Gardening when older: A history of my gardening career

  • Kneelers with a metal frame make it easier to stand up after kneeling to weed or dig. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • The potager in Heath was smaller than Pat's original vegetable garden, but it still required too much labor. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • The view from the window shows three of four paths with emphasis on trees and shrubs. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman—

Published: 8/24/2020 10:20:40 AM

For the past 40 years, I have gardened. Which is not to say that I was a skilled gardener. Even so, it was my excitement about my new garden on a hill in Heath that led me to the Greenfield Recorder. I did not present myself as an expert but one of the paper’s editors, Bob Dolan, took me on.

Previous gardens were very small. My first garden as a young mother in my first house was a little bed of zinnias. There was a small narrow patio outside the kitchen door and a grassy bank that was the full extent of our house lot. That bank was my rock-garden-in-progress for the five years we lived there. The flowers came from neighbors, snow-in-summer, pink lamiums, coral bells and velvety lamb’s ears.

A move took us to West Hartford, Conn. and another house that had even less planting room. I mostly remember spending a lot of time ripping morning glory vines out of the shrubs around the house. Actually, I was busy, now with five children and a return to college.

Then there was a hard time that resulted in a divorce and a move to a big old house on Grinnell Street in Greenfield. I had a business that closed and finished my college degree. I met Henry, who was to become my husband. In that house, I subscribed to the Rodale Organic Farming magazine and planted a vegetable garden that was possibly 100 square feet.

College degree in hand, Henry, my children, the cat and I moved to North Berwick in Maine. There my career as a sixth-grade teacher began and ended. But I had a vegetable garden, pigs and chickens. I was learning about gardens, bit by bit, but our next move took us to New York City and Henry’s ancestral apartment building. There was a yard, but to call it a garden would have been a stretch.

Those were happy years in New York, and it gave the children, three of whom were in high school, a new view of the world, which was a good thing. But I longed for a garden.

We had made friends in Greenfield and they let us know about houses in Heath. We bought a run-down house on 60 acres at the end of the road and moved with our three daughters on the day after Thanksgiving in 1979.

Over the winter, we made plans for pigs and chickens and made up a list of vegetable seeds for the spring. A Heath neighbor brought over his tractor and plow. We were in business. On about a quarter acre, we were ready to plant potatoes, beans, squash, tomatoes, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, every vegetable we could eat fresh or freeze. Would it surprise you to know that over the years that garden got smaller and smaller?

By the turn of the century, I was having trouble with my back. The garden was going to have to change. Because I had to try and limit my gardening, we tilled and planted a 12-by-12-foot veggie garden before I had my hip operation in 2003. I was going to have to limit (try to limit) my garden activities. After my successful hip replacement, I added a red raspberry patch right next to the veggies. Then when there was so much excitement about lasagna gardening and sheet composting in those days I added another 10-foot section of vegetables at the end of the raspberry patch. This gave me the room needed to maneuver because even after my hip replacement, I was not as agile as I had been.

My hip replacement at age 63 put me in good shape, but even so, I was no longer 23 or even 53. My life was changing.

To manage those changes, we moved to Greenfield five years ago with plans to embrace a smaller, less demanding garden. My strategy was big plants. A shortlist of shrubs that we chose included yellow twig and red twig dogwoods, elderberries and winterberries, buttonbush, Virginia sweetspire, paniculata hydrangeas and clethra because they support birds, pollinators and provide larval food for caterpillars.

These days, I work fewer hours in the garden, choosing early morning and afternoon shade.

I do a lot of my gardening standing up. These big shrubs need pruning, roses need deadheading. I also actually enjoy kneeling and weeding. I use a foam kneeler right on the ground and really like that stretch into the bed. I also use a garden kneeler that can be used right side up — or down. I can sit on it or kneel and use the frame to pull myself up.

The tools I use most often are a trowel, a sturdy pruner, a small snips, a weeding sickle and a cultivator. Of course, I also have rakes and a spade. These are all of a size and weight that I can handle. My loving husband is always at hand for heavy work. Other gardeners should remember there are gardeners who can be hired and help.

I have the benefit of a small backyard. Gardeners who have graduated from yards like mine can still garden in pots, or beds raised to a height that do not require bending. You may have seen beds like this at the John Zon Community Center or at the Just Roots Community Garden.

There are always adjustments that need to be made in our gardens. So keep your hats, your kneeler and hand tools in working order and continue gardening. Gardening is good for your health and your spirits.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website:

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