Seniors can grow gardens while growing older

March 29, 2007|By MARLO BARNHART

True or False?

· Gardening is one of America's most popular hobbies.

· Gardening relieves stress.

· Gardening is good exercise that burns calories.

· People with any ability level can enjoy gardening.

When Annette Ipsan, horticulture educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Washington County, opens her talks about gardening for people with arthritis, she offers those four statements.

And, she says, all are true.

"A few simple adaptations will allow anyone to garden," she said. "Anyone can harvest tomatoes, germinate seeds, work the soil, breathe in the fragrance of blooming flowers and share the joy of being outdoors."


Anne and Bob Courtemanche are examples of how gardeners can adapt what they do and how they do it as they get older.

The couple moved to Washington County last year, transplanting a few plants along with themselves from their former home in Baltimore to their new home in Halfway.

"We left some of our plants for the neighbors," said Bob, 69.

In the couple's early gardening days, they tended seven acres, growing a variety of fruits and vegetables to eat, can and share with their six children.

"We used tractors and plows to plant 100-by-100-foot plots for several years," Bob said.

Once the couple realized their children weren't able to use all the bounty their parents were growing, the Courtemanches cut back and began exploring organic gardening, which translates into less effort and a more manageable harvest.

Anne said they went to an organic gardening workshop in Pennsylvania to learn to cultivate plots that were only 5 feet wide and needed to be tilled only one time.

"You can just reach in and pick everything," Anne said, noting it is easier for her now that she is 59 years old and having some shoulder pain from arthritis.

At their Halfway home, the Courtemanches have already laid out two plots for their 2007 garden, both of which are 4 feet wide and about 30 feet long.

"We're working on the soil - building it up with compost and getting rid of the rocks," Anne said.

Raised beds

Those efforts will cut back on the amount of leaning over they will have to do to tend the garden since the beds will be raised by the addition of composting material.

Bob, who is retired from the military, said he and Anne brought bags and bags of compost from their home in Baltimore to use in their new garden.

"It's black gold," he said.

On a warm day in mid-March, Anne showed off the plants she had started under grow lights in her living room. She has elevated the plants in front of the picture window and can easily tend them by kneeling on her sofa instead of on a hard surface.

Okra, spinach, brussels sprouts, chard, peas, tomatoes, leeks and several herbs were poking through the soil in her window.

Another of her arthritis-friendly projects is container gardening for various crops. The containers can then be placed on tables and garden walls and require no bending at all, Anne said.

"If you must work close to the ground, place only one knee on the ground and keep your back straight," Ipsan said. "When possible, use a stool or kneeling bench."

Strawberries, for example, produce a nice crop when grown in a large planter, Ipsan said.

Trellises or vertical gardens can be used to reduce the need to bend over while tending plants. And Ipsan concurred with the Courtemanches, suggesting people not overlook fences, walls, arbors or trellises as areas on which to hang plants.

Lasagna gardening

The Courtemanches, who are always looking for new ways to increase yield while cutting back on the work, said a friend recently sent them a book that sings the praises of "lasagna gardening."

"It requires no tilling and no weeding," Anne said.

She liked this idea since tilling makes her arthritic shoulder act up and she has always hated weeding.

Lasagna gardening requires repeated layering of wet newspapers, mulch and black plastic, which kills the grass and allows worms to do much of the work enriching the growing soil.

"It also creates raised beds which again cuts down on leaning over," Anne said.

The Courtemanches are enrolled in a Master Gardener course at the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service at 7303 Sharpsburg Pike. Ipsan coordinates that course.

A recent session on garden insects was taught by Stanton Gill, a professor at Montgomery College, to the class of about 20 gardeners.

Added benefits

Having information about proper gardening can enable gardeners to enjoy the hobby as they age.

The pain associated with arthritis can be caused by swelling, joint damage, tight muscles or spasms. It's important to move those joints to prevent muscle weakening or stiffening which increases pain. But, it's also important not to strain joints and muscles, Ipsan said.

Her extensive knowledge of arthritis is a personal journey since she has had osteoarthritis for about five years.

"It's important to maintain good posture at all times," Ipsan said. This keeps joints and muscles in their most stable positions. Poor posture can put tension on muscles and joints and lead to unnecessary pain.

Ipsan said gardening has plenty of benefits.

"When done well, it will help maintain joint flexibility, range of motion, bone density and quality of life."

The Maryland Cooperative Extension is an educational outreach program of the University of Maryland. The horticulture staff teaches people safe, effective gardening practices.

To learn more, contact Annette Ipsan, extension educator for horticulture, at 301-791-1604 or send e-mail to

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