Gardening is an activity that most of us do because we want to. We do it because it’s pleasurable, healthy, puts fresh produce on the table, beautifies our environment, and the list goes on.
However, when the breathing gets more difficult or the knees or back give out, many gardeners call it quits, hang up the trowel, and retreat to the indoors. Instead, why not become an “adaptive gardener?” Adapt your garden and gardening to accommodate your changing capabilities.
Here are some of the ways senior gardeners are adapting:
This five-gallon bucket can be used as a gardening seat. It doubles as a tool caddy and debris hauler, as well as an assist for getting back up from a kneeling position. If you don’t have one, they are very inexpensive at home centers.
Raised beds aren’t just for vegetables. Notice that these are at just the right height to work standing or sitting. You can even work perched on the cap board.
Take pressure off your knees and back
Knee and back pain are the most common problems senior gardeners experience. Making the following ideas part of your gardening routine now, regardless of your age can relieve pain, or even prevent it.
- Exercise to warm up or cool down. If you’re under a doctor’s care, talk to them before starting. If you belong to a gym, ask the trainers for a regimen.
- Wear strap-on knee pads. They’re inexpensive at home and garden centers and won’t impair your maneuverability.
- Look into one of the wheeled seating or kneel & sit products. Even better and less costly is a five-gallon bucket, which is my preference. It’s a seat when turned upside down, and it can also double as a tool caddy and debris bucket. And when you choose to work kneeling down, it’s a good aid for helping you stand back up.
- Use raised beds, elevated planters, or containers. Be sure the planting height is comfortable for you to work standing or sitting.
- Use lightweight containers and consider buying or planting your plants in nursery pots that can just be slipped into the decorative container.
- Lift with your legs, rather than bending over and lifting with your back. Don’t lift any further than your waist in one motion.
- Don’t carry heavy objects. Put them in a wheelbarrow (preferably two-wheeled), garden cart, or coaster wagon. It’s easier on your back to pull rather than push.
If breathing and temperature sensitivity limit your time in the garden, here are some easy adaptations to consider and they won’t cost you a penny:
- Plan your garden work in small blocks and don’t garden beyond your limit. Begin the day with the most strenuous work and move on to progressively easier projects as the day goes on.
- Take frequent rest breaks between each work block. Select or make a cool, shady spot in the garden. A shade tree’s ideal but in the absence of one, a patio umbrella and comfortable chair will do.
- Stay hydrated! Keep a cooler of water at your rest area and drink during every rest period. Dehydration can cause balance problems, and falling is the last thing you want to do in the garden.
- If you can’t stand the heat, garden in the morning before it gets too hot or in the late afternoon or early evening when it’s starting to cool down. If you’re always cold, then the afternoon may be the best time to do your gardening. On oppressively hot days, stay indoors in the air conditioning. Your work will wait for you.
Dress garden comfortable
Many skin problems we senior gardeners are experiencing now got their start in our invincible youth when sunbathing was the thing to do. Today, taking precautions can reduce the number of trips we have to make to the dermatologist and the seriousness of the treatment.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat that will cover the tops of your ears, and the back of your neck and will shade your face. A baseball cap will shade only your face.
- Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing, preferably covering your limbs.
- Slather sunscreen on all exposed skin and reapply every couple of hours.
- Wear sunglasses. The sun’s rays can exacerbate age-related macular degeneration and contribute to cataracts. Both conditions should be of concern to senior gardeners.
- A cell phone and/or medical alert device should be an accessory for every gardening outfit. You never know when you might fall and have to call family, friends, neighbors, or first responders for help.
New, lightweight tools
If your current tools are getting too heavy, too difficult to operate, or hard to hold with arthritic fingers, the tool manufacturers have you covered.
- Lightweight cutting tools with gear assist are now available. These include pruners, hedge clippers, and loppers. Ratchet pruners are even easier to use.
- Replace your wood-handled shovels, rakes, and hoes with the new lightweight tools with fiberglass handles and lightweight metal blades.
- Make long-handled tools easier to grasp with arthritic fingers by installing foam sleeves over the handles. Use pool noodles or pipe insulation. Hint: Pool noodles are colorful and easy to spot if you tend to forget to take tools back to the shed or garage when finished.
Prepare for having to depend on a mobility aid by widening paths, and paving them with a smooth material like flagstone or bluestone set in concrete. Also, replace steps with gentle slopes.
Make your garden accessible
As time takes its toll, you may need a mobility aid like a walker. Incorporating these recommendations into your next garden renovation may save you money and time.
- To accommodate a walker or wheelchair, widen your paths to four feet for one-way traffic or seven feet for two-way traffic.
- Replace steps with gentle slopes of no more than five percent.
- Make your path surfaces smooth using material like flagstone or bluestone set in concrete, and use a distinctive edging material so a person with low vision can feel the edge of the path.
- For low vision, install a handrail on each side of the slopes or steps. Start and end it well before the slope or steps.
- Distinguish each intersection to help orient people with vision or memory challenges. One way would be to have a plant with a distinctive fragrance at each intersection. You can also use distinctive sounds like windchimes or wind bells.
- Light your paths, sidewalks, patio edge, and pond with stick lamps. Low voltage lights don’t depend on the sun shining as solar lights do. They can also be plugged into a timer.
I recommend that senior gardeners embrace imperfection. I weeded and mulched this hill until I couldn’t do it any longer. Natural appears to be preferred by people who have seen it both ways.
Lightweight containers on roll-about plant caddies make moving plants easy.
Make gardening easier
Here are some quick tips for making gardening easier for you:
- Use more containers on plant caddies. The only downside: containerized plants have to be watered more often than in-ground plants.
- Replace perennials that need to be divided often with shrubs and/or dwarf conifers. (Shrubs may need an annual haircut while dwarf conifers seldom need any pruning.)
- Seek help when you need it. Ask family or friends or hire a professional gardener.
- Plant your garden naturally rather than formally. It’s easier to maintain.
Small space gardening also gives us time to think whimsically. When I didn’t get around to weeding a bed, I’d simply put this sign in it.
Small space gardens encourage creativity like this “ornaveggie” or “ornaedible” garden. The owners can step out of their house to the fragrance of flowers while they pick a fresh tomato for tonight’s salad. Learn more about creating edible and ornamental containers.
When toiling in a large garden becomes a daunting chore for you, you might consider downsizing – or more accurately, rightsizing. Although the thought of leaving your current home and garden may seem inconceivable, or even downright repugnant, it does have some significant benefits, including …
- Time to be more creative. When you don’t have a big garden to maintain, you have more time to think about imaginative ways to use raised beds, containers, and even in-ground plantings.
- Use your extra time to make your garden more fun…even whimsical.
If you’re having a difficult time thinking small, many books are available, including from the National Garden Bureau, on small space and urban gardens. Don’t get hung up on the term urban garden. These books contain great ideas for small space gardens wherever you live.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Begin with family and you may create a whole new generation, or two, of gardeners.
Tillandsia is so low maintenance and can be displayed in ways limited only by your imagination. These in my office are in a plastic tray, a cactus log, and a little molded planter in the form of a Volkswagen bus.
When you just can’t work outdoors anymore
There may come a time when you can no longer garden outside. That doesn’t mean you have to give it up. Just take it indoors.
Expand your houseplant collection. May I suggest Tillandsia (air plants)? Penn State Extension called them the houseplant of the moment in the nursery industry. They can be displayed in an unlimited number of ways and only need sunlight and water.
This is the point I’m at. At age 83, with a bad knee and the after-effects of a stroke, I now hire out my outdoor garden work and concentrate on my indoor garden. Every other week, I navigate around the house on my walker collecting the 30+ Tillandsia, soak them in the kitchen sink for an hour or two, let them dry for a while and then return them to their homes. They love it and so do I.
Written by: Duane Pancoast
Author: The Geriatric Gardener: Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors
“This post is provided as an educational/inspirational service of the National Garden Bureau and our members.