Gardening guide for seniors

March 25, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Gardening is great exercise for seniors, but they should take some safety measures first.
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If it's true that gardening is a fine art, then for decades, many senior citizens have produced brilliant work in their backyards.

With the earth as their canvas, they've taken their green thumb and painted the landscape a colorful pallete of flowers, vegetables and ornamental trees.

But as time goes by, the pleasures of gardening often can become more difficult.

Arthritis and lack of strength and mobility can interfere with your life-long hobby.

Don't despair, says Annette Ipsan, educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Extension.

You might be growing older, but you can still grow a garden.

Ipsan often presents talks on topics such as gardening with arthritis and body smart gardening and provides tips for those who want to keep their hands in the dirt but have some physical limitations.

With some advice provided by the Arthritis Foundation, there are ways to garden without stressing the body, she said.

Here are some general tips:

  • Produce a plan before you begin gardening. If mobility is a problem, you might have to rethink your garden space.
  • An option is planting in raised beds and containers, which can mean less bending, thus avoiding potential back or knee problems. Basically a bottomless box filled with soil, a raised bed raises the soil to a comfortable working height.
  • With container gardening, you can create a garden on your patio or porch and could be the answer for an older adult who has downsized and still wants to grow plants.
  • Use lightweight pots and soil mixes that can be placed on wheeled caddies for easy and convenient moving.
  • Trellises or vertical gardens also can be used to reduce the need to bend over while tending plants. Don't overlook fences, walls or arbors for growing plants.

Once you've mapped out your garden space, consider which plants you want to grow.

Ipsan suggests low-maintenance plants that require less care, such as perennials instead of annuals, especially in hard-to-reach areas of a garden.

The National Gardening Association agrees. It also suggests choosing heat tolerant perennial plants and laying protective plastic and mulch to prevent the constant work of weeding.

Now that you're ready to get your hands dirty, before performing any physical exercise, the Arthritis Foundation stresses checking with your doctor. Request suggestions for stretches or warm-ups that will loosen muscles and joints before beginning work.

  • Work during the time of day that you feel best. For example, if you feel stiff in the morning, then save gardening activities for the afternoon.
  • Be sure to protect your skin with sunblock, a hat and gloves, as some arthritis medications can make you more susceptible to sunburn.
  • Take time walking across the lawn. If you use a cane, be sure to take it with you into the garden.  It will help you be steady on uneven ground.

And while gardening is an exercise that strengthens the muscles around damaged joints and can help keep them more mobile, the secret is not to overdo it.

Repetition for any length of time is not good. Do a little work,  have a rest, and go back to it later. Pace yourself.

Change jobs and positions often. Switch tasks every 30 minutes or so and take 15 minute breaks every hour. Taking periodic stretch breaks can also ease tension and reduce stiffness.

  • Listen to your body. If it hurts, stop.
  • If you feel pain the day after gardening, Ipsan said, then reduce the difficulty and duration of activity you do the next time.
  • When possible, the Arthritis Foundation suggests using larger, stronger joints and muscles. For example, use palms instead of fingers to push or pull and use arms or shoulders instead of hands to carry things.
  •  Lift objects by bending at the knees instead of bending the back. Hold items close to your body to reduce stress on joints.
  •  Avoid pinching, squeezing or twisting motions. Avoid activities or tools that put direct pressure on fingers or thumbs.

Speaking of tools, the National Gardening Association suggests lightweight, ergonomically designed tools with extendable handles that are designed to make weeding, pruning, cultivation and general maintenance a lot easier. Test them out in the shop before you buy them to ensure they feel right in your hands and are manageable.

Ratcheting tools that take several small "bites" instead of one large cut also are easier on your hands and joints, said the Arthritis Foundation.

Using the right tool for the task and keeping all of your tools sharp can make gardening easier.

The Arthritis Foundation also recommends avoiding any activity that requires gripping for long periods of time.

While spending time gardening, it's important to maintain good posture at all times. This keeps joints and muscles in their most stable position. Poor posture can put tension on muscles and joints and lead to unnecessary pain.

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

Make sure the garden has a nearby water source so that hoses and watering cans don't have to be carried far. Using drip irrigation systems can alleviate the need to drag hoses and sprinklers around the yard.

Use mulch in the garden to reduce the need to water.

Ipsan and the Arthritis Foundation suggest getting a gardening buddy. Ask for help with tasks that are difficult or cause excess stress. Plus, your friendship will grow right along with your plants.

For answers to questions about gardening, contact Annette Ipsan weekdays at the University of Maryland Extension at 301-791-1604 or by email at

For more information on arthritis, contact the Arthritis Foundation at 800-283-7800 or visit

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