How to Safetly Garden as a Senior

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Knees that become increasingly uncooperative after a weed-pulling session, or handling clippers that bring a wrist twinge may lead some to conclude it’s time to retire from gardening.

But before giving up a hobby that brings both pleasure and beneficial exercise, consider ways to match gardening to capabilities, horticulture experts say. 

Selecting easy-care plants will eliminate some discomfort. Taking steps to reduce muscle strains will also increase enjoyment. Then, think about the chores that can’t be managed or aren’t enjoyable and if possible pay someone else to do those.

“Look at your garden with new eyes,” says Barbara Kreski, director of horticultural therapy services, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Ill.  “Ask, What of this gives me real pleasure and is worth the effort?”
Consider a few changes

For example, switch from beds of annuals to shrubs as part of an easier-to-manage garden, says Stephanie Cohen, gardening expert, near Valley Forge, Pa. 

“Flowering shrubs are drop-dead gorgeous. You get flowers in the spring and in the fall the leaves turn a nice color,” says Cohen, co-author of “The Nonstop Garden,” (Timber Press, 2010).

Ninebark shrubs, which only require a little spring pruning, are one of the garden writer’s favorites. 

Shrub roses are another appealing option. Newer varieties aren’t prone to mildew or black spot and don’t require spraying, according to Cohen, who recommends Home Run shrub roses.

Once shrubbery is planted, fill in with smaller flowering perennials for ground cover.

“I much prefer this to mulch,” Cohen says. “You get the flowering color in the spring and the color of turning leaves in the fall.”

She suggests miniature hostas along with daffodils. Spreading perennials under eye-catching shrubs reduce the need to weed. Make planting easier on joints using specially designed tools and aids. 

A padded garden kneeler, for example, allows gardeners to get close to the soil without back strain. Choose a version than can be flipped over to use as a bench.


Use supports to protect wrists from stress, Kreski says. Elastic bandages are suitable for light protection. Those who have arthritic changes in their hands will want customized wrist splints molded to the hands. 

“They’re very worthwhile for a lot of tasks,” Kreski says.

Ergonomically designed clippers are another good investment. You want wrists to be held in a neutral position while it’s working, says the gardening therapist. Look for a wide-diameter, padded handle: “You don’t want a small tight fist,” Kreski says.


If a favorite tool has a narrow handle you can fatten it with layers of tape.

Take the pressure off

Even with the proper tools and low-maintenance plants, you may want to be less vigilant and that’s fine, Cohen says. There’s no weed patrol that’ll sue gardeners who don’t do all the weeding at once.

“If it gets to be too much, get a nice glass of lemonade, sit down in your Adirondack chair and relax,” Cohen says.

Moreover, the senior gardener who is used to getting all the weeding done in a three-hour session may find himself with screaming back pain after an hour.

Don’t ignore it.

“Take it easy and pace yourself in the garden,” Kreski says.

Take frequent breaks for a glass of water and a stretch. This is especially important for those in a crouching position that taxes the back and knees.

“Get out of the knee-crouch; let muscles go back to resting position. Don’t prune or do other wrist-stressing tasks for an excessive period, either.

“Pay attention to pain,” Kreski says. “It’s warning you.”

Tags: aging, seniors, gardens