Gardening at Any Age
by Mary Pat MacKenzie
Gardening simply does not allow one to be mentally old, because too many hopes and dreams are yet to be realized. Allan Armitage, Author and Horticulturalist
As a child in my grandmother’s garden I learned to love the smell, color and texture of flowers. On Saturday mornings in summer I carried a basket and followed her as she cut flowers for the Church altar the next day. The peace and quiet, the buzzing bees, the smell of the roses have stayed with me for decades. Now, I am the one trying to teach my grandsons to love gardening – but less with flowers and more with green peas and tomatoes! Gardening and reading are the two activities that carry us from early childhood to ripe old age providing food for both the mind and body.
Sadly, as we grow in gardening knowledge and skill we also age and accumulate physical limitations. Sometimes new solutions are needed to keep us enjoying the incredible world of Mother Nature. Fortunately, there are some simple and creative ways we seniors can continue to plant, to harvest, and to “smell the roses” in our own backyards or on our decks.
My first foray into real gardening was in the 1970’s, in rural Prince Edward Island, and was certainly not something I would do again. With guidance from the Department of Agriculture my husband and I put in a 50’ x 80’ vegetable garden which, with the help of vast quantities of pig manure, produced enough food for us, our 1 year old, every neighbor we knew, and even a couple of restaurant kitchens. It was, to say the least, overwhelming!
Now, I have found that a much more effective way to eat from the garden is to plant in “vegetable trugs”. At 31” high and varying lengths these raised beds save older backs and knees from bending or kneeling to plant, weed, or harvest. They can be put anywhere - on a deck, in a yard or on a balcony. I tried “trug” gardening 3 years ago and it is not only easier, but you can plant and harvest earlier. While the only May flowers blooming in our yard this spring were daffodils, pansies, and shrubs we have been eating lettuces, onions and fresh herbs for weeks. We will have peas for the 4th of July – if the critters don’t get them first.
Raised beds come in many easy to assemble styles – some lower, some higher - and all can be adapted to the needs of gardeners in wheelchairs, on walkers, or with back problems. Large pots can also be used to grow vegetables and herbs as well as flowers, and many are lightweight and easy to move on wheels. When filling the pots squished up, empty plastic water bottles or packing peanuts make light, easy drainage in the bottom.
There are many tools that are more ergonomically suited to the hands and knees of older gardeners. There are stools with wheels that slide across a patio or path and there are folding benches that provide stability while weeding or planting. Hand tools too have evolved to meet the needs of arthritic hands and wrists. Wrist braces made for carpal tunnel are wonderful aids for gardeners with weak wrists especially when pruning with hand clippers. Rakes and hoes are much easier to grip with the simple addition of foam pipe insulation covering the handle. Light weight clippers and loppers can also benefit from the insulation treatment.
Perhaps the biggest change older gardeners need to consider is the style of their landscaping. Not many of us have part-time garden assistants so modifying the design of a garden can double your gardening pleasure with half the work. Shrubs and super easy-care perennials like grasses and native plants are good replacements for annuals and roses. Mulch is the answer to weed control and helps maintain moisture. Drip hoses under the mulch will keep you from hauling sprinklers and hoses across the yard.
Last, but not least, one of the easiest changes may simply be to make “To Do” lists. In her book Gardening for a Lifetime (Timber Press) Sydney Eddison explains how list making changed her life. On those days when she had a helper available her checklist made it possible to accomplish many tasks. Other days she was able to pick and choose her chores based on the time available. I have found that as I do my monthly calendar it helps to block out “appointment” time for the chores that will inevitably need to be done.
There is no reason for any of us to give up gardening. We all know that gardening is good exercise for both the body and the soul – but it is worth remembering to take a few precautions. Use sunscreen as aging skin burns easily; keep water nearby and stay hydrated; set a timer (I keep one in my wheelbarrow) to remind you to take breaks and limit repetitive tasks; wear gloves and a hat; check for ticks; avoid working at the hottest time of the day; and, on cold, rainy days stay inside and read garden books. Perhaps the best advice comes from the early English landscape architect William Kent: “Garden as though you will live forever”.
Additional information and advice is available from the Barnstable County Master Gardeners of Cape Cod. The Helpline can be reached at 508-375-6700 or through email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Pat MacKenzie is a volunteer and board member at Neighborhood Falmouth.