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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Wood Chip Mulch Mountain

What do home improvement stores and garden centers not want you to know about wood chip mulch? You can get it free.

Person Feeding Tree Branches into Wood Chipper and then into Truck

Arborists, tree trimmers, yard maintenance services, utility companies, and municipal waste facilities are sources of free or low-cost wood chips for mulch. Some companies will deliver wood chips free which saves them the time and expense of disposing of them at a landfill or green waste facility. Sometimes municipalities offer free come-and-get-them wood chips to the general public.

Why Should You Use Wood Chip Mulch in Your Yard?

Wood chips are a versatile byproduct of tree pruning, land clearance, and yard maintenance. Wood chip mulch provides nutrients to the soil as it decomposes, helps the soil retain moisture, and keeps the soil warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Spreading it on bare ground reduces erosion. Pathways made with wood chips absorb water and provide a resilient walking surface, unlike concrete sidewalks.

A diversity of material and lack of uniformed sized chips is desirable. Wood chip mulch consisting of bark, wood, and leaves resists compaction and remains permeable, absorbing water and then releasing it slowly into the soil.

Although you can buy mulch at home improvement stores and garden centers, it is far more environmentally friendly to obtain locally made wood chip mulch. It is minimally processed with no added dyes, is transported only a few miles, and does not require packaging in non-recyclable plastic bags. This conserves resources and energy, reduces pollution and waste, and will probably save you money as well.

Wood Chip Mulch Tips

  • Remove weeds first, putting mulch over weeds does not kill them.
  • Apply mulch to a depth of 2-4 inches.
  • Keep mulch away from the base of plants and trees; avoid volcano shaped piles around tree trunks.
  • Do not pile mulch close to the foundation of your home.

For more information about using wood chip mulch, see the resources section below.

Wood Chip Mulch Mountain

Chances are if you live in an area with a lot of trees and high winds you will be on friendly terms with a local tree service. We met Blair, a local arborist and tree service company owner, the first winter we lived on the central California coast.

As forest newbies, we did not truly appreciate the hazard dead trees and sometimes even live trees present to homeowners. During a particularly heavy window rattling rainstorm, several dead trees fell down in our yard. One scraped the side of our chimney and took out a section of deck railing. Our driveway was blocked.

We looked up tree services in the phone book and met Blair later that day. He and his crew cleared the driveway, chopped up the tree trunks for firewood, and chipped the branches for mulch which we later spread around our yard.

Author's Beginning Wood Chip Pile, Shovel, Rake, and Tub

Our most recent encounter with Blair led to a mountain of wood chip mulch being delivered to our house. A dead tree that had been cut to just below the power lines by the utility company fell on a chain link fence that encloses a small part of our yard. We could have probably left the tree there indefinitely, but it was blocking a deer trail that runs behind our house so we called Blair.

He came to the house to check out the situation and said since it was a non-emergency he would schedule us in the next few weeks. I asked Blair to put me on his wood chip list and a couple days later he called to say he had some and asked if I wanted them. I said yes. Later he pulled up in a truck and dumped a mountain of wood chips in our driveway, free.

In a week or so the crew came and cut the dead tree trunk into smaller pieces and placed them around the yard where they can finish decomposing and nourishing the soil at their leisure. The crew topped a few of our other trees as a prevention measure and then chipped the branches onto the yard where the chipper could reach and the balance onto my wood chip mulch mountain.

I previously discovered that pushing a wheelbarrow up and down the slopes in our yard is difficult and often dangerous. So I had purchased plastic party beverage tub with plastic rope handles at a home improvement store to carry and drag stuff around the yard.

Author's Wood Chips Spread on Steep Hill on Side of HouseShoveling wood chips into a 17-gallon tub, carrying them up or down a hill to a spot in the yard, dumping and spreading them is not easy. However, it is fantastic exercise and possibly a good weight loss strategy. Plus there is the sense of accomplishment you feel when you survey your handiwork. I work a couple of hours a few days a week (so I can actually move the rest of the week) and it may take me a month or more to trek around the yard spreading wood chips. The wood chip mulch mountain is shrinking. I’ll soon be done. Whew.

Regardless of whether you live in an urban area with a landscaped yard or a rural area with little or no landscaping, wood chip mulch is good for the soil and thus your plants and trees. Give locally made wood chip mulch a try in your own yard or garden. It’s good for the environment and your wallet.

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