The Sick Gardener- Real Experience

The Sick Gardener- Real Experience

A true story written by Gayla Trail

Approximately five months ago, I wrote this piece about the manic, messy, madness of the springtime garden. As I said at the time, every spring is like that, and given a choice, I would have it no other way. Winter stretches here in Toronto, and sometimes it is longer, colder, and more deprived of greenery and revitalizing, earthy smells than I can stand. I’ve lived in this region for the 40+ years of my life so winter living is no new thing. I find ways to find contentment and joy in the coldest months, but I come alive and really thrive during the growing season. There are only so many growing seasons within one lifetime, and I strive to finish each one out feeling full, if not downright hung over on all of the things that make these few short months of growth in the garden so lush, alive, and wonderful. I love my garden. I love being in the garden. It is where I feel most vibrant and in touch with myself and the world.

Five months ago, I wrote about all of this, and how I was spending more time in the garden that spring than ever before. I was happy to be there. I was learning so much. I had ambitious plans. I was growing more things in pots than ever before — even more-so than when my garden was on a rooftop and everything was in pots. I had also expanded my tomato-growing operation into a nice-sized patch that a neighbor generously allowed me to use in her yard. I was alive. I was thriving and so was the garden. A garden takes years to mature and hit its stride, and at five years in mine had reached the sweet spot. It was the best spring season it had ever had. I was very happy and proud. And then, just after the summer solstice, I got very, very sick.

I’m not going to go into details of the illness here, but it was of the sort that had me bedridden for stretches of time and unable to do what I love to do most during the growing season: be in the garden. Some days I was lucky if I could make it to the upstairs window that looks out over the yard. It hurt to be so physically close, yet so far away. On the days that my symptoms abated, I took advantage as best I could to get out there and connect with a garden that was slowly looking unrecognizable to me.

In the beginning, I optimistically assumed that I would bound back and be well again in no time. It was easy to tell myself that this was only temporary and that all I had to do was hold it together because eventually I’d be back out there to finish out the season. Davin helped tremendously during this time in keeping up with the daily work of watering the myriad of containers. He was a trooper all around as he was working full time, taking care of me and the dog, and taking care of the garden. But when the August heat amped up, things started to slide. I recall one particular evening after about a week or so spent in bed without visiting the garden. I slowly dragged my weak, pathetic body out there to look around. I was not feeling well. My skin had taken on a grey palor. I had suddenly, and inexplicably become ultra sensitive to light and was dizzy and unbalanced all of the time. I often felt unstable on my feet as if I were floating and careening over the ground, sort of like a boat on choppy, open water. I’d lost a lot of weight and my clothes had started to hang off of my limbs. With time I came to identify as some sort of sad fictional vampire: pale, ghostly, and living most of my life in the dark. I was a stranger inhabiting a body I would not have chosen, and as I walked into the garden I was met with a sight that was no longer recognizable as mine either.

I belong to the garden; it doesn’t belong to me.

Some plants had grown feral in my absence. They were monstrous and many-tentacled creatures, blocking the light to their shorter, less ambitious neighbors, suffocating and killing many off. Others were wilted, bone dry, or entirely fried to a crisp from the unrelenting heat and drought. It doesn’t take container-grown plants long to lose the fight in these conditions, and while many of my potted plants are tough-as-nails cacti and succulents, many of those that are not just didn’t make it through. I’ve lost my share of plants during my years as a gardener, but this was not like anything I had ever experienced.

I looked around, took in as much as I could bear, and then I wept. The word “wept” makes it sound as if what came out of me was poised and gentile. No, this was an ugly, messy, deranged cry. It was loud and pained. I knew the neighbors could hear, but I was beyond caring about a public face. My body had fallen apart and at that point I still didn’t have the help I needed or a decent picture of what was happening. I was terrified, lost, and at that moment I felt that what had been lost was too much. It’s easier to handle loss when you have your health, your mind, and a grounding. My body and the life I had created were slipping away and now it felt like the garden had too. This is a complicated thing to write about without sounding like ownership: my body, my life, my garden. The garden is a piece of earth that I tend and where I find my grounding, but I do not own it. I belong to the garden; it doesn’t belong to me. And yet, we use the word “garden” because the space is tended and cultivated by us. Left to its own devices, the garden would be something else entirely. I won’t deny that my hand is in that space, but I also think it is healthier to be realistic and acknowledge that I won’t be here forever. This piece of earth will far outlast me. What I do here should not be about total service to my singular desires and needs.


Over my years as a gardener I have developed an appreciation for the wildness that can occur within a cultivated space if we are willing to let go a little. I’ve found that my role as a gardener has moved away from a need to control and more towards finding a balance between when to intervene and when to let things be. Allowing space for wildness and mess has been very liberating for me and I have become prouder of the garden as it has evolved into a small Eden that supports an ever-mounting and sometimes astonishing diversity of insects and creatures. In its own way this sickness has propelled me forward still into that mindset of letting go of control. I am messy. The garden is messy. This is real life. The garden is my grounding and my teacher. It helps me grow, possibly more than help it. Its message for me always seems to come back to this: let go.

That said, there is a line between wildness and the destruction that I witnessed that day in my garden. I am responsible for the plants that I put there and they were gone. However, I know too that there was some ego involved in my reaction. I was having such a great garden year and had such plans, such high hopes for where it would be as the seasons progressed. To go from someone who makes and does things to a nearly unmoving lump in an unrecognizable body… it shattered my image of myself, and I suppose my connection with the garden has made it so at times I do see myself reflected in it. This off balance, over run, messy, half dead, grossly entangled eyesore was another physical embodiment of what I had become. All I could see was loss.

In everything bad there is always good. Through the months that I have been sick I have tried to find those silver linings. Friends have stepped up in ways I could never imagine and showed their support whenever they could. I know I am loved. I have a partner who loves me in sickness and in health and who has taken care of me through what has been, so far, the very worst of times. I am still alive. Through the worst of this I would sometimes try to quiet my mind at night with meditations by Jon Kabat Zinn, Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief.* One thing that stood out for me was when he said something to the effect of, If you’re still breathing than your body is doing more right than wrong. That was very reassuring during a time when it felt like my body had failed me and I it. I am still breathing.

The garden is still breathing, too. Many plants died, but many, many more lived. I could see that more clearly once I moved past the initial shock of the loss and my own psychological baggage. I belong to the garden, but the garden is not me. Every spring brings with it a renewal and a chance to start again. Even now, it is only fall and the garden continues on. It’s alive. It’s just fine without me for now. By this time next year it will be like none of this even happened. Providing his own reassurances, Davin has reminded me many times that there will be more years to garden. There will be more springs. The garden will be here waiting. We’re both a bit shell-shocked and worn, but we’re going to be okay. We may even thrive.

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