Gardening Tips for Seniors

Exercising their green thumbs helps seniors reap mental and physical rewards

03-30-2015 // Mark Wexler

Accessible Gardens founder Ray LaRocque

"NO ONE SHOULD MISS the satisfaction of digging their hands into sun-warmed dirt,” says horticultural therapist Patty Cassidy—even when turning a spade isn’t as easy as it used to be. Author of The Illustrated Practical Guide to Gardening for Seniors, Cassidy learned to “garden smarter” with age and now teaches gardening techniques that can promote better health among older adults. 

Connection with nature through yard work can give seniors a lift and also help them stay strong. In a study of 3,300 women aged 50 and older, researchers at the University of Arkansas found that subjects who gardened at least once a week showed higher bone density than those who did other types of exercise. “We hadn’t expected yard work to be important,” says the study’s lead author Lori Turner. But  the team found only two activities to be significant for maintaining healthy bone mass: yard work and weight training. And garden work has an extra advantage, says Turner: People “don’t dread it as exercise.”

Still, lifting, bending, weeding and pruning can take a toll. “Once you start feeling physical limitations,” says Cassidy, “you should begin modifying your gardening habits.” These tips can help ease the way:

Pace Yourself

If you’ve taken a winter break from yard chores, start slowly and work your way into shape. “For several days before digging in, do some gentle range-of-motion stretching of arms, back and torso,” says Paula Kramer, an occupational therapist at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Once you begin working in your yard, change your position and activity every 20 to 30 minutes, then rest for 10 minutes. “That way,” she says, “you won’t be too sore to go back to your garden the next day.” Kramer also recommends using ergonomic tools that are easier to grip. And if you have problems with arthritis in your hands, soak them in warm water before putting on gloves.

Raise the Ground

For people who prefer to sit while exercising their green thumbs, a rectangular raised planting bed with an adjacent chair or board for seating may be the best solution. The height can vary, but the width should be about an arm’s length “so you have easy access to the plants and won’t lose your balance while reaching across the bed,” says Cassidy. Raised beds can be built with a wide range of materials, from treated wood and secondhand lumber to concrete blocks and even piles of dirt. If you’re unable to do the construction yourself, there are several commercial outlets for raised beds, some of which can be used indoors or outdoors.

Woman gardening on vertical trellis

Get Vertical

If you cultivate vines on trellises, outside walls or along fences, you can work standing up, and that will reduce pressure on your lower back and knees. “Vertical gardens can be great space savers on decks and porches,” says Cassidy. And native vines such as trumpet creeper and fox grape also can attract wildlife. The height of such gardens should not extend beyond arm’s reach, especially if you are growing fruits or vegetables that require harvesting.

Go Native

Reassess the types of plants you’re cultivating. Reducing yard work, says Cassidy, “can be as simple as not growing high-maintenance plants such as roses and instead opting for native species.” Plants that are native to the region where a gardener lives require less upkeep and tend to be drought resistant, which can also mean less work. “Water and hoses are heavy,” says Cassidy, “so I recommend cultivating species that, once established, will take care of themselves.” Natives also entice birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects to a property by providing appropriate foods and places to raise young.

Ruby-throated hummingbird seeking nectar from a cardinal flowerThink Small

You don’t need a large yard to gain the mental and physical satisfaction of cultivating plants and viewing nature—you just need to maintain a sense of proportion. If you live in an apartment, for example, you can use containers to grow herbs and native species that will attract hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators. With the right choices, you could even have fall color and berries growing on your balcony or deck. But, says Cassidy, “Stay away from plants that will grow too large or that won’t thrive in shady spaces if you have a covered porch.”

Gardening on any scale can provide a natural motivation to get up and go. “For one thing, you know there are plants you’ve got to go out and water and weed to keep [them] alive,” says Candice Shoemaker, head of Kansas State University’s Department of Horticulture, Forestry and Recreation Resources. In a recent study, she and her students found that gardening not only improves strength and mobility, it also provides seniors with self-esteem and helps reduce stress. “If we get the message out there that older adults can get health benefits from gardening, they’ll realize that they don’t have to walk around the mall to get exercise.” 

Native Gardens

For a regional list of low-maintenance native plant species to cultivate, visit For information about attracting wildlife to your yard and other natural gardening tips, go to

Mark Wexler is editor-at-large of National Wildlife magazine.

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