“It is easy to age when there is nothing to believe in, nothing to hope for,” says renowned horticulturalist Allan Armitage. “Gardeners, however, simply refuse to grow up.”
Gardening, Armitage argues, does not allow a person to be old – at least not mentally – because, he says, “too many hopes and dreams are yet to be realized. The one absolute of gardeners is faith. Regardless of how bad past gardens have been, every gardener believes that next year’s will be better.”
Not only is gardening good for the soul, research shows it is also good for the body. A study in Britain just over a year ago found that older people who do moderate exercise such as walking, dancing or working in the garden are two and a half times less likely to suffer serious long-term health problems.
Sadly, gardening is often overlooked as an appropriate, low-impact activity for seniors, either for physical reasons or simply because of a lack of knowledge of the significant benefits.
The fact is, gardening is therapeutic. It increases energy, keeps individuals in touch with their senses and helps maintain (or even increase) flexibility and mobility. This has the positive effect of protecting endurance and strength, but also, according to another recent study, can reduce the chance of developing osteoporosis.
By working soil with their hands, the elderly can also keep their motor skills in continuous use. The multi-tasking required in a garden – weeding, watering, pruning – also helps stimulate the brain and encourage prioritization, keeping focus and concentration on getting tasks done.
Being outdoors allows for ample fresh air and exposure to natural sources of vitamin D, which boosts energy, encourages relaxation and helps reduce stress. Plus, gardening comes with delicious benefits and a renewed sense of accomplishment at harvest time. In a 2011 study, seniors who gardened reported higher levels of personal life satisfaction and increased levels of physical activity.
Although the levels of physical activity required in the garden can vary, one typical benefit is a deeper, more restful sleep (something that all of us, regardless of our age, can enjoy). As Armitage says, “There are many tired gardeners, but I’ve seldom met old gardeners…they may be elderly, but the majority are young at heart.”
Here are ten ways to make gardening more comfortable and accessible for grey-haired growers:
- Small is beautiful. Keep garden plots to a manageable size. Not only will this make gardening more enjoyable, but it will also help ensure the work doesn’t become overwhelming, or worse, discouraging.
- Raise it up. Containers and raised beds are great for dealing with poor quality soils or limited space, but they’re also ideal for the elderly, as they can be custom built to a height that minimizes bending.
- Lighten the load. When choosing to plant in containers, make them lightweight and make sure they have sturdy grab handles. This will make moving them more manageable. Ideally, attach wheels to the containers before you plant.
- Think ahead. Try growing vine type vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers on trellises, which will make pruning and harvesting easier.
- Embrace technology. Use soaker hoses or another irrigation method to reduce the awkwardness of dragging heavy hoses and the strain of handling watering cans.
- Squeeze in. Make garden beds narrow to reduce the need for stretching or reaching too far. Failure to take this into consideration may result in stiff and achy joints the following day, which could definitely reduce overall enjoyment.
- Mix it up. Avoid excessive repetition on the same muscles by changing daily routines in the garden so different sets of muscles are always being used.
- Be body aware. Think about your posture while out in the garden. If bending is required, be sure to do it with knees and hips.
- Choose your tools wisely. Modern gardening implements are made with ease-of-use in mind, so when choosing them, be sure handles are lightweight, sturdy and long enough so that reaching and leaning is minimal.
- Made in the shade. Garden in the morning or evening while temperatures are cool, stay well hydrated and choose lightweight and light coloured clothing. Be sure to sport a broad rimmed hat to keep the sun’s rays at bay.
Heidi Carmichael is a horticulturist who coordinates the trial gardens at Vesey’s Seeds in York, PEI. When she’s not gardening, Heidi enjoys running and spending time with family and friends.