Lifelong love affair with gardening

By Patricia Paquette
February 2017 ©

“… I keep reminding myself that in the life of a garden, as in life itself, things change.” I thought I knew what Martha Stewart meant when I first read these words on the last page of her March 1999 Gardening magazine. Today, almost 20 years later, they mean something much more personal. I’ve learned that while age may catch up with us and injuries may trip us up, our enthusiasm for gardening does not dim. If anything, it can become even more vital with life’s changing seasons.

Home is where the garden is. While publications such as Better Homes and Gardens report that accessibility and “aging in place” are among top remodeling trends, we dedicated gardeners are expanding that trend to include “gardening in place,” because for us, gardening can be as critical to our daily well-being as grab bars and wide doorways. With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to consider making our gardens more accessible.

Mom ~ In the Garden, In Love

My mother taught me this life lesson. She was a redhead, but you could’ve figured that out even if she’d been wearing one of her wide-brimmed gardening hats. She was vivacious, quick to offer an opinion and often compared to film star Rita Hayworth. She dressed for the garden in fashion-forward “pedal pushers” (a.k.a. cropped pants) and Revlon’s famous va-va-voom “Fire and Ice” lipstick, favored by glamor icons of the 1950s.

Mom the beauty
Mom, a gardenia in her hair

I recently unearthed a lifetime of cards and letters she sent to me, some wrapped in faded ribbon, most with standard and endearing reports, and probably written at the kitchen table: They had adopted yet another homeless cat. Her granddaughter had come to visit. Oh, those California legislators. And she missed me.

But every letter, no matter what the rest of its news, included something about her garden. When words wouldn’t do, she tucked in photographs of a spectacular lily, her deep red beefsteak tomatoes, or new potting bench. All of them gave her a thrill that lasted through her 88 years. When it came time for assisted living, it had to be a “garden complex,” where Mom became an unpaid consultant to the gardening staff, freely offering unsolicited advice – and I’ll bet most of it was good. There, after a lifetime of digging in the dirt outdoors, she discovered potted orchids, and when she left, we found a paradise of Phalaenopsis and Dendrobiums blooming on her dresser, bookcases and windowsills.

Orchids, a Fountain of Youth?

Looking back, I’m certain those exotic orchids were my mother’s fountain of youth.

Moth orchid Phaelonopsis schilleriana, by Judgefloro
Phelaonopsis schilleriana (moth) orchid – Judgefloro

Gardeners will understand what I mean. We’re rejuvenated by working with our plants, indoors or out. Certainly, gardening encourages a healthy meditative state. We have a well-deserved reputation for losing track of time in the garden, what psychologists term “flow,” when time stands still and we become immersed in the problem-solving, hard work, and sensory feast of scents, colors, weather and sound – from cheering birdsong to the annoying leaf-blower next door. One explanation is “the biophilia hypothesis,” which proposes that we humans “are instinctively drawn to connect with other living, growing things, and the feeling that we are part of the web of life,” say writers at EarthEasy, a sustainable living online publication. The term was popularized by biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson, who described it as “linking with nature” in his 1984 book, “Biophilia.”

In that same year, Science magazine published a landmark study at Texas A&M which found that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery spent significantly fewer days in the hospital, had fewer complaints, and took less pain medication when the view from their windows was of trees rather than of a brick wall. This well-known study, recounted by Web MD, “found strong evidence that nature helps heal.”

The findings also confirmed observations dating from oldest times and continuing today in the field of horticultural therapy and rehabilitation.

Where to Begin? Drawing up a Personal ‘Estate Plan’

The physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits of gardening are so well-documented it’s no wonder that gardeners and their families want to prolong the joy.

A first step may be to simply “edit” your landscape by replacing time-intensive shrubs, flowers and groundcovers with more sustainable options. Hybridizers and global plant-hunters are coming up with smaller and hardier varieties that require less work, water and pruning, and “that’s a good thing,” as Martha Stewart might say.

Nurseries and garden centers are responding to the market with a variety of these and other solutions. “A lifelong love of gardening should not have to end as mobility and other issues arise in seniors,” says GardeningKnowHow expert Bonnie L. Grant. In stores and online, gardeners can find specialized kneelers and garden seats, waist-high raised beds, and ergonomic tools that make tasks easier for all ages and abilities.

Or Try This: ‘Jewelbox’ Tabletop Gardens

Every year, visitors from around the world come to Filoli, a historic country estate just south of San Francisco. They marvel at its acres of gardens, which include intricate, 36-ft square medieval-style “knot” gardens woven in the gray-blue shades of herbs such as English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and ‘Tuscan Blue’ rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), contrasted with dark burgundy plants such as ‘Crimson Pygmy’ barberry (Berberis thunbergii).

Filoli mini knot garden
Miniature knot garden (front) at Filoli

Even more memorable are the miniature, 36-inch replicas in raised stone beds quilted with miniature boxwood (Buxus microphylla sp.), Leptospermum scoparium Kiwi-Tea Tree Red,’ and topiaries of ‘Compacta’ dwarf myrtle (Myrtus communis ssp tarentina), among other tiny wonders.
Celebrated English plantswoman Vita Sackville-West would have taken off her work gloves and applauded at the sight. More than 50 years ago, in her Garden Book, she advocated creating “sink gardens” for challenged gardeners, usefully recycling stone sinks that were being discarded in favor of postwar porcelain and aluminum versions coming into vogue. She suggested raising the stone troughs on cinder blocks. A bonus: Drainage was already built in. “The sink gardener is like a jeweller working in precious stones,” she said, “trying experiments and changing them easily if they don’t work out.”

Tabletop gardens are part of my personal “horticultural estate plan” for the future and have also inspired me to think of ways to help family members and friends extend their planting pleasure. For instance, terrariums, indoor tray gardens and window boxes, which can encourage many gardeners through harsh winter weather or the winters of their lives.

Lifelong Redheads and Lovers of Gardening

As my mother proved to me, a gardener can grow plants just about anywhere. After a lifetime outdoors, she’d discovered something new and invigorating. Although she didn’t know it, she was following in the footsteps of red-headed “Founding Gardener” Thomas Jefferson. Nearly two centuries ago, Jefferson spoke for many of us when, at age 68, he wrote these words in a letter to American painter and naturalist Charles Willson Peale: “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, & no culture comparable to that of the garden … such a variety of subjects, some one (sic) always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another… but tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.” And even though his red hair had turned silver, he continued to garden for 15 years longer.

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