mulch nourishes the soil and helps it retain moisture, which is especially important if you live in a dry climate with low rainfall as we do.

In our town, tree and landscape maintenance services will deliver mulch consisting of wood chips, leaves, and pine needles free. You then provide the labor to move and spread it out.

In previous years, I had spread literally tons of mulch around our yard.

Gardening in our yard involves a lot of walking up and down sloping ground so a wheelbarrow is not practical. I had purchased a 17-gallon plastic tub with handles (the kind you put ice and beverages in at a party). After shoveling mulch into the tub, I would carry it to a location in the yard and dump it. After I covered some section of land, I spread the mulch out with a rake.

The work was hard and strenuous, but it paid off. More tree seedlings survived each year, native plants established themselves, and the soil was dark and rich where the mulch had biodegraded over the years.

Just before my cancer diagnosis, I had received a truck full of mulch that had been strategically placed in piles around our yard.

I had not made much progress when chemotherapy quickly sapped my strength and energy. There was no way I could move the mulch with a shovel and a tub. I could have asked my spouse or perhaps I could have hired someone to do it but I wanted to do it myself—so the mulch sat, and sat, and sat.

As the end of my treatment came into view, I could not imagine how I would ever have the strength to push a shovel into a pile of mulch with alone carry a tub of it more than a few feet. This was a depressing thought. I felt defeated.

Then one day, I realized that there was another way to move the mountain of mulch. I could do it a little bit at a time with a garden trowel and two small pails I already owned. This seemed like a questionable idea, even to me, but I decided to try it.

Each day that I could walk uphill in our yard, I used my trowel to fill the two pails with mulch, then I walked to an area that was crying out for protection and dumped the pails. On days that I felt especially energetic, I did it twice.

As you can imagine it took me many months to move all that mulch but I did do it and I enjoyed doing it.

Being outside was refreshing. I could feel the breeze and hear the birds twittering in the trees. I was doing something worthwhile by helping this tiny piece of land heal. The simple act of moving the mulch from point A to B was empowering for me. It showed me that I could and would recover.

A mulch mountain project may not appeal to you so let us look at some other gardening activities.

Gardening Can Help You Recover from Cancer Treatment, Too

Everyone’s situation is different. You could be a novice who has never grown anything in your life or a seasoned gardener looking for a way to re-enter gardening.

I hope one of the suggestions below will appeal to you or help you come up with your own gardening idea.

Container Gardening

Not everyone has a yard or wants one. Many homes, condos, and apartments have a patio, terrace, or a balcony. These are good places for experimenting with growing plants, flowers, or food in pots and other containers.

Fresh Parsley, Basil, and Oregano Growing in Pots
Fresh parsley, basil, and oregano growing in pots – Photo Credit iStock/Mkucova

Are you a fan of cooking with fresh herbs? Then try growing a few from seeds or already potted plants. Do you wish you had a rose garden? Then start one on your patio with a few rose bushes that are suitable for containers (ask at your local nursery). Would like some color on our balcony? Try your hand at creating your own planter with small-scale flowers and plants.

You can do a lot of gardening with a garden trowel, a pair of clippers, a bucket, a watering can, and a pair of gloves.

Native Plant Gardening

Native plants and trees are adapted to living in the climate of the regions they originated in and they do not require a lot of extra inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and extra water.

Are you interested in giving native plants a whirl but not ready to make a big commitment? Ask your local nursery for suggestions and then select a plant or two to try. Are you tired of caring for your turf grass lawn or paying someone else to do it? Consider taking the plunge and removing your grass then growing native plants or seasonal foods. Are you interested in attracting birds, bees, or butterflies to your yard? Ask for native plant ideas at your local nursery, botanical garden, or native plant society and then add some native plants to your garden.

In addition to the equipment listed under container gardening, you will probably need a shovel, a tub for carrying soil, weeds, and plant clippings, a weeding tool, and possibly a rake.

Public Gardening

If you do not have a place to garden at home or even if you do, you might enjoy volunteering at a public garden. This also gives you an opportunity to work and learn alongside other people in your community.

People Planting Vegetables in a Community Garden
People planting vegetables in a community garden – Photo Credit iStock/Rawpixel

Are you interested in growing some of your own food but do not have a place to do it? Look for a community garden in your area where you are either responsible for your own plot or everyone works together collectively. Do you enjoy visiting a botanical garden where you live? Become a volunteer gardener and help with weeding, raking leaves, pruning, watering, and transplanting seedlings. Would you enjoy helping kids learn how to grow their own food? Find an elementary school in your area with a food garden and volunteer.

These are just a few of the ways you can get involved in gardening.

I hope you envision gardening as part of your life after cancer. Gardening is a delightful way to heal yourself and reconnect with your life while contributing to the greater good.

Featured Image at Top: Wood handled garden trowel pushed into soil – Photo Credit iStock/malerapaso

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Simple and Eco-Friendly Solutions to Keeping Produce Fresh

Long live your lettuce.

Are wilted lettuce and slimy mushrooms spoiling your quest to eat healthier? Keeping fruits and vegetables fresh can be simple, inexpensive, and eco-friendly.

January is popular for beginning a healthy eating New Year’s resolution or recommitting to eating healthier. For many people, this means eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are beautiful, colorful, delicious, packed with nutrients, and perishable. It is as if each spinach leaf, potato, or apple contains an invisible hourglass counting down its freshness. If the sand runs out of the hourglass before you make the spinach into a salad, bake the potato, or bite into the apple it will spoil and you will not want to eat it. That previously lovely but now yucky produce item will end up in your trash, garbage disposal, or compost pail—along with your money.

Unlike a jar of marinara sauce that you can take out of your grocery shopping bag, put on a shelf in your pantry, and forget about until you want to make spaghetti, your fresh fruits and vegetables need a little bit of care when you get home from the market. The few minutes you spend preparing your produce for storage will be worth it. After all, you get zero health benefit from Swiss chard unless you eat it.

Composting changed the way I view fresh produce. The act of putting brown lettuce leaves or a moldering orange in the compost pail was somehow different than throwing it in the trash or garbage disposal. I recognized that I was treating fruits and vegetables that cost money and had been edible as if they were expendable and not valuable contributors to my health and my family’s.

This realization was disturbing.

I decided to find out what I could learn about keeping our fresh produce fresh long enough for us to eat it.

Some of the advice I read made sense but did not seem that practical. The suggestion to shop for fresh produce every couple of days makes sense, but if your schedule is jammed packed, you might not have time to do that. Another idea was to buy only the fruits and vegetables that you know you and your family will eat in a certain amount of time. That is good advice if you have a crystal ball that will show you exactly what you and your family will eat this week.

The point is that you have to adopt practices that fit in your life.

During my research, I was pleased to discover that extending the life of fresh fruits and vegetables does not need to be complex, expensive, or require a lot of throwaway material.

If you are tired of fresh fruits and vegetables ending up in your trash instead of your stomach, you might find one or more of the following suggestions useful or perhaps one of them will spark an idea of your own.

Buy Naked Fruits and Vegetables

Buying whole fruits and vegetables without packaging has several benefits. First, your fruits and vegetables will stay fresh longer than their pre-prepped and packaged counterparts will. Second, peeling a carrot and slicing up mushrooms yourself gives you a closer connection to the food you are putting in your body and a sense of accomplishment. Lastly, whole fruits and vegetables come in their own edible or compostable skin, which reduces packaging waste.

Mesh Produce Bags from 3B Bags
Mesh Produce Bags from 3B Bags

An environmentally friendly way to shop for produce is to bring your own reusable produce bags. Several years ago, I spotted mesh grocery bags in the produce section of our grocery market so I bought a set of three (for around $5.00) to try them out.

It was easy to bring them to the store in one of my reusable shopping bags and the cashiers at the checkout counter could easily see what the bags contained so I bought several more sets. These mesh bags are sturdy, inexpensive, and washable.

Although, I have substantially reduced my use of throwaway plastic bags I do still use them. For instance, I will put a wet head of lettuce in a plastic bag to keep the rest of my groceries dry and then I keep reusing the bag (rinsing it out it out and drying it if needed) until it gets a hole or falls apart.

Containers are Not All Created Equal

After conducting research on produce storage containers for the refrigerator, I decided to try the lettuce keeper container made by Progressive International. I was amazed at how well it worked. Almost everything we tried putting in it would stay fresh for well over a week and sometimes two or more including lettuce, spinach, carrots, bell peppers, green beans, zucchini, and herbs.

Refrigerator Produce Storage Container Filled with Peppers and Broccoli - Progressive International
Refrigerator Produce Storage Container Filled with Peppers and Broccoli – Progressive International

Over the course of a couple of months, I bought five more of these containers and we put almost all our refrigerated produce in them. My total financial outlay was less than $75.

The containers are large enough to fit a head of romaine lettuce, slightly trimmed leeks, or several bell peppers. Each container has a removable plastic divider that you can insert for separating items if you choose, like radishes on one side and blueberries on the other. Mushrooms will stay fresh with the bottom lid left off and a paper towel lining the bottom. If you only use part of a cucumber, you can put the other part back in with the whole ones (without any wrapping) and it will stay fresh for days.

This container does not work for cut tomatoes, onions, or avocados so I store them in small glass containers or in plastic wrap (ugh).

I do not recommend putting these containers in the dishwasher. I tried it and the top lid came out a little warped. I contacted the company’s customer service department and they sent me a new lid free.

Now, I just rinse the containers and occasionally wash them with soapy water when I am hand washing something else.

Location, Location, Location

Like in real estate, the location you place your fresh produce contributes to whether you will eat it or not while it is still fresh. In this case, I mean giving your produce visibility. Humans are creatures of habit and sometimes we forget that we can adjust things like our smart television settings, office chair height, or refrigerator shelf arrangement.

Most refrigerators have a “crisper” drawer, which supposedly helps you keep your produce fresh but you usually have to bend over to reach it and you have to open it to find out what it contains. This creates an out of sight out of mind problem.

I rearranged the shelves in our refrigerator so that our produce containers can be stacked in the middle where we can see them and see what is in them. Now, our fresh fruit and vegetables greet us when we open our refrigerator door. We use the crisper drawer for other refrigerated items or an occasional extra long or large vegetable that will not fit in our produce containers.

Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market
Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market

My family enjoys eating most fruits at room temperature so we store them on the kitchen counter corralled on plates to prevent them from rolling around the counter or onto the floor. I think fruits last longer when stored in a single layer rather than artfully arranged in a bowl.

Whenever a family member or I walk into the kitchen, we see our fresh fruit beckoning us to eat it. We do try to focus on eating the most perishable fruits first, like strawberries. Any kind of plate, pan, or tray with an edge will work.

Potatoes, onions, and garlic like to hang out in dark dry places like your pantry or a cupboard. As far as storage containers, open cardboard boxes or plastic tubs that you have on hand will work. Instead of relegating these healthy and perishable items to the bottom of the pantry, consider giving them a prime location at or near eye level and put snacks and cereal on the lower shelves.

Making a relatively small investment in reusable produce containers and rethinking some old storage habits has really paid off. Our fresh fruits and vegetables are staying fresh longer and most of the time we eat them, which saves money. Besides eating healthier, we use less disposable packaging, which is good for the environment.

You can get going on your commitment to eating healthier by grabbing your reusable shopping bags and heading out to the grocery market to select some fresh naked fruits and vegetables, buying a produce storage container to try, and clearing a space on your kitchen counter for a plate of fruit.

Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.

Featured Image at Top: Homemade Fresh Salad with Spinach, Walnuts, and Apples in a Wooden Bowl – Photo Credit iStock/bhofack2

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