We live in a highly sanitized world, one where getting outdoors and into the dirt is increasingly uncommon. But as research has shown, our displacement from the natural world comes at a cost. It disrupts a profound physical connection that we have to the soil and its resident organisms, a connection that our own immune and nervous systems have relied on for well-being for centuries.
“Getting out in the garden plants us back in what now appears to be our optimal habitat,” writes author and master gardener Daniel A. Marano, in a 2008 article in Psychology Today. “Eating fruits and vegetables — even antioxidant-rich tomatoes, melons, beets, cabbage, and berries —turns out to be only half of a newly evolving story of health. Our bodies and brains depend on the whole experience of growing our own. Our mental and physical health seem to be deeply rooted in the dirt.”
The benefits of gardening most certainly apply to seniors. Yet older gardeners often face physical limitations that may impact stamina, mobility or the senses. So we asked Cynthia Druckenbrod, former Director of Horticultural Exhibits and Communications, and Curator of Glasshouse Collections at Cleveland Botanical Garden – Judson’s neighbor in University Circle – for some down-to-earth tips for seniors. Here is some of what this avid gardener told us:
Get off the ground. “Even if your mobility is limited, you can do a lot with raised-bed gardening,” says Ms. Druckenbrod. “And nowadays, you can buy raised beds almost anywhere: online, in catalogs, or in garden stores.” Raised-bed arrangements, including the popular VegTrug, come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials and can be purchased as kits or ready made. In terms of ergonomics, look for arrangements that elevate your work surface to between 30 and 36 inches, Ms. Druckenbrod suggests. Or as a space-saving alternative, consider container gardening. “You can buy light-weight but durable containers at any garden store,” she says. “These plastic pots have the appearance of terracotta, but without the weight. Even better, you can put them on casters and roll them to wherever you need them.”
Take a seat. Stools and chairs can be a great help to senior gardeners, but don’s stop there. Consider a wheeled garden caddy. “I love my garden caddy,” says Ms. Druckenbrod. “It has a cargo space inside for storing tools, and a seat that is just the right height for container gardening. I wheel all around my containers on it when I’m planting, and it really saves my back!”
Pick the right plants. To maximize effort and minimize frustration, Ms. Druckenbrod recommends choosing your plants with care. “Some of the easiest plants to grow in Northeast Ohio are tomatoes, peppers and any kind of herb. Radishes and greens of all sorts are also very quick and easy. And don’t forget chard! We’ve grown Bright Lights chard at the Botanical Garden several times: Its stalks are bright yellow and bright fuchsia, which makes it a great edible and very lovely too.”
Plant for all the senses. Most plants offer visual delights; but even gardeners with visual limitations can enjoy getting their hands dirty. To appeal to the sense of touch, for instance, Ms. Druckenbrod suggests planting lambs’ ears. “They are very fuzzy, soft and fun to touch.” And don’t forget aromas. “I like herbs because they are sensory,” she says. “Of course, you can cook with them. But even if you just brush by them, they release these great fragrances that everyone can enjoy.” Among her favorite aromatics are dill, fennel, mint and scented geraniums. “The geraniums come in fragrances like peppermint and rose, but my favorite – believe it or not – is called Old Spice. I always think of my grandfather when I smell it. There’s nothing like fragrance to bring back fond memories!”
Be mindful of growing requirements: Intermingling several types of plants in a single container is an easy way to save space without sacrificing variety, says Ms. Druckenbrod. Just be sure their growing requirements are compatible. “For instance, you wouldn’t want to plant a cacti with a plant that needs lots of water,” she says. “And you wouldn’t want to plant a shade lover with an edible that needs full sun.” How can a gardener know which plants go with which? Read the labels. “Sun and water requirements, along with the full-grown size, are usually all right there.”
Visit Cleveland Botanical Garden. For beginning and master gardeners alike, the Botanical Garden in University Circle is a place of peace and inspiration. From one of the most significant herb gardens in America to a butterfly-filled glasshouse, the CBG offers a year-round refuge for both body and mind. Especially for seniors, Ms. Druckenbrod suggests a stop in the Evans Restorative Gardens, where sound, scent, and touch combine with a white-only palette of flowers to create a soothing retreat from the outside world. Wider pathways and gentle slopes add to the garden’s accessibility and make it an ideal space for shinrin-yoku, or the Japanese practice of “forest bathing.” Basically an attentive walk in the woods, forest bathing has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and increase white blood-cell production, among other possible benefits. “Plus, the Restorative Garden is just a wonderful spot for spending time in nature,” says Ms. Druckenbrod.
And like gardening itself, that helps nourish our roots.