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The Aging Gardener


A few years back I had worked on a project in conjunction with the physical therapy department of a chain of adult homes. What we came up with were a series of raised beds that wheelchairs and or seats could be placed under in order to alleviate the need for bending of any kind. Seeing this article today in the NY Times brought to mind the true enjoyment these seniors experienced  being able to once again feel and smell the warm earth.

Gardening Advice for Aging Bodies, Part 1

Readers sent dozens of questions about aging and gardening to Patty Cassidy, the author of “The Illustrated Practical Guide to Gardening for Seniors: How to Maintain Your Outside Space with Ease Into Retirement and Beyond” (2011, Anness). Ms. Cassidy is a registered horticultural therapist, a master gardener certified through Oregon State University, and a former counselor with a master’s degree from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. She currently oversees therapeutic gardening programs for seniors at Providence ElderPlace, a nonprofit health care agency in Portland.

Gary Miranda
Patty Cassidy, horticultural therapist.

More answers from Ms. Cassidy will be posted next Wednesday. This feature is now closed to new questions.
For Those With Arthritis
Q. Would you recommend a company that manufactures a line of tools for gardeners with arthritis? — Thurgood
A. While many elders complain of arthritis and how it inhibits their gardening, keeping a positive attitude and developing new habits can keep you at it for a long time.
First, be sure to consult your doctor or health care provider about your physical abilities and limitations.
Be aware that after sleeping, the older body needs more time to “reactivate” its muscles and tendons. Waiting a few hours before digging into the garden is wise. Occupational therapists can recommend appropriate exercises before you begin.
Pace yourself. You should break your garden tasks into smaller steps. Every 20 to 30 minutes change your position and activity. If you were raking leaves, switch to sitting as you deadhead the mums.
Boomers represent a huge market for all sorts of new products and the garden industry is taking advantage of this. The range of gardening tools and new designs to choose from can be overwhelming. While the term “ergonomic” is often associated with specially designed tools to meet the needs for those with arthritis, be aware that some designs are better than others. When investing in new tools, be sure that you can take them back if they don’t fit your needs. What may work for someone else’s arthritis may not suit yours.
Buy lightweight tools; expending your valuable and limited energy hauling around heavy things is not wise. For example, Fiskars makes sturdy but featherweight plastic hand tools.
I agree with the reader R.M. Weisman from PA who recommends Radius tools. While there is a large array of hand tools and shovels to choose from online, you should go to a store so that you can handle the tool to feel its weight and to see if the design fits your hand.
Look for hand cushioning. For tools that require us to grasp, most arthritic hands require and appreciate more cushioning. Many hand tools like trowels, weeders or pruners now come with foam rubber or some soft materials. If you need more sponginess, buy inexpensive pipe insulators (long gray tubes) that are easy to cut and wrap around handles, and secure with brightly colored duct tape.
Keeping your pruners sharp reduces the stress on your hands and wrists as well as ensures that you make a healthy cut on the plant. Look for lightweight pruners with comfortable handles.
Many tools like rakes, trowels and forks come with handles than can be adjusted to fit the length you need for the job. Customizing the tool to meet your physical needs enables you to work within the bounds of your arthritis.
Q. Do you have suggestions that don’t require a considerable investment in structural changes for modifying gardens for seniors? — Jordan, Long Beach
A. Modifying a garden can be as simple as not planting high-maintenance plants and looking instead for those more drought tolerant. In some geographic regions, planting natives can relieve the gardener of a lot of work. Review what you have in the garden and perhaps remove some of the shrubs that require yearly pruning or tall floppy flowers that need stalking.
Switch the in-ground bed gardens to containers and position them near your door for easy access and harvest.
Replace heavy hoses with lightweight brightly colored ones that are easy to move and see. Position hoses so you don’t have to haul them around the garden —perhaps get a new water faucet installed nearer to the garden. Add quick-release hose attachments so you can quickly exchange hoses without stressing your fingers and hands.
Make sure your pathways are safe for walking. Perhaps installing a handrail in hard-to-reach areas would help.
Add lighting so you can see the walkway or steps.
Vertical Gardening
Q. I would like to learn about vertical gardening. Crawling around is getting hard. — Mike, Santa Barbara, Calif.
Q. Is there a way to construct a vertical garden that is not tremendously expensive and labor intensive? — Cathy, pdx
A. Adding vertical structures can add a whole new dimension to your experience and to the look of your garden. Not only do they enable you to do a lot of your tending and maintenance standing up, thus putting less pressure on your back and knees, but they are also great space-savers on decks or porches. Vertical structures are versatile and come in many materials and shapes for a wide variety of plants.
If you have an existing wall or fence, this can be the start of your vertical garden.
Just be sure that there is safe and ample space for you to walk into, turn around in, and carry a small bucket for tools or harvesting.
If you have a blank wall, consider attaching a wooden fan trellis that would support a showy clematis or delicate vine. The beloved wisteria vine needs a very strong trellis support, so be sure you have assistance when installing this trellis.
The vertical height can vary but should not be much taller than the comfort of your arm’s reach, especially if you are growing vegetables or fruit that will need harvesting.
Getting on ladders or wobbly stepladders to get those lofty red runner beans is not recommended.
Try using an expandable teepee often made from bamboo or plastic poles. This can be easily set in a raised bed to provide more height for easy access. They are perfect for pole beans and peas and are easy to store for the winter.
Arbors and archways are charming and can be bought preassembled. Try growing cantaloupes or other small melons on these more sturdy structures. Just remember to create a mini-hammock of old nylons for the fruits to nestle in as they ripen.
Tall willow branches allow creative gardeners to form their own attractive and functional vertical structure. If you have access to pliable pruned fruit tree branches, you can make tri- or quad-podded structures for your summer crops.
Trellis or lattice structures come in plastic, wood or metal grid design and can be attached to walls or fences or can be free-standing. These are popular for showcasing delicate flowering vines.
Look for metal-tiered vertical planters that offer several spaces for containers that can hold many interesting plants, both upright and cascading. This structure can add a distinctive feature, especially if you are downsizing to a smaller home and yard.
Raised Beds
Q. As the time of relying upon a cane or even a walker comes upon us what modifications in small gardens should be made such as raised bed spacing and height? What surface is best for secondary and tertiary walks (now mostly dry laid field stone/flagstone or pine needles and wood chips)? Is there any sort of railing approach to reduce falls or assist in getting up from a kneeling position? For those of us who hate lawns for a billion reasons, are there ground covers for sunny areas (John Creech sedum has been suggested) and shady areas (the ever present pachysandra?) which are very weed choking, require little or no maintenance and avoid the expense and labor of leaf mold or other mulch repeatedly applied? — Bob Hills, new hope
Q. I’m 50 and still feeling pretty strong but trying to plan ahead. I have a large garden that is all open and very hard to maintain. I’d like to install raised beds but don’t have a lot of money. What is the least expensive but also environmentally friendly way to make raised beds? Ideally ones that will last, so I’m thinking of wooden planks attached at the corners for form rectangles or squares. — Anne, Concord, N.H.
Q. How to safely construct raised beds? What materials to use, how high to make them, etc. The materials have to work for the plants, as well as be attractive and safe. — John, California
A. Raised beds can be the answer to keeping many gardeners active in the vegetable patch and flowerbed. Raised beds come in all shapes and sizes, and can be made from a wide variety of recycled or repurposed materials: freight crates, second-hand lumber, rubber tires, galvanized horse troughs, cement (breeze) blocks or hay bales. Which material you choose will depend in part on whether you are doing it yourself or have someone helping.
The first consideration is to use materials that are safe. For example, avoid preserved wood that has been injected with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) or railroad ties soaked in creosote — especially for vegetable gardens. Some woods like cedar, redwood and cypress have naturally occurring rot-resistant properties and are good choices, but can be pricey. There are lumberyards and home-improvement centers with reject piles of wood; some carpenter’s nightmare could be your dream-come-true raised bed.
Buying a pre-cut modular kit for your raised bed is another option that will save you time and maybe some aggravation. Some come with wooden sides or a recycled plastic wood that can add to the price. But considering that you will never have to replace the planks if you use the artificial wood, you’ll likely save in the long run.
For most aging gardeners, a bed that is 2 to 2.5 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide will do the job. But there are other factors to consider. Do you use a wheelchair or a walker? Are you semiambulatory? Do you stand to garden or do you need to sit? If possible, get raised beds made to “fit” you and your needs. If you need to sit most of the time, add a sitting ledge onto the top of the raised bed or create access to the bed so you can sit on a stool or a chair as you garden.
Q. Consider straw bales. They are inexpensive instant raised beds, totally organic and require no construction. Just place, water, and when the internal temperature is right (a long shaft meat thermometer works for this) plant and, eventually, harvest. The bales can even be set on paved surfaces, solving a problem mentioned in another comment: how the mobility impaired can negotiate between raised beds. On a hard surface, a wheelchair or a walker would work well. —Roane 1, Los Angeles
A. While I recommend straw bales as an option for raised beds, they may be too bulky and cumbersome for a senior gardener to deal with. If you have access to organic hay bales and can get help to move them, this may be the raised bed for you. The process, however, is not as simple as your description makes it sound. I recommend reading these directions from the Oklahoma State extension site — this contains the step-by-step process needed to have a successful straw-bale garden. Good luck!
I do agree with your cautions about knowing more about the origins of wood chips and other organic matter that you bring into your environment. As we age, we need to keep our skin and lungs free from harmful fungi and herbicides. This is especially critical if you are amending soils for your vegetable gardens. Only certified organic matter should be used in places where you are growing food. I often use the wood chips that the arborist creates after he shreds the debris from my trees and shrubs.
Q. What do you suggest on the ground for in between raised garden beds? Water is so precious here in California that it should not be living turf or groundcover. The seniors in my family tend to drag their feet, so no bark or uneven stones. And one day if they should be in a walker or wheelchair, I will need something upon which I can roll about. — Rena, Bay Area
A. If you use some ambulatory assistance like a wheelchair or a walker, the pathway should be at least four feet wide. The surface should be level, smooth and have good drainage. Well-placed and installed pavers or flat field stones on the primary paths to the garden beds are better choices than wood chips or pine needles, which can break down, causing wheels to sink into this spongy material. Crushed granite that is pounded well creates a safe and usable pathway.
Q. I built several raised beds of 2 by 10 cedar 20 years ago and they are still going strong. You want the depth if you plan to grow root veggies. After placing the frame (and it’s fun to play with different sizes and shapes), lay cardboard and newspaper down, then add lots of potting soil and compost. This combination gives you a nice fertile and easy to work medium with the terrific bonus of freedom from weeds. — Granny Grace, Vancouver, WA
A. You are fortunate to have your raised beds for so many years. I recommend your method of keeping weeds at bay too by using sheets of corrugated cardboard covered with about 3 inches to 4 inches of soil and compost. I use this method on small sections of grass that I want to eradicate.


  1. Loved this post Maryanne....I have been immersed in mine almost every day....everything else is secondary....but my body is telling me to take a break! N.xo

  2. .............and I am immersed in everyone elses! I long for the day when I can spend the day in my very own garden.I envy you.