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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Take care of the gardener, not just the garden

What is the most important factor in making a garden successful? If you have followed my teaching, you might expect the answer to be: compost. Or right plant, right place. Both are great answers. But the compost won’t be made or spread and the plants won’t be planted if the gardener is benched for the season. We tend our gardens. We must also tend to the gardener.

Know your body

Plants go dormant. Some animals hibernate. Houseplants need a rest period. Living things have seasonal cycles. Surely it’s good for gardeners to have some down time, too – but does that mean winter on the sofa? Enough!, I say.

Days are lengthening, the ice is nearly off the sidewalks, and we can hike over most snowdrifts. It is time to get moving. Gardening season is just weeks away – two months at most – and then we need these bodies to do some real physical work.

I know many gardeners who are fully ... let’s say matured. Sure, we like to say that, like fine wine, we improve with age. But, realistically, we all destruct bit by bit (dare I say decompose?). While we each do so individually, gardeners tend to exhibit some predictable problems: One day fingers can’t lift a pot; hands can’t use clippers without cramping; knees don’t want to bend; the back won’t let us rake or hoe any more.

At this time of year farmers are working on their equipment – replacing parts and oiling machinery. We need to do the equivalent with some of our parts.

• Hands: Gardeners abuse hands more than most people do. I know how carelessly I used pruning tools and trowels and recklessly stacked rocks in earlier years (20 ways to smash your fingers). I know I’m not the only one to pick up four potted plants with one hand, the way waiters pick up four empty glasses, although the plants are too heavy for my finger muscles. At least we should start flexing and stretching exercises now, as yoga instructors teach: Gently bend each finger backward, and then the whole palm. When you are working, be sure to flex and shake your hands periodically. If you have arthritis, talk with your physician now about optimum nutrition and medication, and explain what you plan to be doing with those hands.

• Back: Years ago, my chiropractor told me that gardeners are among the worst for working long periods bent forward. More recently, a physical therapist reiterated that we must counter forward extensions by stretching backward. He taught me to bend backward (standing, hands on kidneys) several times an hour, and to do the cobra stretch (arching the back from a facedown, prone position, pushing up with the arms). I also learned to lift, relying on leg rather than back strength, and only directly in front of my body rather than from a twisting position. Lift amounts per shovelful. If you have back problems you must strengthen abdominal muscles – but carefully, because many exercises can damage the back if not done gradually or correctly. Get expert guidance.

• Knees and hips: Knee and hip failures can end our gardening lives. I am neither a doctor, physical therapist nor chiropractor, and I can’t tell you how to fix anything, but I can share some informed common sense: Warm up before gardening. Maintain a walking program, but only with proper shoes. (Jogging is probably ill advised for at-risk knees or hips.) When working in the garden (or anywhere), don’t do twisting or sudden movements sideways. Don’t run on irregular ground. Don’t lift with the weight on just one leg. Start a suitable exercise program now, before the pain starts, and get medical help early if you believe a joint is beginning to fail. Keep weight controlled. Don’t discount the importance of nutrition; some nutrients and so-called “super foods” are especially relevant for joint health.

• Skin: It only takes one melanoma for you and the dermatologist to agree that your days in the sun are over. I have been coached firmly: Use full spectrum SPF40 on face, neck and exposed skin year-round. Wear a hat. Don’t tan on purpose. The skin is our largest organ, essential for a healthy life, and the sun is not its friend. For extra motivation, look at the skin on older people who suntanned and on those who sunscreened: Who looks better?

Other body parts need some attention, too: Wrists need flexing and stretching, and you might consider ergonomic tools that prevent straining them. Feet benefit from warm-up exercises and certainly need great shoes. Eyes deserve protection before you start pruning, handling soil mixes or working in the sun. Gardening is our decathlon. Start training.

Take time to reassess

Sydney Eddison, one of the finest garden writers of our era, wrote “Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older” (Timber Press, $14.95). The book offers great psychological as well as practical, physical advice for gardeners. A key message is that we need to allow ourselves to do less.

Look at the years ahead of you and consider what kind of gardening is important and pleasurable to you, as well as what you realistically can do. Just because you always planted a 20-by-40-foot vegetable plot doesn’t mean you’re committed forever; maybe a small salad garden will suffice (and shop at the farmers’ market.) If the 40-foot flower border has become daunting, replace the annuals with easy-care perennials and give away any plants that are aggressive or demanding. Replace some perennials with shrubs; plant in containers. If you constantly struggle with heavy soil, let professionals make new beds for you. One of my own best tips for aging gardeners: Build (or have built) raised beds – and put seats on the ends or corners.

I hope we can all garden until we drop, with minimal pain. That is more likely to happen if we take care of the gardener – sooner rather than later. Know that you do not have to do everything you once did and that it is OK to hire help. You have only one body.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.