Retiring to your garden is a dream for many people, and there are many gardens that are lovingly tended by older people. In fact, gardening keeps you healthy, as it is a low stress moderate form of exercise that benefits your cardio-vascular condition and is excellent for blood pressure and nerves. However, without a doubt the years tell on us, and we can see this when we observe younger people at work. So here are my thoughts as a sixty five year old gardener.
Gardening when you are getting older
You can still work in the garden in your nineties, but you go slower and can benefit from help.
Reflections on Age
Only this week my eldest son came to help me on the allotment, and I was glad of his help. I had been busy tending the vegetable plots and had taken my eye off the ball with the fruit section, so it had become a bit weedy. The problem is worsened by the ground elder, an invasive weed that comes in, I believe, from under the nearby road, so I cannot get at its roots without excavating the council's road, and they would have words with me if I did! As usual when Andrew, aged thirty four, turns up, he proceeds with gusto. Taking a spade he began to chop into weedy growth and sling it into the compost heap. I was grateful, but I also learned a lesson: he is faster now than I am. Thirty one years difference in age is showing. I left him to the vigorous tasks while I did the delicate ones, weeding the carrot seedlings, which require a sensitive and delicate hand, and tending the greenhouse. I was pleased with the result of our joint efforts: the effect of having Andrew was obvious and the weeds did not stand a chance. Victory to us!
Older people love gardening and it is really good for them. On Gardener's World,a wonderful British television programme, a year or two ago I saw a slot on a ninety seven year old man who was still running his pumpkin business. Sadly, between the filming and the screening he died, but he was gardening until such a late age. True, he had taken to having young people do the digging and carrying, but he did the skilled tasks. An example to us all! Anna Pavord,the gardening writer, was determined to show that women gardeners could do what the male ones could, just to show certain males like the old gardener I once met who declared, "Women can't garden.They can't dig!" Anna lugged logs and benches around for years, but while her gender did not stop her,age began to, and in her fifties she hired a nineteen year old lad one day a week to carry the heavy weights.There is no dishonour or failure in an older person seeking help from a younger one.
So why is gardening good for older people? Let's face it, we cannot move as fast as we once did. As a young man I could hare along, but I have lost the burst of speed that I once had. What older people need is regular, steady activity that exercises muscles but does not overtax them. I get this from gardening and walking; and it is working. Yesterday's visit to the doctor for my medical check up gave me the following blood pressure reading:127/73, which is great for a man of nearly sixty six. My pulse is fast, but I have always had a fast one, so the doctor is not concerned.
Gardening is good for the mind. Whatever the truth of the Adam and Eve story, there is much truth in the view that the ideal lifestyle is tending a garden, resplendent in flowers and rich in vegetables. The sacred is embodied in a garden, which is why humans have tried to express their ideas of the sacred in garden design. The gardener works in harmony with nature, and gets an intuition of its sacredness, not in overwhelming mystical experiences, but through a gentle sense of goodness that calms the soul and elevates the mind. While I don't believe that you are closest to God in a garden, there is certainly a sacred dimension underlying what you are doing.
Treating Your body Gently
One fact of life for males who have wives and daughters is that they are told off, generally with good reason, and my wife and daughter were not blissfully happy when they discovered why I had developed a bad back a few months ago. I had to say that I had hurt my back lifting over-large loads of compost on my compost heap.I had been turning the heap with my long-handled Irish fork, don't I love that wonderful tool, and had not taken sufficient care. Result:sciatica and an unimpressed wife and daughter,who want me to remember that I am over sixty and should take care of myself. It is still present to a minor degree, but is much improved, but I am now being more careful when lifting weights.
So here is a basic rule for older gardeners: don't overdo the lifting. Take care of your back. Lift in smaller loads and be not afraid to seek help. Sometimes it is a good idea to seek a fellow plot holder or a member of your family, a younger one hopefully, to help you lift weights. Don't get me wrong, older people can lift, but there is no profit in doing yourself damage and no dishonour in being helped.
Secondly, don't go at the work hell for leather. I am the kind of man who attacks physical jobs with verve, but doing so is not always a good idea,for you tire yourself more easily. So work out a steady pace at which you feel comfortable and stick to it. You should also ensure some variety in the jobs that you do: a heavy job should be alternated with a lighter job, so turn your compost heap [more carefully than I did] and then tend the greenhouse. It is a good idea to decide on a pace that you can sustain. If you overdo the pace you will discover that you tire easily, but if you find the right pace for you can go on for several hours.
I have a bench and table on my plot, and sometimes I will take break and just sit, with a mug of coffee that I sometimes take with me. Just a few minutes makes all the difference, and you restart your work refreshed.
Issues with tools
I don't have many problems with specific tools, but there are some some tools troublesome for older people. Currently I am having some difficulty handling my petrol strimmer, which is a large grass trimming tool, quite heavy as it is powered by a petrol engine. In recent months I have developed a bad and recurring cramp in my hands when I operate it. It may be that the vibrations are the cause of the problems, allied to the weight. But even without the weight, I have had a few hand cramps and locked joints, which makes me think that the strimmer is not the cause of the problem, which may be rooted in me rather than it. So far I have not found a solution to this problem, but I think that handling this heavy machine in small doses might solve the problem.
A great little gardening tool, but one fraught with potential for back problems, is a garden claw, which is ideal for getting deep-rooted weeds such as dock and dandelion out by their long taproots. You insert the claw into the ground around the weed and then twist. Generally the root takes some effort to extract, but if you are in heavier soil you can meet serious resistance, and so the temptation is to exert massive twisting force.But the consequences for your lower back can be bad, and it is possible to hurt yourself. So go carefully, don't apply maximum force in a twisting motion, which is always a dangerous thing to do, take a few turns of the screw and be patient in extracting that weed.
I don't use a chainsaw, as I have never had the training necessary to use this dangerous tool, and I have no pressing need for one, so I cannot speak from personal experience on this matter, but I imagine that it would give the same difficulties as the heavy strimmer would for someone with a tendency to suffer cramps in the hand,such as I.
I have given up on my career and now, with the exception of examination work and a small amount of private tuition, retirement allows me to spend time on what I really like doing, gardening and writing. Yet the garden has a social aspect to it. There is much social life that goes on while at the allotment, for gardeners talk to each other, sharing their thoughts and feelings. Only today there was a plant sale at my allotment and I went to perform my accustomed task of showing visitors around, which is my job as all agree that I can talk enthusiastically and in volumes. It was a good day, and it left me with tired legs from all the walking, but it was enjoyable and it gave me a sense of achievement.
Moreover, I am chair of the garden society to which my allotment belongs, which mean that my gardening life has now an administrative element to it, chairing meetings and dealing with the council who rent the allotment plots to us. Sometimes the issues can be challenging, but there is a sense of achievement in the position, and it is a job that I love, even though the money that I am paid is a mere token. My friend Jeff, also in his sixties, does much work on the handicapped persons' plot at our allotment, so he is sharing his admirable and vast gardening expertise with the vulnerable members of the community. That shows that older people can garden for many years as long as they care for their bodies, but they will thrive as persons if they use their gardens as social spaces and take the responsibility that comes with age, performing administrative functions and sharing their skills with others; and I believe that such an open-hearted approach to the social and moral side of gardening keeps them younger in heart, mind and body.