Sydney Eddison believes you can weed out loads of demanding yard work as you age without reducing the enjoyment of gardening. The 78-year-old author says it's simply a matter of gardening more wisely.
"I knew so many friends older than myself who drove themselves away from the land they loved and then promptly died," said Eddison, who opted to remain alone on her secluded but celebrated 4-acres-plus in Connecticut after her husband's death, rather than move to smaller surroundings.
She has shaped the wooded property, with house and barn, into a country showcase over the last half-century, giving tours and writing a half-dozen books about her experiences. Yet something had to give, and that something was painstaking garden maintenance.
"I threw my body at the garden over the years and got away with it, but I have to watch it now," Eddison said.
First, she had to have a hip replaced, and then she developed a cyst on her back, leaving her bedridden for a time. "I had a horrendous winter, but it made me realize there's nowhere I'd rather be but here," she said. "I couldn't do anything last year, but now I can at least stake tall plants and weed."
She gets the job done with some help from friends, and by applying many of the shortcuts described in her most recent book, "Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older" (Timber Press, 2010).
A few of her "gleanings":
- Reject perfection. "Nature does not clean up every dead leaf in the fall and gardeners don't have to either. Dead leaves left under shrubs serve as a mulch, which eventually breaks down and contributes nutrients to the soil."
- Thin the perennials. "In my garden, the square footage devoted to flowering perennials demands more time and energy than the rest of the acre and a half under cultivation. The greater the variety of perennials you grow, the more work your border will entail."
- Switch to shrubs. "Shrubs afford more value for less work. Some rarely need pruning."
- Shade gardens are good. "Shade-tolerant plants are easier to maintain than sun lovers. One of the reasons is that weeds are also sun lovers. In the shade, they become feeble and can be controlled by a layer of mulch."
- Incorporate your surroundings: "If you own even a scrap of woodland, you can make it an extension of your garden by edging it with a few berried and flowering shrubs. Naturalize daffodils on the forest floor."
- Miniaturize. "There is nothing fake about a container garden. It is the real thing. And for anyone who can't do the heavy labor of in-the-ground gardening, growing in containers can provide much of the same pleasure."
Gardening can be physically and emotionally rewarding as you grow older, and there are many ways to overcome the challenges of a deteriorating body.
"If your vision is failing, choose tools with bright handles," said Rebecca Haller, director of the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver. "Be more careful with trip hazards — uneven paving stones or hoses lying across a path. Grow vertical so you don't have to stoop. Put things on wheels rather than pushing or pulling. Garden closer to the house so you don't tire so much coming and going. Have a spot where you can rest. Pace yourself."
Making the most of the time you have left is one of the older gardener's primary tasks, Eddison said.
"How beautiful can you make your garden with the resources you still have at your command?" she said. "This is the question I keep asking myself. I don't have the answer, but I'm working on it."