Gardening for a lifetime of joy

by Jan Spann

For those of us who spend the majority of our adult life working, we look forward to retirement and having more time for the activities we most enjoy. For me, that’s been developing a plan for taking a water-hungry lawn and turning the space into shade and sun gardens.

Gardening isn’t just a chore for many of us. It’s a way to be creative with the landscape and also get the benefits of exercise. Others might prefer biking, hiking or workout routines, but I appreciate that I can burn calories as I’m pulling weeds and tending to perennials while connecting with nature.

For the past eight years, it’s been great fun to plan, plant and appreciate the results. However, I’m beginning to notice that the joy of gardening brings with it more aches, and I just can’t accomplish as much as I once could.

With baby boomers heading into the sixth decade and beyond, it’s a good thing that the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service (UACES) offers a program that can help gardeners of any age and ability. Working with the Arthritis Foundation, Dr. LaVona Traywick, UACES associate professor of gerontology, and Jessica Vincent, former AgrAbility project coordinator, developed the Endless Gardening concept four years ago.

“The Arkansas AgrAbility program provides practical solutions so the farmers and farm workers can continue working in agriculture,” Traywick said. “Jessica and I worked with farmers who were injured or had a physical disability that limited their agri production. During our onsite assessments, we noticed that the farmers had small vegetable gardens with which they had some of the same issues.

“People don’t stop gardening because they have lost the joy, but because they can’t physically do it. Gardening has a therapeutic effect because of the ability to focus your mind on something else, so Jessica and I decided to develop a program to help gardeners overcome the obstacles that keep them from something they love doing, even with arthritis or mobility limitations.”

Endless Gardening uses universal design principles, which include flexibility, low physical effort, tolerance for error and ease of use. Regardless of a person’s strength or mobility, garden plots can be designed and tools can be found that are more comfortable to use.

Adaptive tools include ones with longer and telescoping handles, those with a pistol grip style, a lighter weight and an ergonomic design that feature specially shaped handles. These styles reduce hand, wrist and back strain while making gardening chores easier. You’ll find these tools in local garden and hardware stores and online catalogs.

Weakened muscles and bones bring additional challenges such as falling or difficulty in lifting and moving objects. Bringing the garden to you with raised beds is one way to reduce bending and kneeling, movements that can be hard on joints and backs.

Raised beds can be purchased or made, and there are many options to do it yourself. Creative examples of raised bed gardening can include vertical gardens using chicken feeders on a fence, PVC pipe and even roof gutters attached to a fence, which are great for strawberry plants to cascade down. Other ideas use concrete blocks, livestock water troughs, old bathtubs and bedframes. You can modify height for chair level access or place the garden on legs so it’s at counter level.

Design your landscape using benches and pathways to add interest while also following universal design principles. Pathways at least 36 inches wide accommodate wheelchairs and also afford plenty of room for lawnmowers, wheelbarrows and bags of garden trash. Benches add hardscape interest and offer a spot for you and guests to sit and enjoy nature.

Here are a few more suggestions from the Endless Gardening program. You can contact your county extension office to learn where a workshop will be offered near you. You can also ask about the Endless Gardening annual magazine.

Start by warming up your joints and muscles before heading to the garden. A four-minute stretch before, during and after any gardening activity can reduce tightness and soreness.

Look to stools and caddies so you can sit, thus reducing knee and back pain. Periodically changing positions from sitting to standing helps with mobility, and good posture is important, too.

Always engage your core muscles and strongest muscles when you lift and carry. Lift from your hips and legs, not from the upper body. When digging or troweling, use your forearm and elbow instead of your wrist and fingers.

SPF 30 sunblock is a best value for your health. According to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, people who have had nonmelanoma skin cancers are approximately twice as likely to develop non-skin cancers. Protect yourself from the sun’s harmful effects by wearing lightweight, long-sleeved clothing, gloves, a hat with a large brim, sunglasses and sunscreen.

Dehydration can have even greater effects as we age. Our sense of thirst becomes less perceptive, and some medications have a diuretic effect. Drink plenty of decaffeinated fluids, avoid being outdoors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and allow time for breaks in the shade.
Gardens can be a lifetime passion when we assess our garden tasks and find ways to adapt our routines as we encounter physical limitations and aging.

Like life, gardening is a process, not a product.

And as our founding father and avid gardener Thomas Jefferson said, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, no culture comparable to that of the garden . . . such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another . . . But tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.” 


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.