Since she took up gardening 35 years ago, Toni Gattone has appreciated the joy of time spent outdoors tending to plants and growing her own food.
“This is so beneficial for us — mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” says the 74-year-old resident of Marin County, California. Beyond exercise and fresh air, “when you’re out in the garden, you’re not thinking about what’s going on in the news. You’re thinking about that plant in front of you and what you can do to nurture it.”
As she got older, an arthritic back made some gardening chores painful for her. Rather than quit, Gattone adapted, as she details in her book, The Lifelong Gardener: Garden With Ease & Joy at Any Age. She redesigned her home garden, installing waist-high raised beds that enabled her to do her gardening without a lot of painful bending. To water her plants, she started using lightweight hoses that are less arduous to lift, and she switched to a thumb-controlled sprayer to lessen the stress on her hands from too much hard gripping.
With a little planning, most people can continue to reap the benefits of their backyard garden, even if they have disabilities or age-related declines in strength and endurance. A garden designed for accessibility and safety, special adaptive tools that compensate for physical limitations, a sensible gardening routine that manages exertion, and other safety and health measures can make gardening a healthy, rewarding lifetime pursuit.
The key is “to garden smarter, not harder,” says Pat Patterson, a master gardener who retired after working for 30 years for the Oregon State University Extension Service and still volunteers to help people learn adaptive gardening techniques.
Getting some advice from an expert at a local university or community program is a smart way to start. When Patterson is counseling older gardeners, she has them take a self-assessment questionnaire, which can uncover issues they need to work around — from hand or back problems to unfamiliarity with gardening tasks that might make them more vulnerable to injuries.
Besides the back and knees, hands are another body part that older gardeners need to protect, says Alice Pomidor, M.D., a physician and professor of geriatrics at Florida State University’s College of Medicine who is also affiliated with the university’s Institute for Successful Longevity. “People who have moderately severe joint arthritis can have a lot of trouble with the tools and with the weight of things like big ceramic pots,” she says.
Here are five tips for overcoming physical limitations and getting the most out of gardening.
1. Plan your garden carefully
Patterson recommends keeping it relatively compact, so it’s not too taxing to care for. “You don’t need to have an acre to grow a lot of food for a family,” she says. Additionally, experts often recommend using raised beds, so that you can garden from an upright or seated position rather than getting down on the ground. Pomidor recommends making the beds just wide enough that you can reach a little more than halfway across, and leaving enough space between the beds that you can comfortably maneuver with a garden scooter or set up a stool. In choosing the height, she recommends carefully considering the healthiest position for you to be in while you work. A gardener who has heart or lung problems may do better sitting on a stool or garden scooter, while a person with arthritic joints may be more comfortable standing. If you use a wheelchair, Gattone suggests smaller beds that are elevated on legs, so that your legs and the chair can fit under the edge and you don’t have to turn sideways.
2. Find the right tools
Gardening tool manufacturers offer scores of different implements that are designed to overcome various physical limitations, from tools with curved grips to reduce hand and wrist strain to those with long handles to extend your reach if you’re gardening from a standing or seated position. Before you buy a tool, Gattone recommends, take it out of the packaging and hold it in your hand to see whether it’s comfortable for you. It’s also possible to modify standard tools by, say, taping them to broomsticks or wrapping pipe insulation around a grip to make it bigger and less likely to slip out of your hand.
3. Treat gardening like it’s a workout
If you don’t like going to a gym or pool, gardening can be a good way to get some exercise in the outdoors, experts say. But it’s sufficiently strenuous that you need to be careful to avoid overuse injuries and overexertion. Gattone recommends doing a short warmup before gardening. “Stretching or yoga, tai chi, or even just turn on some music and dance to rock ’n’ roll for a five minutes,” she says. Additionally, she’s a believer in what she calls the 20-20-20 rule: “Don’t do a chore for more than 20 minutes at a time,” she says. That might mean raking for 20 minutes, then kneeling down (if you’re able) to tend to a plant, then standing again to prune a flowering shrub. Changing positions and limiting repetitive motions is key. And keep your gardening sessions to a length you can handle comfortably. Patterson recommends setting a timer, so that you don’t get carried away and end up sore for several days.
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4. Eliminate safety hazards
Gattone says that older gardeners need to be wary of slip-and-fall risks, starting with the back-porch stairs they walk down to get to the garden. “Make sure you’ve got handrails, or eliminate the stairs and put in a ramp,” she says. Also be wary about pathways lined with gravel or with paving stones that aren’t solidly anchored. Gattone says that installing a well-designed brick surface, concrete or interlocking pavers is a safer option. It’s also good to keep your phone in your back pocket, in case you do take a fall or your back suddenly stiffens up and you need assistance. Pomidor suggests wearing a carpenter’s apron with plenty of pockets for stashing your gardening tools, so that you don’t lose your balance and fall while picking them up.
5. Choose the right things to grow
While you can have fun growing flowers and shrubs, cultivating healthy vegetables and fruit is a way to improve your diet and maybe even save a few bucks at the grocery store. If you’re a novice gardener and looking for something that’s relatively easy to grow and also nutritionally beneficial, Gattone recommends salad greens and lettuce. “You just put them in the ground,” she says. “As you take the leaves, they grow even more.” Strawberries, blueberries, spinach and chard are other good, nutritious choices, she says. Patterson recommends cabbage, kale, snap peas and smaller varieties of tomatoes, which can easily be put in a bag and tossed in the freezer for future use. She notes that it’s important to grow vegetables that are suited for whatever region and climate you’re in. “If you’re in Georgia, you’re not going to be growing the same things that we’re doing here in Oregon,” she says. “You’ll be growing black-eyed peas and okra and things like that.”
The important thing, though, is to get out in the backyard and enjoy the pleasures of gardening. “It gives people something to look forward to each day,” Pomidor says. “Eventually, they can have a product of their labors that they can be proud of, or share. It’s a great activity for daily engagement, an interest that leads you to get outside of yourself.”
Patrick J. Kiger is a contributing writer for AARP. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine, GQ, Mother Jones, and websites of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.