My mom has always been a terrific gardener. I'm not sure how she does it-- she's never taken a class or read a gardening book. Yet her peonies bloom prolifically, her hostas don't get slugs, and week after week she fills vases with charming bouquets of homegrown flowers.
Last summer I noticed the flats of annual sat on the porch a little longer and the butterfly bush looked like it could use a trim. Mom was slowing down, and her usual garden activities were getting harder. How could I make things easier but still leave her to enjoy the act of gardening?
Kneeling, bending, and reaching are tougher for her than they used to be, so the first thing I did was buy Mom a pair of knee pads. Not a kneeling pad, but strap-on knee pads that stay in place as she moves along the edge of her garden bed on her knees. (Can you call it walking if you do it on your knees?) The pads make kneeling more comfortable and let her move along easily on her knees without having to stand up repeatedly to move a pad.
If you'd like to eliminate kneeling altogether, consider long-handled tools like a circle hoe. With a small, sharp edge, this tool lets you weed in between plants with precision and without having to get down on the ground. Oscillating hoes serve a similar purpose but are larger and rectangular, making them better suited for weeding in between spaced rows of vegetables.
I also bought Mom a holster for her pruners and a belt clip for her garden gloves. It's so much easier to keep track of things when they're attached to your body! (Please don't make me tell you how many trowels I've thrown away because I didn't see them lying in the garden debris.) If your vision isn't what it used to be, consider spray painting a bright stripe of fluorescent pink or yellow on the handles of your hand tools. Or wrap the handles in some of that fancy, new, brightly-colored duct tape. Tools are a lot harder to overlook that way.
For hands that may not be as strong as they once were, consider ratchet pruners and loppers. These allow you to prune thick branches (up to 2″ in diameter, depending on the brand of lopper) without superhero hand strength. A simple, repeated, squeezing motion ratchets the blades through the branch without straining the gardener's grip. Speaking of hand strength, any gardener would be happy to have an ergonomically designed hand tool that makes repetitive tasks less bruising. Hand tools with soft rubber handles, molded to fit the natural curve of your hand or arm, make planting, weeding, and digging easier.
Installing a simple drip irrigation system means no more hauling heavy cans of water back and forth in the garden. Plus it's better for your plants and for the environment. Water is deposited directly at the root zone, which means less water is wasted, and less water splashes on foliage, reducing problems with fungal diseases.
And who says wagons are for kids? A wagon is a lot easier to operate than a wheelbarrow. It holds plenty of plants, bags of fertilizer, or tools, and the load is carried flat, balanced on four wheels, which reduces the likelihood of tipping. You don't have to lift and push...just pull.
You can also make gardening easier by choosing the right plants for the type of garden you have. In a traditional, in-ground garden, low-growing plants may be hard to reach. Imagine picking strawberries or lettuce and all the bending over that requires. Taller plants (and their flowers, fruits, or anything else you might like to pick) are well within reach, making it easy to harvest tomatoes or gather a vase full of cosmos. On the other hand, if you're gardening in a raised bed, strawberry picking is a breeze, but reaching up for the cleome could be a challenge. A combination of raised and traditional beds provides the right balance to accommodate all sizes of plants.
And lest you think gardening is merely a feast for the eyes, consider the fragrance and texture of the plants you choose. A vision-impaired gardener can still thrill to the touch of a lamb's ear leaf or the feathery foliage of yarrow. And fragrant plants like lavender, flowering tobacco, and phlox offer olfactory pleasures.
There's no reason to give up gardening just because your knees are creaky or you find yourself facing other physical challenges. With a few adjustments, you can keep on growing until they sprinkle your ashes on the soil as fertilizer. And even then...you'll still be gardening!
Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (www.acmeplant.com), a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at www.downanddirtygardening.com Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden; she lectures at garden shows and events across the country.