Allotments and Chronic Pain

It’s coming up to a year since we took on an allotment. Back then, we thought my pain would be gone by the Spring. That didn’t happen, but I have still found the allotment to be something I can do and enjoy as long as I am careful. Here is some general tips on keeping and enjoying an allotment when you are suffering with pain.

1. Cover as much as possible in your allotment. We found the best thing to use is old cardboard covered with thick polythene and weighed down with pallets and stones. I’m told in less windy places weed suppressant fabric can work, but ours just tore at the pegs and ripped itself to shreds. Covering your allotment seems wrong; after all you want to GROW stuff on it. But covering keeps everything stable so that you don’t turn up to the allotment when summer suddenly arrives as we did to find it covered with waist high grass as if overnight.

2. Build paths early. Paths count as covering your allotment and are a good idea for the same reason – when you only have limited capacity for digging and weeding, it makes sense to keep that task down as much as possible. We used cardboard covered with weed suppressant and then woodchip to hold it down. I wish we had done it earlier. It was a tremendous morale boost to see the allotment looking tidier and it was a whole extra section that didn’t have grass on it.

3. Pace yourself. If you’ve done a pain management course this will be something you are familiar with. It’s no good working until you are in major pain then not being able to go for 2 weeks, when the alternative is to do a tiny amount every day. Take really, really regular breaks and don’t feel guilty about it. I never go more than 20 minutes without a sit down and some tea. I take a thermos with me and when the tea’s gone, it’s time to go and I’ve done what I should, even if it seems like I just sat down almost all the time and drank tea, this will generally mean I managed 1-2 hours of allotment, got out of the house and at least had the short walk there and back. Which brings me to –

4. Get an allotment nearby. If you feel like it’s not far away and you can just go for a look, it will be a lot easier. However, don’t be ashamed to go by car if you have access to one and it’s the only way you’re going to get there.

5. Get help. Lots of people want to help you with the allotment. Most will offer and never actually come, but at least some will. Don’t be embarrassed to ask everyone for help – plenty of people enjoy it just as much as you do and like the idea o a few hours digging without the commitment of a tenancy.

6. Adapt the work to your needs. It hurts me to bend, so I avoid it as much as possible. I can dig about five spadefuls before I need to rest at most. But I can sit down with a trowel and dig through soil for absolutely ages before it hurts. A lot of tasks can be adapted to sitting or even lying down. I did raking today, seated. Get those tiny little tools and sit yourself down and just gently plod away at it. Sure, it seems slower, but digging a few spadefuls then giving up is a lot less useful and you’ll get there in the end. If you covered your allotment, it will wait for you.

7.Power tools! These are brilliant ways of reducing your labour and totally worth  it. Make sure the one you get won’t be too heavy to lift, though. We have a battery strimmer. The battery may only last 20-30 minutes and it’s not as effective as a petrol strimmer, but I can lift it and about 20-30 minutes is my maximum time before needing a break anyway.

8. Let the committee know you have pain troubles. If you’re struggling, they’ll understand and not expect you to plant everything all at once.

9. Be aware there is actually a big social side to allotments. I pictured it as quiet and isolated work, and sometimes it is but people all talk to each other. If you find socialising tires you out then it’s worth finding out when people are usually working on their allotments (many people go at particular times and days), then you can avoid them. On the other hand if socialising cheers you up, then do the opposite!

10. Working parties. Most allotments need community maintenance and it is extra work, but even if you can only do half an hour or so to help, you will feel better for having contributed and it can be a really boost to self-esteem and feelings of capacity, which is pretty important when you have chronic pain as it’s easy to feel “useless”. Working on my allotment has taken away that “useless” feeling for me and given me a sense of power in planning and working on it.

My allotment

Today I got as far as planting out a row, but then had to stop before I could cover it. So I went home, because that’s pacing myself.

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About Laura Topping

I've lived in Leeds since university and I'm interested in literature, arts, culture, mental health, chronic pain, writing, language, politics, people, relationships, inequality, and social justice. I run a board gaming group (Leeds Meeples) and attend a group about ethical non-monogamy (Yorkshire OPEN).
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