A Disabled Gardener's Story

After last week’s Gardeners’ World on well-being in the garden and gardening as a therapeutic aid to recovery I wanted to tell you my story (I want to thank the many people who loved my tweet and messaged me when I revealed my disability, it touched me and gave me the courage to write this post). 


I have told you parts of it over the years but not the complete tale. I wasn't born disabled, what happened to me happened in my late twenties. I often crack jokes about how it happened when talking with people, this I know was a coping strategy because the truth of it is that what happened to me could happen to anyone.

Cottage garden

Modern life does not fit how our bodies want to work, we are hardwired to keep moving and often that movement was outdoors but with the growth of office jobs, the swivel chair and computer desk has become King. When I came to the workplace back in the era of Brit Pop, which in my own small way I was involved in as a roadie, I found only this landscape. It was a far cry from the workshops my Dad worked in or the nursing homes my Mum nursed in. They both had active jobs. No one who sits at an office desk or in a cubicle can be called active. The upside of all this sitting down was I met Carol at the BBC. When we met I was a new writer, I went on to be a fairly successful writer for stage, page, TV, radio. I was quite active delivering workshops across the UK. I was doing okay but when I started to work at a computer more and more, I went from a fairly active life to sedentary one. I would spend hours at my desk and like many office workers today, I ate at my desk. 

disabled gardener and baby

One Christmas I was working on a film script that had already received a large amount of funding and attracted a big Hollywood star (I told you I was fairly successful) when I started with backache. I am over six foot tall and I have over the years suffered from aches and pains, lumbago seems to go with the tall territory. As a roadie I had things dropped on me, lifted too much and even been hit by a car in Bradford – oh the glamour! Except this backache was different, I joked that it was because I was nearly thirty but secretly I was afraid. After a few days the pain was so bad that I had pains shooting down both legs, in an age before smartphones I discovered that this was called sciatica. Over night I found it difficult and painful to walk, my back felt like a concertina, like some cartoon character following the crows. I managed to get in with my GP and he gave me the worst advice possible for anyone with spinal problems, he told me to lie down and wait for the sciatica to ease off, I’d probably pulled something. When I asked how long it would last, he replied, 'How long is a piece of string?' 

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You see, if you have any back problems stopping all activity is the worst thing you can do, your back literally freezes as the muscles bunch up around the problem. By the New Year, just after my twenty-ninth birthday I woke in the early hours with the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced, a vivid electric pain down my left leg that rocketed between ice cold and searing heat, it is the worst pain I have ever felt. Carol said that I asked for her to cut my leg off, the pain was so bad she even considered phoning for an ambulance but I refused as my GP had told me that sciatica could be bad. The problem is if you have never experienced sciatica you don't know when it isn't sciatica. Looking back I think this was the moment that something bad happened in my back. All I know was that over the next few days my entire pelvis seemed to shift to the left and I couldn't walk with out a couple of walking sticks. Even the act of sitting down made me break out in sweat that drenched me. There is no other way to describe what happened next other than humiliating. I was referred to Royal Oldham but had to wait my turn, for several months I had to drag myself around our three story house on my arms.

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It was the wonderful staff and the consultant at Royal Oldham hospital who took one look at me on two canes, my gait now akin to a chimpanzee after a road accident, who put me through every test they could to find out what had gone wrong. My GP, now apologetic, placed me on anti-inflammatories and on heavy duty painkillers. Taking this cocktail felt like I had a wave of spring air in my veins. I spent months in physio and when the MRI scan came back they were damning, a disc at lumbar four had blown, the liquid inside the disc had crushed my spine to half the size it was. My consultant was unsure what the damage was but he knew that I had nerve damage down my left leg and that my back bone had curved to compensate. He asked me how stubborn I was, I am, because if I wasn't I would end up in a wheelchair. You see because of where it was and how it had exploded, surgery was and has never been an option, to get to the damage they would have to go through my stomach and there is no guarantee that I wouldn't end up permanently in a wheelchair. It was a lot to take in, and still is, it took me a decade to accept that I was disabled and to realise that I can't do any impact sports or even pick a heavy bag up. I am not supposed to carry anything. For a few months when we went out anywhere for a long time I ended up in a wheelchair or shop mobility scooter. The medication and lack of exercise saw me balloon in weight and by the time I’d undergone physio, traction, things were getting better. During all this my consultant recommended gardening as exercise. I'd gardened on my Dad's allotment as a child and hated it, I wasn't a big vegetable eater, my Mum had struggled to get me to eat any vegetables as a child. All I recalled about gardening was that it involved lots of digging but the consultant told me to look into it. He told me in time I could dig, if I worked on my core muscles, but that I would know when not to. Maybe he was ahead of the curve or he recognised the first signs of depression that often comes with a life changing accident. 

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At first, my foray into gardening was a small front garden that I would crawl around. I gardened in small beds or pots on the fence. We knew even before D was born that I couldn't carry on living in a three story house but what brought us to this cottage on the hillside wasn't just the easy access but the garden. 

Derelict garden

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I told you, I am stubborn and a quarter acre garden seemed to me the next logical step in my recovery and it has been. It has become my world, a place of reflection and well being. I have not always been well, my back has sometimes got the upper hand but knowing that the garden is there has given me the desire to get outside, to get better, to stay better. 

Thank you for taking time to read this post, we'd be grateful if you support us by dropping in on our Facebook Page, it's a friendly page full of growers and bakers where you can ask questions that will help you in the garden or kitchen. If you're at work and want a quick chat between those growing piles of things to do then use your phone to contact us via twitter. If you're on the way home and you just want to watch a relaxing film then tune in on our YouTube Channel. If your world is a world of photos then trawl through thousands of them on our Instagram account. Finally, if you have any energy left after doing all that, share us with your family and friends. Remember, what you see is what you get with us, from successes to epic cock ups in our hillside garden and kitchen on top of the world. We are the Oldhams and for us it's all about the good life in a hectic world.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing that.

    I'm in pretty much the same boat (active life in Theatre, followed by local authority desk job). I became disabled literally overnight, waking one morning unable to stand and having to crawl down the hall to feed the cats (who were vastly amused at my antics). That was aged 49, and led to "disability retirement" ... I'm 64 now, still need a stick to walk, but am able to look after the much smaller garden I have (12 foot x 100 foot) and grow a reasonable amount of veg.

    Thanks for all the inspiration "Life on Pig Row" provides!

    1. It is awful when it happens and you have all my sympathies but glad you can grow, and keep going!