Gardening for the Long Haul

– Posted in: Garden chores, Miscellaneous

I myself would like to meet Death in the flower garden–falling facedown onto a cushion of Dianthus gratianopolitanus, if it’s not to much to ask. ~ Elisabeth Sheldon, Time and the Gardener : Writings on a Lifelong Passion

But last and best, I’d like to thank my grandmother Elizabeth McIver, long dead, who when told she must give up her gardening to lengthen her life, picked up her trowel and went to weed. ~ Joe Eck, Elements of Garden Design

I want to garden until the day I die, don’t you? Early in 1997 I pulled a packet of gardening postcard ads out of my mailbox. On the front cover was a photo of an old woman, the essence of “granny.” (Sorry I can’t show it to you; I was unable to obtain permission.) She had a mound of white curls piled atop her head, tied in place with a red bandana. Wearing a flowered smock, she faces the camera, hand pruners in one knuckle-swollen hand, and a big bunch of bachelor’s buttons in the other–and she’s smiling. In a flash I knew what I wanted my retirement to be like: gardening, gardening, and more gardening!

Later that year, a series of gallbladder attacks and subsequent surgery brought home to me that the kind of later life I wanted for myself wasn’t just going to happen. What I did with my body now was going to have a profound effect on what I could do later.

I wish I could say that ever since then I’ve steadily improved my physical condition. Two pregnancies, a month-long hospitalization, another surgery, and several back spasms later, my road to fitness has been paved with a lot of good intentions and unexpected detours. And like Susan, what I know I should do and what I actually do aren’t always the same thing. But it is important to know yourself, and I’ve learned by now that I need to change my habits slowly.

As Kasmira recently discovered, strength and flexibility are what’s most needed in gardening, but if you’re not alive to garden it doesn’t do you much good. Since my family background puts me at risk for several diseases that aerobic fitness and weight loss are the prescribed remedies for, I started with that. Stretching to restore flexibility came next. I’ve learned from Overcome Neck and Back Pain that stretching one’s hips and lower back is just as important as strengthening one’s abdominal and back muscles for preventing back problems. When I practice the stretches I have learned from this book consistently, I avoid the muscle spasms that can prevent me from gardening for weeks.

Sore back muscles are still a possibility, because even a flexible muscle can be overtaxed. So this winter I added weight-training to my regimen. I know from previous periods of physical fitness that increased strength significantly increases my gardening pleasure. It makes gardening more fun, because almost everything you do is easier, from hauling hoses to pulling weeds to pushing a wheelbarrow.

I’ve been a confirmed bookworm since I learned to read, and avoided exercise through my teen years. The threat of an untimely death failed to motivate me to exercise–there was always time to start later. It wasn’t until my mailbox epiphany that I had a sufficient motivation to change my ways. Sure, it’s boring, but it makes gardening more fun. Yes, it takes time out of my day, but I’m hoping it adds quality to my life. When I find my motivation flagging, I pull out that photo of the happily gardening old woman to remind myself that I’m gardening–and living–for the long haul.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

nelumbo March 9, 2006, 10:10 pm

My granmother is well into her 80’s and has appointed herself resident gardener of the retirement complex that she lives in. Of course her few beds are a step down from the massive gardens she had at the farmhouse, but in moderation gardening is definitely good for her mental and physical health.

Kasmira March 2, 2006, 1:30 pm

Good point on the inflexibility of the lower back. I think it comes from our American habit of sitting in chairs. In Japan, where they sit on the floor, the people are much more flexible. Here, even when we stretch, we tend to concentrate on the hamstrings. I always remind my group fitness participants to picture taking their “bellybutton to the floor (or thighs)” when stretching forward to encourage a flexibility in the lower back.

Judy Miller February 28, 2006, 9:13 pm

My paternal grandmother gardened into her 90’s, same as my maternal great grandmother. Part of that is attitude, of course. Part of that, too, was the difference in how life was lived–hard to be a couch potato before your family owns a tv or a car or indoor plumbing.

And while I’ve inherited the Scandinavian cream & butter absorbing genes which destroy cholesterol and give me low,low blood pressure along with the blue eyes–and excercise mightily here on the farm as a matter of course– a simple unforseen accident can lay one low. I think perhaps a sort of ‘belt & suspenders’ approach might be wise, building in some accessibilty features now while you don’t think you need them (a waist-high bed or two?), maybe a few garden beds near the house, and some good indoor possibilities like germinators, sun porch shelving & so on, so that when there’s a patch of enforced quiet, or weeks of bad back weather, one can still brandish that trowel. It’s a badge of honor, after all.

Alice Nelson February 28, 2006, 2:20 pm

My grandmother gardened until she was 87 until she fell and broke her hip – before the days of Fosomax. She lived with us then until she was died at 93. Perhaps with Fosomax and a few other meds that I have been found to be in need of, I’ll be so lucky. As for now, I am almost 78 and have no trouble gardening and running a landscape gardening business. I am blessed to come from a family of longevity and good health!
And that isn’t my doing.