Gardening with heart failure and diabetes

Paul Peacock

Sometimes a hobby isn’t just a hobby: it’s a lifeline. For Paul Peacock, this hobby was gardening. “I started gardening as a child; my father was a keen gardener but never had time to do it, so I looked after his garden,” he says. “We grew most of our vegetables and also kept chickens and bees.”

Paul studied botany at university and made a successful career of it, appearing regularly on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, writing for the Daily Mirror as his alter ego Mr Digwell and publishing more than 20 books on gardening and food.

But when he suffered a heart attack, leaving him with severe heart failure, it seemed as if this career was over. Paul, 57, is now unable to do heavy digging, walk for extended periods or carry a spade very far.

However, he has adapted to his new circumstances with the help of his passion for gardening. “It’s been part of my rehabilitation,” he says.

Health problems

In March 2013, Paul was at home in Rossendale with his wife and business partner, Diana. He was preparing for the Edible Garden Show, at which he is a resident expert, when he started vomiting. “I didn’t have any pain to speak of and had no other symptoms, so I thought it was just a virus,” he says.

He was sick throughout the night but was otherwise free of symptoms. When Paul came down for breakfast the next morning, however, Diana and their daughter, Rebecca, were alarmed by his haggard appearance and called NHS Direct. 

The operator asked Paul a series of questions and, believing he was having a heart attack, dialled 999. “Within two minutes, paramedics were knocking on my door,” says Paul. “I was on the table at Manchester Royal Infirmary an hour later.”

Paul had four stents inserted, which widened his arteries and took him out of immediate danger

However, the heart attack left him with severe heart failure, which means his heart pumps much less effectively. He feels breathless and dizzy after even small amounts of activity and now takes a number of tablets every day to reduce the workload of his heart and help control his symptoms.

On the ward after surgery, the reality of his new situation hit home. “I went to have a shower and it completely wore me out,” he says.

Doctors discovered from blood tests that Paul had been suffering from undiagnosed type II diabetes

Diabetes is a significant risk factor for coronary heart disease, as it causes high levels of glucose in the blood, which damages blood vessels and can result in atheroma in the coronary arteries. Diabetes can also cause nerve damage, and Paul’s doctors believe this was the reason his heart attack was almost painless.

Cardiac rehabilitation

Back home, Paul went to cardiac rehab and later joined a local authority rehabilitation programme. “But as I was doing my little routine in the gym, I thought to myself, ‘I can do this in the garden,’” he says.

Things have changed, of course. Paul can’t do any heavy digging as he gets breathless, so he has to use a trowel instead of a spade. Cutting hedges is challenging, as he gets dizzy if he lifts his hands above his head, and he doesn’t go into the garden when it’s very hot or cold, as his heart has to work much harder in extreme temperatures.

However, thanks to raised beds built by Darren, his son-in-law, Paul can sit down and work with easy-to-harvest crops like onions or garlic; in early summer, he sowed cucumbers and tomatoes. He now does much of his gardening in containers on the patio. “It gives me a sense of achievement when so much else isn’t achievable any more,” he says.

I do think getting into the garden helps me in terms of my mental health.

Paul Peacock
Gardening writer

“And I do think getting into the garden helps in terms of my mental health,” he adds. “When you’re in a town, everything is vertical: buildings are up and down; roads narrow off into the distance; everything is bigger than you. But in the garden, it’s mostly horizontal. The forms are smudged; there are no hard lines, just soft edges. The colours are different.

“One of my favourite plants is night-scented stock, which gives you this incredible aroma on a hot summer’s evening. It’s the best thing to have a couple of glasses of wine on the patio and then fall asleep smelling that. I don’t have the wine any more, so I just get drunk on the scent.”

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