Gardening for a Lifetime, or: When Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t No One Happy
My mother-in-law is a flower gardener. She wouldn’t approve of such a narrow title, actually, because she does grow the occasional vegetable: a tomato here, a few lettuces and spinaches there. But really, it’s all about the flowers. This passion of hers started ten or fifteen years ago, pretty much out of the blue. One day she was the woman who couldn’t keep a houseplant alive, and the next she came home with a flat of summer annuals and a bag of soil. Overnight, she suddenly transformed into the Flower Lady, like mild-mannered Clark Kent stepping into the phone booth and emerging as Superman…if you could imagine him to be rounder and more cherub-cheeked, wearing Crocs and sporting a gardener’s apron instead of a cape. “Ma’s” green thumb has done nothing but grow ever since. Her yard was soon the talk of the block, and this business of getting her hands in the soil has—no surprise—been all around good for her health and happiness.
Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, Ma was in a catastrophic car accident. There have been two surgeries since. Although she is finally, thankfully, without daily pain, her traditional flower gardening days are behind her; the surgeons have put her back together as well as they can, but she will never again have the dexterity to get down on her hands and knees in her flower beds.
Hence, my new interest in “accessible gardening”: gardens that can safely accommodate my mother-in-law’s walker, or to a lesser degree, that require no bending or shoveling. Because, honestly, if Ma “ain’t happy, ain’t no one going to be happy,” and if she can’t grow her flowers, she isn’t going to be happy. So, in the interest of keeping my husband’s darling mama hale and hearty, I’ve been perusing the gardening shelves in an effort to find creative ways for her to get in all the gardening she desires.
I recently found a used copy of The Enabling Garden: Creating Barrier-Free Gardens, by Gene Rothert. This is a personal account from the man who managed the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Learning Garden for the Disabled program and was president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. Directed both at older gardeners and people with disabilities, Rothert has a wealth of good ideas for how to select appropriate tools, how to build vertical structures and raised beds, how to choose materials for paths that are smooth and safe, etc. This book is a little dated in terms of the recommended sources, but the principles and step-by-step approach are timeless. Unfortunately, this book is out of print now, but the good news is that it’s available inexpensively at quite a number of online used bookstores; you should be able to find it with a Google search.
Similarly, Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older, by Sydney Eddison, is a personal account of a respected gardener, writer and gardening lecturer who, as she aged, realized that she was going to have to change how she gardened because her body just couldn’t do what it used to. She shares strategies that she developed to reduce the garden workload and gives recommendations for choosing shrubs and perennials that take less care. This book is less about structures and paths and more about how to re-think your yard and garden, considering what you can reduce, change or remove entirely—essentially, about gardening wisely.
And finally, I really like Stand Up and Garden: The No-Digging, No-Tilling, No-Stooping Approach to Growing Vegetables and Herbs, by Mary Moss-Sprague. It isn’t specifically about accessible gardening in the sense that it doesn’t exclude able-bodied gardeners; this is really for everyone, whether they have physical challenges or space limitations. Moss-Sprague’s drawings, photographs and step-by-step instructions make her ideas simple to reproduce, including how to make and use containers, trellises and straw bale raised beds. This book is full of practical ideas that are just good sense and will go a long way toward making the garden accessible for all kinds of people.
So garden on, I say. Tomorrow I’ll be taking Ma to our favorite local gardening store for a bag of compost to enrich her new waist-high garden bed. A good time will be had by all.
P.S. If you’re looking to buy or build an accessible raised garden bed, check out the Gardener’s Supply Company for ideas. Good people, good company, good products.