Gardening for Life

Growing older shouldn’t prevent you from exercising your green thumb when you adapt your cultivating practices to fit your lifestyle

06-01-2006 // Doreen Cubie

Woman tending to garden containers by Frank van der Most

ANN TAYLOR is 83 years old, but she doesn't let her age stop her from gardening for wildlife. "I can't do as much as I used to," says Taylor, whose NWF certified backyard habitat sprawls across three wooded lots in Chamblee, Georgia. She still enjoys planting butterflyweed and other flowers to entice tiger swallowtails and Gulf fritillaries to her garden.

A few hundred miles away in the town of Clay, Alabama, Martha Sargent, 68, continues to garden to attract hummingbirds with the same passion she had 20 years ago. Just outside her home, a series of raised beds climb the hillside toward a pool. They're filled with Texas sage and other varieties of salvia. From spring until fall, dozens of ruby-throated hummingbirds spend the daylight hours fighting over her flowers.

Physical and Emotional Benefits

Growing older may mean cutting back on or adapting wildlife gardening practices, but as Taylor and Sargent show, it doesn't mean giving them up altogether. Indeed, staying active in the yard holds benefits for seniors—and others as well. "Seniors can provide incredible stories, knowledge and nurturing to generations of younger gardeners," says Craig Tufts, NWF's chief naturalist.

Peg Schofield, director of horticulture for Cathedral Village, a retirement community just outside of Philadelphia, knows how gardening can make a difference in the lives of seniors and those with disabilities. A certified horticultural therapist, Schofield uses plants and the natural environment as tools to promote physical and emotional healing. She has created a spacious butterfly garden for the residents and thinks gardening for wildlife "helps seniors reconnect with the world of nature."

Tips for Staying Active in the Yard

As the first of the baby-boomers turn 60 this year, many people are looking for ways to continue gardening as they get older. And for younger gardeners, it's never too early to start thinking about ways to design your yard so you can enjoy it in later years when getting around and heavy lifting may become more of a problem.

Plan ahead: In their book Easy Lifelong Gardening, horticulturists John Pierce and Roland Barnsley advise homeowners to review their gardens in the middle years of life. One thing they suggest is shrinking the size of the lawn and replacing it with low-maintenance alternatives such as native plants. Species that are native to your specific area provide the best overall food sources for wildlife while generally requiring less fertilizer, water and effort in controlling pests.

Grow up: Pierce and Barnsley also recommend more "vertical gardening," especially for people who have begun to lose flexibility in their legs. One way to do this is to grow vines up trellises or walls or along fences. Some of the best vines for wildlife are the native honeysuckles. The red-orange blossoms of coral honeysuckle, for example, will attract hummingbirds and orioles. When the flowering has finished, mockingbirds, thrashers and other birds will eat the berries that remain. Other good wildlife vines are Virginia creeper and wild grape.

Hanging baskets are another good "stand up" option. Hummingbirds will readily visit these baskets on decks or patios. Butterflies will too, if the containers are placed in sunny locations.

Take a seat: Gardening while sitting is also an excellent idea for seniors, says Schofield. She grows many of her butterfly flowers in large containers so people can set up folding chairs (or pull up their wheelchairs) to deadhead, prune or weed. Purple coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed susans are among the wildlife-friendly natives that will thrive in pots. Herbs also make good container plants. Parsley, dill and fennel are food plants for black swallowtail caterpillars. Chives and mint attract pollinators such as bees and smaller butterflies, including coppers, hairstreaks and blues.

Another way to garden while sitting is with raised beds. If a bed is 24 to 30 inches high, you can easily put a chair next to it and sit down. Beds can be any length. A good width is 48 inches if the bed is accessible from all sides. This keeps reaching to a minimum. Otherwise, 30 inches should be the maximum width.

Choose the right tools: One of the more strenuous jobs in the yard can be watering. Don't lug heavy hoses. Instead, consider installing an efficient drip irrigation system or putting down soaker hoses. Mulching can cut down on watering as well—and keep weeds at bay. If you have trouble reaching up to water hanging baskets, you can put them on pulley systems that allow you to raise and lower them as needed, or special devices such as watering wands can be purchased to ease the job.

Investigate other gardening tools as well. You can buy lightweight ergometric trowels, weeders and hoes that are designed to prevent wrist and arm strain and help you do more work with less effort. Also available are telescopic tools, which minimize bending and stretching by extending a person's reach. Another option is a kneeling bench, which has side pieces or "arms" to help a gardener get up off the ground. Besides making life easier, these specialized tools can also help you avoid injury.

A Boost to Senior Health

When done correctly, gardening can be a real boost to senior health. It burns calories, lowers stress, and because it's a weight-bearing activity, even helps protect against osteoporosis, a bone disease that threatens as many as 44 million Americans.

"Working in a garden and watching the birds and butterflies that come to it is both stimulating and relaxing," says Schofield. Ann Taylor can attest to that. She recently underwent cataract surgery and realized she couldn't wait to return to her backyard—to her camellias and dogwoods, her cardinals and wrens. "I enjoy them so much," she says. "They keep me entertained."

Doreen Cubie is a frequent contributor to this magazine. This article first appeared in the June/July 2006 issue of National Wildlife.

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