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Aging gardeners can continue their passion with a few tweaks

  • D.F. Braun
  • GARDENING REQUIRES vigor, muscle, time and dedication. The dilemma facing the aging gardener is not a simple one.

    The 89-year-old author/editor Diana Athill, writing about her love of gardening in "Somewhere Towards the End," stated:

    "I manage to do a little bit of work myself: tie something back, trim something off, clear some corner of weeds, plant three or four small plants, and however my bones may ache when I've done it, I am always deeply refreshed by it. Getting one's hands in the earth, spreading roots, making plants comfortable — it is a totally absorbing occupation — so that you become what you are doing and are given a wonderful release from consciousness of self. And so, for that matter, is simply sitting in your garden, taking it in."

    What aging gardener cannot relate to this description?

    Family and friends may suggest you simplify your tasks by removing high-maintenance plants, by letting some areas "go native" or by planting lots of shrubs suitable for a Marin County garden. A nongardening friend may even suggest that your roses take too much of your time. How about some geraniums instead? But how can you remove the plants that define you as a gardener?

    It may be time to take stock of your needs — on your own:
    • What chores please you?
    • Which ones do you find most rewarding?
    • How much time do you spend on strenuous chores?
    •Do you feel the need to simplify your tasks?

    Let's consider a few ideas that may appeal and ease your labors. 

    A few raised wooden beds for your herbs and  summer vegetables offer easier access and can be islands of rich earth under your control. Many catalogues now offer precut, insect-resistant kits that can easily be put together without the use of tools. You can assemble a raised bed
    on a 4-foot-by-8-foot piece of lawn or ground, then fill with a good soil
    mixture and you're ready to plant.

    If you compost consider using more compost tea. Place a full trowel of readied compost into a burlap bag or porous pouch and steep in a large container of water. It's ready for use for potted plants indoors or out and for the newly planted. A lightweight watering can will serve you well and require far less heavy lifting.

    Consider plants that will bloom each year without having to deal with too many annuals. A far corner of your garden where you may have done a bit of experimentation can be a fine plot for daffodils. If the bulbs are planted at least 9 inches deep they will grow again each spring. After blooming they should be allowed to dry out completely without being disturbed. Once a year care is all that's required for the next spring's "host of golden daffodils."

    Another easy plant is the bush peony. This year's heavy frost will create many magnificent blooms on this undemanding beauty. On the other hand, consider the iris (family Iridaceae), which asks only for a warm spot and will please you with blooms each late spring.

    Marigolds may be planted in "tired" beds. While some gardeners may find their fragrance unpleasant, the roots of the marigolds (Tagetes) exude thiophenes, which will kill nematodes. They also may be planted in  vegetable gardens to repel insects. Ancient gardeners believed they repelled vermin.

    Let's consider your roses in the hope of easing your labors a bit. In the January issue of the Marin Rose, the local rose society's monthly, consulting rosarian Betty Mott offered these suggestions:
    • Make no effort to save a rose — it can't be done.
    • You do not need to add magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) to our soil in Marin.
    • New research suggests picking up dead leaves from the rose garden may indeed make the garden look better, but it will not reduce the incidence of disease in your garden next year.

    It also may help to tell you that after World War II the English garden guru Vita Sackville often reminded her readers that six years of war without care had not affected the growth nor the blooms of England's roses.

    Of course, we keep gardening because we are imagining the next lovely spring and being responsible for the great summer harvest. Perhaps this illuminates the reasoning behind the odd declaration of the French philosopher Montaigne: "I want death to find me planting cabbages." As a follower of the Epicurean thought he felt close to the "secret heart of gardening," which was a way of life.