Age doesn’t have to keep seniors from gardening, a hobby that can cultivate mental and bodily health in its participants. Though aging can make physical activities challenging, gardening is an adaptable pastime that can be made accessible to many. Finding the right type of garden and tools, and being aware of physical limitations, are critical for maximizing enjoyment and avoiding injury for seniors.
Gardening can provide immense benefits, such as increased physical motion range and mental stimulation, according to Cheryl Coddington, an occupational therapist and Washington State University Master Gardener of Cowlitz County.
“It can help to relieve tension, and it can give a sense of achievement, pride and accomplishment,” Coddington said.
She and fellow Master Gardener Dale Wheeler, experts in accessible gardening, recently hosted a class called Easier Gardening for Everyone at Brush Prairie’s NatureScaping of Southwest Washington’s Wildlife Botanical Gardens where participants of a variety of ages and abilities were taught methods of gardening comfortably and safely.
Coddington said gardening is for anyone at any age. She mentioned that many participants in the Washington State University Master Gardener Program are in their 70s and 80s.
“Gardening should encompass the lifespan,” Coddington said. “There’s no reason why [people] should have to stop.”
For a lifetime of gardening, finding the right equipment to make the hobby accessible is critical, Coddington said. Many tools are available that can reduce the hobby’s physical strain. Some options include chairs, kneelers, gloves and tools with rubberized grips.
Coddington said that finding well-fitting tools is important, especially for arthritic hands.
“I want a handle that fits my hand, so I don’t have to grasp too tightly,” Coddington said. “They have lots of tools out there nowadays that are a rubberized material, which gives a better grip and might even have some finger indentations to encourage holding it a certain way.”
Protecting delicate skin from cuts and tears is also critical for seniors. Older skin becomes thin, and can easily become damaged, Coddington said. Wearing protective gloves and long sleeves can reduce the risk of injury.
“There are lots of types of gardening gloves out there,” Coddington said. “If I’m digging or doing other gardening tasks, I might want that thicker pair of gloves. If I’m doing planting, maybe I take my gloves off or I find a thin pair of gloves that fit my hands well.”
Beyond tools, Coddington said avoiding overexertion is critical for gardening safety. Seniors should be aware of their physical health and endurance and take breaks and rest as their body demands. Using raised beds or potted gardens can also reduce the physical strain of cultivation.
“You want to know what your limitations are,” Coddington said. “You’re going to want to pace yourself. Maybe you go out for 15 minutes and do some gardening for two or three days. If you tolerate that OK, see about increasing it to 30 minutes.”
Coddington encourages seniors to be cautious at the beginning of the gardening season. After winter, resuming their standard level of gardening exertion could be challenging and increase the risk of injury. Consulting a doctor before increasing physical activity is always advisable.
Finding the right plants for the garden is nearly as important as the tools, Coddington said. Some plants require extra maintenance or grow too large and are heavy.
“We really want to choose plants that we’ll get enjoyment out of,” Coddington said.
While vegetables and fruits can be used for meals, Coddington encourages seniors to consider how much they will produce. Handling excess produce can be additional work, and the leftovers may need to be canned or frozen.
Plant size is also important, as certain plants can grow very tall or wide.
“When you think about what plants you’re choosing, you want to think of the size of the plant. Is it going to be something you can reach, or is it going to be too tall,” Coddington said.
Coddington encourages seniors to start small, whether they are new to the hobby or reintroducing themselves.
“Maybe you have a potted plant inside your house that you take care of. Or, maybe you have a window garden inside your house where you’re growing some lettuce or a small tomato plant. You can do those kinds of things in your home,” Coddington said.
Accessible gardening is all about enabling those with limitations to continue doing what they enjoy. The hobby can adapt to the gardener’s needs.
“If you modify what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, by container gardening or other vertical gardening, maybe you’ll be able to continue doing what you want longer,” Coddington said.
People who don’t have access to an outdoor garden space or a sunny window are welcome to volunteer at NatureScaping of Southwest Washington’s Wildlife Botanical Gardens. Administrator Marlene Dellsy encourages seniors to consider volunteering at their community garden spaces.
The botanical garden there is designed to be accessible, its pathways covered with gravel and bark chips. Plentiful seating is also available, with benches and tables across the garden as resting places for visitors and volunteers.
The garden hosts workdays from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays March through October, where volunteers are welcome to do work within their physical abilities. Volunteers may register online via the website.
“If you need to bring something that helps you be able to do something in the garden that’s OK,” Dellsy said.
Those who are interested in volunteering at NatureScaping of Southwest Washington’s Wildlife Botanical Gardens can call 360-737-1160 or visit its website, naturescaping.org. The gardens are located at 11000 NE 149th St. Brush Prairie.
For additional information on accessible gardening, visit the Easier Gardening for Everyone video, which is available on the Master Gardener Foundation of Cowlitz County YouTube.