The Ageless Gardener

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
“A little studied negligence is becoming to a garden” — Eleanor Perenyi in “Garden Thoughts” (1981)

book coverFor the past several years some authors of garden books have honed in on writing what can best be described as adaptive gardening or gardening for a lifetime. This makes a lot of sense once you realize that by year 2020, more than 46 million baby boomers will be 65 and older. The most recent book in this genre is “The Lifelong Gardener: Garden with Ease & Joy at Any Age” by Toni Gattone (Timber Press, 2019). A couple of other examples include “Late Bloomer: How to Garden with Comfort, Ease and Simplicity in the Second Half of Life” by Jan Coppola Bills (2016) and “Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older” by Sydney Eddison (2010). The key point made by all these books can be summed up as recognizing your ability to create a landscape of beauty that supports your lifestyle. Indeed, your new landscape can be inspirational, beautiful and perhaps most importantly, functional all at the same time.

It seems reasonable to accept some of the objectives of adaptive gardening as noted by Gattone:

  • To raise awareness of adaptive techniques that enable gardeners to re-think how and when they garden for greater ease
  • To describe ways gardens can be changed or modified to ensure the safety and comfort of the gardener
  • To modify favorite tools to increase their usability or to replace them with more ergonomic options

Another way to think about gardening is that if you garden smarter, it will take less time to do more. In simpler terms, as one ages or has some kind of physical disability, knowing how to garden smarter will help to keep you more physically fit than most other activities. You need proactive solutions when you have physical challenges. “The Lifelong Gardener” is all about three T’s — tips, tools and techniques.

In the chapter “You and Your Body,” the key is to identify what you can control. Keep your attitude in check and be realistic regarding any mobility issues. In other words, find a way to maneuver about so that you will conquer pain with joy — adapt! Regardless of age and aging, gardening is about how you feel, so again adapt. This becomes the new normal and enables you to garden more comfortably and without or with little pain. Your attitude is showing when you are able to recognize some limitations, that is, your abilities and disabilities when you are gardening. Take note that age is just a number although age may be important when you are looking for bargain prices. Otherwise, does it really matter? In the end, aging and attitude should not be a deciding factor for a gardener; however, it is important to understand your limits. Mark Twain said, “Aging is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Gattone has a message relative to your comfort zone. She says, “It is important to strengthen our resilience to discomfort, as a path to inner peace.” If you can achieve that, you will not regret that resilience is a critical skill that goes along with caring for your body. As one ages you need to rethink how even simple gardening chores can be achieved regardless of some malady that heretofore limited your activity in the garden. The Dali Lama noted, “Pain can change you, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad change. Take that pain and turn it into wisdom.” This chapter includes a compilation of why and how you can maintain your physical fitness for working in the garden. The critical aspect is to accept your own reality. In other words, change your attitude and recognize your limitations more commonly called — STOP! As your body changes you can expect to see changes in balance, stamina, mobility and reaction time. This will become your new normal as noted above.

The second chapter is about “Your Garden.” It is akin to attending a lecture on adaptive gardening and how you can garden for a lifetime. Here is where you might want to give serious consideration as to how to make some changes to your garden. In order to help with a garden transition, Gattone has included an excellent multi-page worksheet called “An Adaptive Gardening Action Plan.” This starting point is invaluable as it helps plan your garden on paper and “forces” you to be honest with yourself. You can put into practice every point she makes because sufficient words and color photos from previous reading provide a DIY perspective.

The last chapter is about “Your Tools.” Where would you be without some of your favorite gardening tools? Are they still serving the original purpose? Human factors engineering or the more familiar term ergonomics comes to the rescue. This is especially true for those with weaker hands, arthritis, achy joints, loss of muscle, bad back, etc. More than likely, just as the need to adapt a garden is paramount, one also needs to find tools that “work.” Fortunately, a number of tool manufacturers are listening to the plight of aging gardeners. They have developed garden tools that recognize how ergonomically designed tools can be a difference maker for gardeners and are more suitable for their needs. These days, it is a lot easier to find quality tools and helpful products such as kneeling seats, carry tool seats and pot lifters for moving heavy containers. This is a win-win for the tool purveyor and the gardener. Many of these new tools will help you to stay in the garden longer. Also, look for tools that serve multiple purposes. Consider adapting tool handles with a bicycle handle grip or the type of tape used on tennis rackets for a better grip and ease. Do not shortchange on quality. The marketplace has many lookalikes, and it is better to personally check what is available instead of making a purchase over the internet.

One last point is about gloves. Although this may seem like a rather mundane topic, it is actually a practical consideration for every gardener. You need to protect your hands. Today you will find a confusing array of gloves, so look for those labeled as “bionic,” with padding, reinforced fingertips and well-constructed seams. Gloves come in all price ranges and with many different types of materials. Try before you buy. Consider the type of gardening that you do as this may dictate your glove selection. For example, long leather gloves (costly) are if you work with roses, but inexpensive “mud” gloves with a cotton-poly back and latex coated fingers and palms may be very serviceable for lots of gardening chores.

A few last words …. Garden smarter, not harder and never give up. Continue to stay in the garden for as long as it provides you with so much pleasure.