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Tools, Attitude, And Good Old Efficiency: Solutions For Aging Gardeners

Published: July 12, 2019 at 07:15 am

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The feeling of putting hands in the dirt while getting fresh air is something that perhaps brings older gardeners back to their youthful days of playing outside and getting messy without a care. At the same time, they can accomplish multiple things: growing their own flowers or vegetables while taking on a new hobby or continuing one they have had perhaps for decades and staying active.

As people age, however, it can become difficult to maintain gardens due to mobility, flexibility, and strength decline. But there are some solutions that may help older, even elderly, men and women with green thumbs.

Town resident Sydney Eddison has been gardening since 1961 and wrote the book Gardening For A Lifetime, which was originally published in 2010.

Ms Eddison’s garden is situated in a clearing in the woods and was carved out of an overgrown pasture.

“I have sun and a lot of shade. In the sun, there are perennial borders; in the shade, plants that can tolerate low light conditions and dry soil. I also have a little woodland garden with a vernal pool. The pool dries up in the summer, but in the spring, I can grow Japanese primroses (Primula japonica) and other primroses that can survive the hot, dry summer. Because of the site, I have a very large garden, and there is no way to make it smaller, but I have succeeded in making it a lot simpler,” she said.

“I love digging and throwing myself into the physical work of gardening. Not everybody does, but if you don’t, you will need help. In Gardening For A Lifetime, I suggest ways of finding help. But if you like the work itself, here are a few tips I have found useful: Try to be efficient; what I find tiring is all the running around this big garden when I have forgotten a tool. Bring all tools you could possibly need in one trip.

“I have always been a creeper, not a bender. Thus, I find a kneeling pad really helpful because I spend a lot of time on my knees. Getting up — there’s the rub. I have a little short-handled shovel that I use a lot so it can be handy to push yourself up.”

Ms Eddison suggests gardeners not try to carry heavy loads of things such as mulch. “I schlep a lot of wood chips around the garden to top up the mulch, and two small buckets are easier to carry than one large, heavy one,” she noted.

“My balance isn’t what it used to be, so where there are steps, I have had someone put up railing. The railing is quite rustic looking and a godsend if you are lugging a heavy bucket of wood chips in one hand and hanging onto the railing with the other. The habit that has gotten me into trouble is trying to do one last job when you are already tired. That’s when you fall or otherwise damage yourself. When you are tired, quit,” she said.

Plant choices can make a difference for older gardeners, Ms Eddison pointed out.

“Do your research and choose plants suited to your site rather than trying to keep a plant happy in the wrong place. Also, beware the thugs. I transplanted ferns from up at the house where there was also some pachysandra — only a couple of strands — to the woodland garden. The pachysandra absolutely swamped the woodland garden,” she said. “Another rampant thug in the woodland garden proved to be the Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). It is very pretty, with big bright yellow flowers that have four petals, but by this spring, the whole woodland garden, which is small, was a monoculture of Wood Poppy. Two of us spent six hours pulling it out before it had a chance to self-sow.”

 

Tips And Tools

Eugene Reelick, owner of Bethel-based Hollandia Nursery LLC, said that the elderly may have to give up tennis and golf, for example, but “they can play cards, and they can still plant flowers and garden.”

The key to older gardeners being able to continue to plant things is having the right tools. Hollandia sells a bench that allows gardeners a place to sit that makes for an easier time getting up than if they were on the ground.

“Kneeling is not as easy anymore,” for older gardeners, Mr Reelick acknowledged.

Hollandia also carries a kneeler with handles that are 24 inches off the ground, which Mr Reelick said can help gardeners, including those in wheel chairs.

“They roll or walk up to it, and now they don’t have to bend over,” Mr Reelick said.

Periodically throughout the year, Mr Reelick holds seminars in which gardeners (and aspiring gardeners) may get tips and ideas. Mr Reelick noted that, while there is a wide age range of attendees, he also sees an increasing number of older gardeners at these seminars.

The importance of gardening for elderly or older people, according to Mr Reelick, is that they get a sense of satisfaction planting and picking their own flowers for display in a vase or veggies to cook a meal.

“It’s the passion that they get out of it,” Mr Reelick added.

There are plenty of fitness-related health benefits for those able to garden.

Kim Hayes at aarp.org said gardening is a great form of aerobic exercise. Ms Hayes said pulling weeds, reaching for various plants and tools, and twisting and bending as you plant will work new muscles in your body and help with strength, stamina, and flexibility. Sunshine exposure helps build Vitamin D that increases calcium levels and benefits the bones and immune system.

A recent sunriseseniorliving.com blog also pointed out that gardening nurtures the body, mind, and spirit while boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure and stress levels, and helping those who garden stay strong and limber.

Sunriseseniorliving.com suggests six items that can help keep an older gardener digging, pruning, and cultivating safely for years to come:

*It’s easy for an older adult to lose their balance while dragging a long, heavy hose around the yard. So newer, more lightly coiled hoses that stretch farther are more senior-friendly.

*Arthritis in the hands is fairly common among older adults and can make it more difficult to maneuver traditional garden tools, so upgrade to tools that are larger and easier to grip.

*Seniors with balance difficulties are at higher risk for a fall while weeding the garden. One inexpensive tool that can help is the No Bend Weed Puller, which allows a senior to weed their garden from a standing position.

*For an older gardener with knee or back problems, a kneeling bench makes gardening less painful, and handrails on each side make it easier and safer to stand up.

*For seniors with arthritis, crawling around on hands and knees can be painful, but a heavy-duty garden scoot with heavy-duty tires and a swivel seat allows an older gardener to work from a seated position.

*Investing in raised waist-high flower beds is another way to safely garden during retirement years. These types of beds also make it easier for seniors in wheelchairs to enjoy gardening. The wheelchair can safely slide underneath the raised bed to allow the gardener to work.

 

Taking The Challenge

Fran Hickman, 68, and a resident of Nunnawauk Meadows, has been living with progressive multiple sclerosis since she was 16 and is now restricted to a motorized wheelchair, but that has not stopped her from gardening.

Back in 2006, Ms Hickman replaced gravel around shrubs with dirt and peat moss and added plants to dress up a block and a half perimeter of a housing complex where she lived in Danbury — all from her wheelchair.

“Every day, I’d be out there watering, pruning, trimming, all from the wheelchair,” Ms Hickman recalled.

Now, since she can not bend down, Ms Hickman does her gardening at table height, putting plants into pots and baskets that hang from her balcony.

Ms Hickman had a 40-year career as a psychiatric nurse and has the mindset that people can overcome their limitations, including when it comes to restrictions they may think should prevent them from gardening.

Ms Hickman said, “I really believe you can look at any challenge as ‘oh my god, why did this happen to me?’ or ‘oh my god, why did this happen to me? Now how do I get around it; how do I manage it?’”

For Ms Hickman, the joy she gets out of gardening has motivated her to overcome limitations resulting from MS.

“I love getting my hands in the dirt and feeling the warmth of the earth. There’s a connectivity to nature that really fills up your soul. I wish more people would allow themselves to challenge themselves a little bit,” said Ms Hickman, adding that there are adaptive ways for gardeners to continue their passion. “I think we’re lucky now because many of the garden centers have developed these raised gardens you can find inexpensively or make, assemble inexpensively.”

Ms Hickman said her apartment is full of plants and noted that they are good for the air we breathe. She recommends having African violets or Christmas cactus, which, when in bloom, brighten things even during the long winter months.

“It reminds you that despite the fact it’s all gray and gloomy outside, there is going to be a time when it gets sunny and warm again,” she said.

“If you plant some flowers and put up a bird feeder, you’ve got joy and magic happening outside your house that otherwise would not be there,” added Ms Hickman, who said she is happy to help anybody looking for gardening assistance if they stop by Nunnawauk Meadows to see her.

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