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Gardening in Your Senior Years

When you move from the family home to smaller quarters, you may leave a large yard and garden that were equal parts hard work and great joy.

To get this space just the way you wanted, you may have spent decades moving mulch, rock, fertilizer, and pots. There was weeding and raking and trimming. There were pests to combat and watering to complete.

But there were also real tomatoes, roses, and the proximity of the cycle of life. What’s more, there was exercise, fresh air, and a sense of accomplishment.

Whether the move is to a smaller townhouse, apartment, or assisted living center, physical challenges and a lack of space can confront gardeners. But you don’t have to give up your lifelong pursuit—and you’re better off if you don’t. Studies show gardening offers positive health effects for older adults.

Gardens are sprouting

There’s also a growing awareness of older adults’ physical limits and ways to ease them. And more architects and landscapers are providing garden settings at community sites, nursing homes, and assisted living centers.

Horticultural therapist Jean Larson is program coordinator for the University of Minnesota Center for Therapeutic Horticulture. She came to love gardening after she saw its value as a therapeutic tool for her own learning disability.

“I am dyslexic, and I have always learned better from things in the physical world. Horticulture therapy is a natural professional extension of that,” Larson says. An expert on ways mature adults can keep gardening, she works with senior groups and lectures medical students on horticultural therapy.

“Seniors don’t want to leave a lifelong love of gardening. In fact, as we age there seems to be a longing to be nearer to the earth,” she says. The connection to others is also vital. “Gardeners find other gardeners, so it is an important way to keep up socialization in a population that tends to isolate.”

Container gardening

In her community, she often sees people leaving homes with a lot of land for homes with decks, where container gardening can hold a gardener’s interest. She offers some ideas:

  • Watch out for excess weight. Use plastic instead of terra cotta pots. You can layer Styrofoam packing peanuts as filler on the pot bottom, covered with just 7 or 8 inches of soil.

  • Place everything within easy reach. You can hook hanging baskets to a ratchet pulley, for instance.

  • Place table planters high enough on legs to allow a chair to slide underneath in comfort.

  • Adjust your plant choices. For instance, pick pixie tomatoes that grow to an ideal pruning height. If your budget is tight, focus on seeds, cuttings, and regional or native plants.

Community gardening

Larson also likes the trend toward more community gardening in long-term care and assisted living centers. Still, she thinks more can be done.

One place with a long history of community gardening is Philadelphia. William Penn’s city plan called for one acre of garden or open space for every five acres of development. Many older gardeners recall World War II “victory gardens” in small plots behind the city’s row houses. There are about 400 community gardens within the city limits. Older gardeners care for many of them with help from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Patricia Schrieber, the society’s community education manager, knows the distress older adults may face as they leave larger homes with big gardens.

“I have friends who have had to do that. I tell everyone to take stock of their garden before they leave and, if possible, take some of their favorite plants with them,” Schrieber says. There’s something else the older gardener shouldn’t leave behind, she adds: horticultural expertise. That knowledge can greatly aid a new community.

Schrieber’s group depends on 3,000 volunteers to put on the Philadelphia Flower Show—the world’s largest indoor flower show. “We couldn’t do what we do without them, and I’m always encouraging elderly gardeners to seek out their local schools and community gardens to get into service.”

She also believes in the social aspect of gardening. It can be a great help in reducing costs through swapping plants and sharing tools.

“Gardening is a great leveler,” Schrieber says. “It allows people of different ages or views to get together and do or talk about something they love.”