Dedicated gardeners usually “dig it” for life. But, the physical challenges that so often accompany the retirement years may make it necessary for lifelong gardeners to rethink what, where and how they plant, to continue pursuing their love of growing things.
A “Gardening As You Age” webinar, sponsored by Penn State Extension and featuring Lebanon County master gardeners Mary Lott and Suzanne Fry, outlined tried-and-true methods for making gardening less physically strenuous. It proved to be a “hot” topic, with the presentation drawing more than 300 online attendees who logged in from all across Pennsylvania and several surrounding states.
“Do you have enough energy and time to garden?” Mary Lott quizzed the widespread audience. “If not, we hope we can help you make some changes to enable you to continue.”
“Physical activity is essential to healthy aging,” Lott said, citing 2018 U.S Department of Health and Human Services guidelines. “Gardening is one of the most popular home-based leisure activities.”
Research, she said, has shown that the physical exercise provided by active gardening contributes to overall improved health for an older gardener, including better hand strength, improved self-esteem, a reduction in falls, and reduced levels of loneliness as well as a sense of community. It also reduces anxiety and stress along with lowering depression, boosting mood, increasing self-esteem, enhancing cognitive function, reducing the body mass index (BMI) and improving overall quality of life.
“Gardening is a joy-filled activity in later life, if the gardener adapts wise alterations,” Lott said.
A poll of the online audience revealed that 45% of the participants estimated spending five or more hours weekly on gardening activities, while another 30% spent between four and five hours weekly.
The more-mature gardener needs to identify and adopt wise alternatives to “high maintenance” gardening practices.
“Rethink your garden,” Lott advised. “What is the hardest part of gardening for you? Is it weeding, bending over, having arthritis in your hands, fatigue, lifting things like bags of mulch? Start to think of some alternatives for overcoming those challenges.”
“Garden because you enjoy it. But know your limitations,” said Suzanne Fry, who 15 years ago was faced with physical challenges which led her to rethink her gardening practices.
That entails thinking about specific ways to reduce stress on the back, knees, shoulders and arms, which requires assessing one’s physical limitations, along with determining garden size, location and plantings. Fry urged aging gardeners to “think outside the box.”
Easier Plant Access
“Set yourself up for success,” Fry said, adding that gardeners should evaluate how much space and time they have, what they want to grow, and how conveniently located the garden should be to ease physical stress.
“Consider adaptations like container gardening, tabletop gardens, trellising and raised beds,” Fry said about a few of the popular, and proven, garden-practice alternatives.
Raised beds was one option that Fry chose for her own gardening practices, and strongly recommends to others, especially for those with back or knee issues. She said her raised beds are 15 inches high, which accommodates an ample root zone, but allows her to access plantings without stooping, or to sit down while tending them.
Before buying or building raised gardening beds, however, she said that several variables need to be considered, including the bed height and width, depth of soil necessary for intended plantings and materials to use in constructing the bed.
“I made a mistake. I made my raised bed too wide, and can’t reach the center,” Fry said about the challenges of working the center of her 8-foot bed width.
Instead, she advised making raised beds no wider than 4 feet, allowing for a better arm reach and access with garden tools. For beds located against a wall, Fry recommends a raised bed width no greater than 3 feet, since the bed will only be accessible from three sides.Materials for raised bed sides can be wood, metal, plastic, brick, concrete block or whatever works best for each gardener. If using wood, rot-resistant woods like redwood and cedar are best, though more expensive.
Fry strongly cautions against using treated wood, due to the toxic chemicals with which lumber is treated, especially for garden beds intended for growing food crops. She acknowledged that pressure-treated wood is generally cheaper and longer lasting. However, if treated wood is utilized, or there is uncertainty about whether it was treated, Fry recommends lining all the sides with heavy plastic placed between the wood sides and the soil, and keeping plants at least a foot away from the sides.
Planting bed height can be variable, but must allow for adequate depth for plant roots and moisture retention. Although Fry opted for a 15-inch height in her raised beds, she said others may only need 10 or 12 inches. If the bed is built on an impervious surface, such as concrete or blacktop, greater depth is necessary for adequate root penetration.
Raised beds also offer other advantages. If properly prepared, they allow better drainage than many garden alternatives. They can also permit a longer growing season.
“A downside of raised beds is that they do lose moisture more quickly, and untreated wood may harbor more pests. The soil depth may limit what can be grown. And, they must be hand-tilled,” she said.
She said that raised beds need frequent watering and leaf material build-up should be avoided so plants can breathe.
Tabletop gardens are a form of raised beds on heavy supports, generally built to about waist-height and more readily accessible for gardeners in wheelchairs, walkers or who need to sit when gardening for longer periods of time.
Fry suggested constructing a wooden or plastic box 9 inches deep, adding drain holes, lining it with landscape fabric and placing it on legs to raise it to table height. The planting box should be filled with potting soil 1 to 2 inches from its rim.
Fry said tabletop gardens work well for growing salad ingredients, like lettuce and spinach, even well into winter. She also recommended this style of planter for summer bush beans, eggplants, peppers, squash and tomato varieties that don’t grow tall. Tabletop gardens are well-suited for cool weather vegetables like beets, carrots, kale, lettuce and onions, or herbs like dill, fennel and lavender.
Fry said to use “determinate” types of tomatoes in confined gardens, such as tabletop beds and containers, because this type of tomato will grow to a defined height.
Both raised beds and tabletop beds lend themselves to long-season growing by utilizing plastic or metal hoops inserted into each side. Then, the planting bed can be covered with protective materials, such as plastic sheeting or fabric row covers.
Container gardens are another simple option for growing either vegetables or flowers. Popular for making these alternative gardens are sizes ranging from decorative pots to cast-off, plastic, 5-gallon buckets with drainage holes drilled in the bottom. Plant containers must be deep enough to accommodate the average plant root depth of 6 to 12 inches.
Never use a container that originally held chemicals, or similarly toxic materials, for plants, Fry said.
Soil-filled containers are heavy, which must be taken into consideration when locating a container garden. Sturdy handles enable containers to more easily be moved. For greater ease in handling, a section of old garden hose can be slit, slid over and taped around thin metal bucket handles.
Think about the container’s placement so that plantings will receive the recommended amount of sunlight; Fry suggested using a rolling platform base under a container that needs moving in and out of sunlight. Plant stands with sturdy rollers on the bottom are available at many garden centers.
For containers that have more depth than needed for the plant roots, place lightweight, non-degradable fillers, such as flattened milk jugs or soft-drink cans, in the bottom, cover them with landscaping paper and then fill the remaining space with soil to the needed depth.
“Never use ordinary garden soil in containers,” said Fry, who instead suggests commercially available potting soil mixes. Container soil must be well-aerated and permit drainage while still retaining moisture.
“Fill containers to about an inch below the container top,” she said. If the soil is level with the container top, water will simply run off the sides and not soak down to the plant roots.
Fry advises using container soil only one season, then adding it to an outside garden or a compost pile. Clean the containers after the growing season and store them in a dry place, indoors, upside down to prevent them from freezing, which can result in damage or breakage. Planting pots can be disinfected using one part bleach to nine parts water, then air-dried and stored.
Trellising plants is another adaptation to minimize bending while gardening, and can be fashioned in various ways. Twine or wire supports can be fastened at ascending levels — sort of a plant ladder — to posts set into the ground or fixed to opposite sides of raised beds. As plants, such as cucumbers, peas or pole beans, grow, the vines can be trained to grow up the supports, providing for ease in picking the crop while standing upright.
For heavier crops, such as vining squash or melons, supporting each fruit as it grows with a section of onion-bag mesh will help prevent the crop’s weight from breaking or pulling vines from the trellis.
Simplifying the Landscape
Lott said that garden adaptations based on the idea of “keeping things simple” is good. Reducing the size and/or number of garden beds, decreasing plant variety, using low maintenance perennials — especially native perennials — and mulching your garden are good starting points. Lott said that mature gardeners need to determine if they want a perfect or an imperfect garden — if perfection is desired, hiring help or downsizing the garden will likely be necessary.
Gardeners should evaluate their landscaping to decide on plantings that help reduce maintenance time and labor. Alternatives that require less perfection include planting a shade garden, which needs little attention beyond a spring clean-up. Replacing annuals with slow-growing, flowering trees and shrubs that require minimal pruning is another option. They can provide property screening and add year-round interest if their flowering periods are taken into consideration. These plantings also make a good backdrop for perennials.
Growing perennials reduces the need to plant annuals every year, but consideration should be taken as to whether the perennials are healthy and tidy or prone to pests and disease.
Tools for Ease of Use
Garden centers have a variety of aids which help, literally, to lighten the gardening load. Lott spoke about the numerous ergonomic garden tools now available to make chores easier for gardeners with physical limitations. These are lightweight tools designed to keep the wrist in a straight, “neutral” position; they often include large cushioned handles and adjustable levers or thicker, telescopic handles.
“Try before you buy” was Lott’s advice about these tools.
Fry demonstrated use of a ratchet garden pruning shears. Softouch, PowerGear, Easi Grip, HER and Radius are among the brands featuring user-friendly garden gadgets.
Other useful equipment for older gardeners includes protective kneelers or knee pads; gardening seats and stools, some of which swivel or roll to minimize bending or crawling on the ground, and adaptive devices to install on existing tools. Some ergonomic items feature T-grips, which attach at the end of a handle. There are also D-grips, which mount mid-handle.
Lott also suggested new lightweight, brightly colored hoses to prevent tripping; retractable, self-winding hose carts and quick-release hose attachments to further simplify watering
These tools are all designed for creating less stress and strain on muscles, backs and hands.
“Most of all, be safe,” Lott said. “And use knee pads; protect your knees.”
Garden safety for seniors calls for waiting for appropriate weather and time of day; wearing comfortable apparel, including stable footwear, and asking for assistance when needed. Safety is also enhanced by warm-up and cool-down stretches before and after spending time in the garden. Gardens also can be made safer by establishing convenient, comfortable places to rest and maintaining level walkways.
Gardeners can ensure good health by staying hydrated, pacing themselves and getting assistance with climbing or ladder tasks. It’s also useful to garden with a buddy, and keep a cellphone or whistle at hand, in case of need of assistance.
All these tips play a role in safe gardening and prolonging the joy and rewards of growing plants.
While the webinar was aimed at senior gardeners, it was noted that any gardener can adapt these ideas to make gardening less physically strenuous.
Toni Gattone, author of the book “The Lifelong Gardener,” summed it up this way: “Garden smarter, not harder, so you can garden for life.”
For more information on gardening ideas, contact your county Penn State Extension office.