GARDEN THERAPY: Aging – The Losing Battle – September 2021

By Mel Bellar

I know(!), what a dour title! But there is no denying that we are all aging and eventually will have a somewhat diminished physical capacity.  Certainly, there are more than a few readers my age (or older) who will relate to this. But to my plethora of younger readers, I assure you there are things to learn, or at least things to think about. Actually, “thinking about it” is a good starting point as aging is a daunting subject and hard to address.

During our lives we tend to expand. We enlarge our footprint, our houses and for some of us, our gardens. And yet, at some point we realize that our ability to manage our domain becomes more difficult and eventually is a situation that we have to address. My wife is a real estate agent, and she often shares stories about older folks that love their house and want to stay in it until the bitter end; something we all understand. Yet she has witnessed times when things are going pretty well, then something happens and all of a sudden it is too much, forcing them into changes quickly and leaving them in a more vulnerable and less capable state to deal with all of it. It is something that worries her a lot.

I maintain gardens for clients of all ages, many of them in the “expansion mode,” wanting to finally create a shade garden or a place to grow peonies or whatever. I love making new gardens, but I try to remind them of how much they are already maintaining (or paying to have maintained). Before committing to more, I want them to play the tape forward and think about how much it will add to their ongoing maintenance commitment.

Of course, many gardeners “up there in age” love working in their gardens, and it keeps them engaged, active and entertained.  As a youthful 70 years old, I love working in my garden and sometimes imagine myself as retired and puttering for several hours a day in the garden and being able to keep it beautiful.  But with the scope of my garden, I am not even sure if that is realistic. In the meantime, I am fortunate to engage the Zone4 crew when we have an open day. Our combined efforts maintain things in enough order to keep the garden from making me miserable.

When the time comes that our garden is just too much for us, there are a few options.  If one can afford it, getting help is a great option. Of course, it can be extremely challenging to find someone knowledgeable, motivated and capable to do garden maintenance. If you know of some, please let me know and I will offer them a good job!

Another smart option is to revamp your landscaping with the goal of reducing and simplifying the maintenance required. Some of this can be done relatively quickly, but other aspects take planning and a long view. Existing flower beds can be eliminated by pulling the ornamental plants, smoothing out the ground and putting down grass seed. You could also just replant the bed with a mass planting of dense perennials that do not require deadheading and only need to be cut down once a year. This can be accomplished in stages by editing out plants that are not “bringing you joy,” are just not performing well, or are a lot of trouble. Essentially, remove some detail and go for broader brush strokes.

But please, dear reader, do as I say not as I do! My garden is a very poor example of low maintenance, as there is a lot of detail and hundreds of varieties of plants. However, I did start planning for the future a long time ago.  I planted trees and shrubs in nearly all of the beds and all around the gardens. Many of them are smallish trees and shrubs so that if I ever took out the time-consuming perennials and just had some simple mass plantings, it will still look quite spruced up. And good news: It is almost never too late to move in this direction.

It is impossible to remove all weeding, cutting back and pruning from a maintenance regime but it can be lessened dramatically. The goal is to be able to largely reduce the bulk of the maintenance to a mower and string trimmer.  Even mobility-challenged folks can sit on a riding mower. And, there are string trimmers these days that weigh under 5 pounds and are very easy to start. You can do so much with a string trimmer (I usually call it a weed-whacker) including cutting back perennials, cleaning up around trees and obstacles, and, of course freshening up and maintaining those ever-important edges.

   Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~