Gardening Horticultural Therapy Senior gardening

As You Age, Become an Adaptive Gardener!

By Duane Pancoast, author of the book
The Geriatric Gardener: Adaptive Gardening Advice for Seniors.

Gardening is an activity that most of us do because we want to. We do it because it’s pleasurable, healthy, puts fresh produce on the table, beautifies our environment and the list goes on.

However, when the breathing gets more difficult or the knees or back give out, many gardeners call it quits, hang up the trowel, and retreat to the indoors. Instead, why not become an “adaptive gardener”? Adapt your garden and gardening to accommodate your changing capabilities.

Here are some of the ways senior gardeners are adapting:

Take Pressure Off Your Knees and Back

Knee and back pain are the most common problems senior gardeners experience. Making the following ideas part of your routine as an adaptive gardener now, regardless of your age can relieve pain, or even prevent it.

  • Exercise to warm up or cool down. If you’re under a doctor’s care, talk to them before starting. If you belong to a gym, ask the trainers for a regimen.
  • Use lightweight containers and consider buying or planting your plants in nursery pots that can just be slipped into the decorative container.

Editor’s note:

This article is of particular interest to me as a person suffering from increasingly severe health restrictions. They have pushed me to try pretty much all of Duane’s techniques over the last few years (except moving out of my home). I’m now essentially housebound (but not yet bedridden), but I continue to garden, largely with patio plants, container vegetables and houseplants. Mostly I pinch, prune, prod and harvest a diverse collection of low-care plants.

I have help from friends and family with my outdoor gardens, mostly filled with low-maintenance shrubs, and even with watering my houseplants, as I now have trouble holding a watering can for any length of time. But whatever I still can do with my plants, even if it’s just softly touching them, brings me so much joy and pleasure that I can’t imagine ever giving up on them. That is especially true of the always-evolving and totally self-watering green wall in my bathroom.

I’m hoping to garden until the day I die.

May this article help make that a goal you too can reach1

Look into one of the wheeled seating or kneel & sit products. You can meander about your garden comfortably seated, plus it will help you hoist yourself upright as needed.

Inverted bucket makes a great work seat for the garden.
A simple bucket can be an incredibly useful mobility tool in the garden!
  • Even better and less costly is a five-gallon bucket, which is my preference. It’s a seat when turned upside down, and it can also double as a tool caddy and debris bucket. And when you choose to work kneeling down, it’s a good aid for helping you stand back up.
  • Lift with your legs, rather than bending over and lifting with your back. Don’t lift any further than your waist in one motion.
  • Don’t carry heavy objects. Put them in a wheelbarrow (preferably two-wheeled), garden cart, or coaster wagon. It’s easier on your back to pull rather than push.
  • Wear strap-on knee pads. They’re inexpensive, easy to locate at home and garden centers and won’t impair your maneuverability.
Raised beds for people with mobility problems.
Raised beds aren’t just for vegetables. Notice that these are at just the right height to work standing or sitting. You can even work perched on the cap board.

Breathe Easier

If breathing and temperature sensitivity limit your time in the garden, here are some easy processes to consider as an adaptive gardener and they won’t cost you a penny:

  • Plan your garden work in small blocks and don’t garden beyond your limit. Begin the day with the most strenuous work and move on to progressively easier projects as the day goes on.
  • Take frequent rest breaks between each work block. Select or make a cool, shady spot in the garden. A shade tree’s ideal, but in the absence of one, a patio umbrella and comfortable chair will do.
Senior woman sipping glass of water in the garden.
Always have a nice refreshing drink at the ready! Photo: racorn, depositphotos
  • Stay hydrated! Keep a cooler of water at your rest area and drink during every rest period. Dehydration can cause balance problems, and falling is the last thing you want to do in the garden.
  • If you can’t stand the heat, garden in the morning before it gets too hot or in the late afternoon or early evening when it’s starting to cool down. If you’re always cold, then the afternoon may be the best time to do your gardening. On oppressively hot days, stay indoors in the air conditioning. Your work will wait for you.

Dress Garden Comfortable

Many skin problems we senior gardeners are experiencing now got their start in our invincible youth when sunbathing was the thing to do. Today, taking precautions as an adaptive gardener can reduce the number of trips we have to make to the dermatologist and the seriousness of the treatment.

Editor wearing wide-brimmed Tilley hat.
Editor’s note: I’ve been wearing wide-brimmed hats since I started to go bald at 17. Different handicaps show up at different ages! Photo: France Bouchard, artiste-photographe
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat that will cover the tops of your ears, and the back of your neck and will shade your face. A baseball cap will shade only your face.
  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing, preferably covering your limbs.
  • Slather sunscreen on all exposed skin and reapply every couple of hours.
  • Wear sunglasses. The sun’s rays can exacerbate age-related macular degeneration and contribute to cataracts. Both conditions should be of concern to senior gardeners.
  • A cell phone and/or medical alert device should be an accessory for every gardening outfit. You never know when you might fall and have to call family, friends, neighbors, or first responders for help.

New, Lightweight Tools

If your current tools are getting too heavy, too difficult to operate, or hard to hold with arthritic fingers, tool manufacturers have things for the adaptive gardener covered!

  • Lightweight cutting tools with gear assist are now available. These include pruners, hedge clippers, and loppers. Ratchet pruners are even easier to use.
  • Replace your wood-handled shovels, rakes and hoes with the new lightweight tools with fiberglass handles and lightweight metal blades.
Pool noodle slipped over the handle of a lawn mower.
A pool noodle slipped over the handle of a lawn mower makes it easier to manipulate. Photo: FHM-handy-hints

Make long-handled tools easier to grasp with arthritic fingers by installing foam sleeves over the handles. Use pool noodles or pipe insulation.

Make Your Garden Accessible

As time takes its toll, you may need a mobility aid like a walker. Incorporating these recommendations into your next garden renovation may save you money and time.

  • To accommodate a walker or wheelchair, widen your paths to four feet (120 cm) for one-way traffic or seven feet (2.1 m) for two-way traffic.
  • Replace steps with gentle slopes of no more than 5%.
Use smooth surfaces for paths.
Widen paths and pave them with a smooth material to make circulation easier.
  • Make your path surfaces smooth using material like flagstone or bluestone set in concrete, and use a distinctive edging material so a person with low vision can feel the edge of the path.
  • For low vision, install a handrail on each side of the slope or steps. Start and end it well before the slope or steps.
  • Distinguish each intersection to help orient people with vision or memory challenges. One way would be to have a plant with a distinctive fragrance at each intersection. You can also use distinctive sounds like wind chimes or wind bells.
Garden path lit at night.
Light your sidewalks, garden paths, patio perimeter, and pond shore for safety and security.
  • Light your paths, sidewalks, patio edge, and pond with stick lamps. Low-voltage lights don’t depend on the sun shining as solar lights do. They can also be plugged into a timer.

Make Gardening Easier

Here are some quick tips for making gardening easier for you:

Two containers on plant caddies.
Move plants easily on plant caddies. Photo: The Home Depot
  • Use more containers on plant caddies. The only downside: containerized plants have to be watered more often than in-ground plants.
  • Replace perennials that need to be divided often with shrubs and/or dwarf conifers. (Shrubs may need an annual haircut while dwarf conifers seldom need any pruning.)
Young girl helping granddad garden.
Ask your family for help and you may create a whole new generation, or two, of gardeners!
  • Seek help when you need it. Ask family or friends or hire a professional gardener.
Groundcovers naturalized on a slope.
Embrace imperfection. I weeded and mulched this hill until I couldn’t do it any longer. Natural appears to be preferred by people who have seen it both ways.
  • Plant your garden naturally rather than formally. It’s easier to maintain.

Consider Downsizing

Small space edible plant garden.
Small space gardens encourage creativity like this “ornaveggie” or “ornaedible” garden. The owners can step out of their house to the fragrance of flowers while they pick a fresh tomato for tonight’s salad. Learn more about creating edible and ornamental containers.

When toiling in a large garden becomes a daunting chore for you, you might consider downsizing—or more accurately, rightsizing. Although the thought of leaving your current home and garden may seem inconceivable, or even downright repugnant, it does have some significant benefits, including…

  • Time to be more creative. When you don’t have a big garden to maintain, you have more time to think about imaginative ways to use raised beds, containers, and even in-ground plantings.
Sign warning not to disturb the weeds.
Small space gardening also gives us time to think whimsically. When I didn’t get around to weeding a bed, I’d simply put this sign in it.
  • Use your extra time to make your garden more fun … even whimsical.
  • If you’re having a difficult time thinking small, many books are available, including from the National Garden Bureau, on small space and urban gardens. Don’t get hung up on the term urban garden. These books contain great ideas for small space gardens wherever you live.
  • Again, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Friends, family, local garden clubs. You may be surprised how many gardeners are willing to lend a helping hand!

When You Just Can’t Work Outdoors Anymore

  • There may come a time when you can no longer garden outside. That doesn’t mean you have to give it up. Just take it indoors.
Tillandsia plants attached to a piece o driftwood.
May I suggest tillandsias, also called air plants (Tillandsia spp.)? Penn State Extension called them the houseplant of the moment in the nursery industry. They can be displayed in an unlimited number of ways and only need sunlight and water. (You can learn more about them is this handy article: How to Make Air Plants Thrive.) Photo: worawut17, depositphotos
  • Expand your houseplant collection. A succulent here, a little orchid there, a faithful philodendron in the corner. These simple plants become your friends. Just water and watch them grow, bringing life into your life.

This is the point I’m at.

At age 83, with a bad knee and the after-effects of a stroke, I now hire out my outdoor garden work and concentrate on my indoor garden. Every other week, I navigate around the house on my walker collecting the 30+ tillandsias, soak them in the kitchen sink for an hour or two, let them dry for a while and then return them to their homes. They love it and so do I.

Duane Pancoast

9 comments on “As You Age, Become an Adaptive Gardener!

  1. Pingback: Thriving Blooms, Strong Bodies: Accessible Gardening For Seniors  - Elder Proofing

  2. A number of years ago when I had broken my ankle in April but was determined to get out in my garden as soon as I could walk, I bought myself a Folding Kneeler Stool from Lee Valley. This has been the best garden tool I’ve had. I never use it for kneeling, only sitting, but it saves my knees. The end supports are rounded so I can easily lean forward and weed or dig. It is lightweight and folds flat. I take it on trips to the kids places so I can help in their gardens. This year I even took it to the U-pick strawberry farm. Just don’t stand on it as those rounded edges make it tip more easily.

  3. When one needs to read something! Great timing! 78, two new knees.. all the arthritis goodies! Fall is the great redeemer it seems! All positive tasks done with joy! I am adapting more aggressively by filling up our English gardens with MORE! Shade out those weeds! And building a formalized, but lazy, rose garden. Lots of gravel, Mediterranean if you will.. in a Rainforest? Lol yes. Climate change pushed us from Zone 7 to 8b! Thank you for a
    The great tips! Needing many these daze! GARDEN ON!!

  4. Ann T Dubas

    Great suggestions! We use these strategies more and more as we advance through our 70’s. We find our light, rechargeable, battery powered tools a God send. I love my weed whacker and tiny chain saw pruner! Everything is done in small bites which helps us keep up 5 acres mostly by ourselves. We work at cooler times or the cooler side of the property. Good luck everyone!

  5. Paul Douglas

    As we age, we need to apply the “Rules of Ate – Elevate, Automate, and Delegate!”
    Maybe more raised beds or make them higher?
    What can be automated? Drip irrigation can be put on a timer.
    Any tasks you can assign to a younger back?

  6. I love my garden so much that the standing joke in our household is that I will be buried here. Good incentive to make it more manageable.

  7. Good suggestions. I also keep a collapsible two wheeler to move things around.

  8. I so love this article. To the chagrin of my OCD sister I too have embraced my dandelion garden (though I can see I am in sore need of that “experimental” sign) and air plants have become my best friends and decorating advisors. The upside is that my naturalized garden has now become the preferred habitat for a harem of nesting RN pheasants and other critters whose progeny give me the photographic wherewithal to sweeten even those OCD tuts and turn them into awwws.

    • Mary L Discuillo

      I have begun to look forward to your blogs. I just retired and am lucky enough to have time and physical capacity to garden. I am however always thinking how to set things up to be easier for me down the road. Wanted to be sure you don’t live nearby. I’d be happy to help you if I could. Your not in southern calif are you? Hang in there. Best to you and see your garden! May it bring you joy

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