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Get Your Garden to Grow!

Former Teacher Offers Tips

Tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener
— Thomas Jefferson

Growing old may sometimes seem incompatible with tending vegetables and flower gardens. All of that digging, weeding, and tilling can make a creaky knee or achy back scream for aspirin and a hot bath.

But there are plenty of ways that Thomas Jefferson’s favorite hobby can be modified for aging gardeners, says master gardener Diana Benzing, an NEA-Retired member from Neola, Iowa, who teaches classes for gardeners of all ages through the Iowa State County Extension office.

First, protect your back by rethinking your traditional rows and beds. Back pain is often caused by the frequent bending required to seed and weed a typical, ground-level garden. But raised garden beds—some are as high as waist-level—can eliminate the need to bend, Benzing notes. “Just watch the water,” she advises. “Raised beds tend to dry out more quickly.”

Or, instead of raised beds, do like Benzing and her husband Dean did this year, and plant directly into knee-high straw bales. A dozen bales bought from a local farmer or garden supply store and then prepared with soakings of water and fertilizer, also eliminate the need for soil tilling, “which is great for an older person,” says Benzing. Seedlings are dropped directly into the cut ends of the hay. 

Something known as “lasagna gardening” can also eliminate tilling. Taking a cue from those yummy layers of noodles and cheese, a lasagna gardener will lay wet newspapers directly onto the grass, and then layer dirt on top. “If you use sterile potting soil, you’re also eliminating the need to weed because you’re not bringing in any weed seeds,” Benzing notes.

Container gardens can be great for retirees, too—especially those who have down-sized from acreage to apartments. “You can do amazing things in containers,” says Benzing. “Tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, herbs—even new baby potatoes, which a lot of people like with creamed peas—[all can be grown] in containers on a porch with a little sun.”

Just watch the watering here, too: Containers can be easy to flood, and fast to dry out, she advises.

Telescoping hoes and more

Next, take a look at your equipment. Trade in your steel wheelbarrow for a lighter plastic model, and look for other tools that are lightweight, easy for arthritic hands to grip, and designed to make life easier. To eliminate the need for bending, Benzing has a telescoping hoe.

Kneelers are helpful. “I just bought a funny kind of stool—you can sit on it, or flip it over as a kneeler, and it’s got an edge that helps you get up off the ground,” she says. Or, go an even cheaper route: “I have a friend who loves to raise flowers. She sits on a 5-gallon bucket to weed.”

And definitely invest in a hose reeler! “After my first husband died, I was out there with that hose, dragging it around, trying to reel it up by hand,” says Benzing.

Originally from Catonsville, Md., Benzing has gardened since childhood, and would follow after her father in their rows of sweet corn, muskmelons, and more. But you’re never too old to develop a green thumb, she says. In fact, learning to garden probably has its own special benefits for her aging peers, she suggests.

You’re never too old to develop a green thumb, Benzing says. “Anytime you’re trying to learn something, it’s good for your look at all the veggies you’ll get to eat!”

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