Ageless gardening tips for the Northwest
by Pat Munts
Photo courtesy of Mark Epstein, ASLA Walks in this garden are wide and easy to navigate while the walls make a good place to sit.
For aging avid gardeners, getting old means our bodies don't always keep up with the passion that drives us to play in the dirt. In spite of stiff joints, waning endurance, and failing eyesight, balance and memory, we still look forward to our dirt time.
Many health professionals recognize that regular gardening activity helps maintain strength, flexibility, agility and mental alertness, says Teresia Hazen, a registered horticultural therapist and coordinator of therapeutic gardens and horticultural therapy at Legacy Health in Portland, Ore.
She has used horticulture for more than 20 years to help patients with a variety of medical conditions to regain their abilities, strength and develop a more positive outlook. Able-bodied folks can get the same and even more of the benefits by keeping up with a much loved activity as they age, she says.
Adaptation of a garden begins with reshaping expectations as much as the design, says Mark Epstein, director of landscape architecture for ESA Addolfson in Seattle, and a therapeutic design professor at the University of Washington. This means rethinking how you go about gardening.
Some changes can be simple and relatively inexpensive, such as buying ergonomic tools specially designed with padded or longer handles. Seated carts that roll and kneepad benches can help lower us to gardening level without sitting on the ground. Raised planting boxes and large pots bring the garden to our level and give us a place to sit as we work.
When simple solutions aren't enough, it may be time to call in a landscape architect, designer or contractor to rework parts of the garden for better accessibility. The challenge then becomes communicating your expectations with someone who might not regularly work with older gardeners.
"Be very clear about what you want and the challenges of the gardener," says Adam Wagner of highly rated Enviromax Landscape and Design in Portland, Ore.
First and foremost, the garden needs to be safe to move through. Paths need firm, smooth footing and be a minimum of 3 feet wide. Wagner prefers smooth concrete to other surfaces. Planting beds need to be close to pathways and, if necessary, raised to a more comfortable working height. Background plantings need to be easy to care for. Large pots on patios and near sitting spaces can be used to plant fussy flowers or a couple of tomato plants. In addition, consider a number of cool, shady places to sit and rest.
Because eyesight and the sense of smell diminish with age, gardens need more bright colors and scented plants. Work spaces and potting sheds need to be uncluttered and well lit. "Hoses, drains and sinks need to be accessible and easy to use," Wagner says. Set irrigation systems on automatic timers to leave worry out of watering.
So keep gardening. Be patient and adapt to the realities of age. Celebrate new ways of doing things and the joy of keeping yourself healthy and your garden beautiful.
Pat Munts grew up in western Washington but has spent the last 30 years gardening on the dry east side of the state near Spokane. She freelances for the Spokesman-Review and has served as eastern Washington editor for Master Gardener Magazine. She's the small farms coordinator for both WSU Spokane County Extension and the Spokane County Conservation District.