Rachel Baer, 56, loves working in her large garden in East Lyme, Conn., but over time the big jobs have become more physically taxing. Last year, she decided to create a garden with plants designed to attract bees and butterflies. “I had a huge amount of soil delivered,” she says, but distributing it around the garden, something she used to be able to do in one day, had to be spread out over several days. “It was one wheelbarrow at a time,” says Baer, who teaches yoga to seniors. “I had to accept that I wouldn’t get it done at the same speed and rate as I would have in the past.”
Gardening can be harder on aging bodies. Joints stiffen up, kneeling for prolonged periods hurts, and bending and reaching can strain muscles. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up this hobby. You just may need to garden differently, add special tools and know your limits.
Stretch Before You Start Gardening
Like any exercise, stretching before and after gardening helps prevent strained muscles, says Jen Stark, founder of the blog Happy DIY Home (opens in new tab). She suggests that you take frequent breaks and “alternate tasks between pruning and hoeing to work different sets of muscles.” And always carry a cellphone in case of a fall.
Plus, “put on lots of sunscreen and drink water like it’s your job,” Baer says. “It will help you stay hydrated, but also means you will get up and down more to go to the bathroom” and ensures you won’t stiffen in one position.
A gardening stool can be useful to sit on. Some stools double as kneelers when turned upside down, such as the TomCare Garden Kneeler Seat. On average, kneeler seats cost between $30 and $70. Look for one that has pockets for your garden tools.
You can also cobble together your own method, which can be a lot cheaper and more tailored to what you want. Duane Pancoast, 82, of Victor, N.Y., bought wearable kneepads and put all his tools in a five-gallon bucket. When he got tired of kneeling, “I could tip the bucket back and sit on it,” he says. “When I was done, I’d put all the weeds and the tools in the bucket and carry it back to the garage.”
Also, get assistance for the jobs you’re uncomfortable doing. “Last year I was almost at the top of a ladder to attempt to trim a bush and heard sirens in the distance,” Baer says. “This made me stop and think this is not wise. I had a vision of being carted off in an ambulance. I came down from the ladder and arranged to pay someone to trim that bush.”
Get Gardening Tools Designed for Those with Arthritis
Some gardening implements can make life easier for people who suffer from arthritis or have lost strength in their hands. For example, some tools have soft grips that are easier to hold or are specially designed to cut with less effort.
For planting, look for long-handled tools, which are better for seated gardeners, or tools with ergonomic grips. The Arthritis Foundation (opens in new tab) recommends a number of options, including the Peta Easi-Grip Long Reach Garden Tools, which come as a set of four. Stark suggests the five-piece Radius GardeN Ergonomic Hand Tool Set with curved handles. “Ergonomic pruners are easy on the hands and make cutting easier,” Stark says. “Hold your hand so your wrist is in a neutral or straight position for the strongest grip strength. This position also cuts the risk of developing tendinitis.”
Many experts, including the Arthritis Foundation, recommend pruning and looping tools made by Fiskars, including its PowerGear2 Softgrip Pruner, which has a unique design that makes cutting much easier, or check out Felco’s F2 Classic Manual Hand Pruner. Fiskars also makes a Stand-Up Weed Puller that doesn’t require kneeling or bending over.
Or design your own tool, which is what Mark Samuelson, 59, of Taylor, Texas, did. He has a bad back from years of farming and wanted a better way to water the garden without hunching over a hose. So he put a thin stick of rebar in the ground and curled the top to hold the hose in place.
His son, Seth Samuelson, a civil engineer, refined the contraption with him, and then family and friends started using it. “My grandma was 85 when I first gave her one, and she has used it into her 90s,” the younger Samuelson says. The family patented the SeCa Hose Holder, which is named after Seth and his brother Cade, and the tool is available in gardening centers nationwide.
When you need to move soil, mulch or gardening debris, a wheelbarrow is helpful but can also be so unwieldy that it tips over. A better alternative may be a garden wagon, which ranges between $60 and $100 in price. Some even fold up for storage.
Although all these items are sold online, Pancoast suggests shopping for ergonomic tools in person, if possible, to make sure they’re comfortable to use. Pancoast founded a blog, The Geriatric Gardener, and self-published a book by the same name.
Utilize Raised Flower Beds
Your garden will be easier to care for if you bring it closer to you with raised flowerbeds and containers that don’t require you to stoop as much, says Melanie Evans, a master gardener at Factory Direct Hose (opens in new tab), which makes hoses, reels and other accessories. Although waist-high beds are ideal, “even a slightly raised bed can make weeding easier.” But, she notes, raised beds dry out much faster than those in the ground, so they take quite a bit more watering.
Vertical gardens on walls or trellises are another possibility. They can be an elaborate structure built specifically for your garden or as simple as hanging pots on a trellis that sells for less than $20.
Consider planting more perennials, which bloom year after year, rather than annuals, which are replanted every spring. Some low-maintenance plants, experts suggest, are lavender, sedums, hydrangeas and geraniums (which can be perennials or annuals depending on the type).
It’s tempting to spray a pesticide on a plant that seems to be diseased or having problems, but it’s not healthy, says Molly Keck, an entomologist with Texas A&M AgriLife extension service (opens in new tab). Even organic or natural pesticides can be harmful. If you do feel the need to spray, make sure you know which pest is causing the problem so you can target just that one.
The best way to keep pests away is to keep weeds away, Keck says. “They harbor a lot of insects, and if you don’t have weeds, that breaks that lifecycle.” So, pluck the weeds as soon as you see them, and don’t let them flower, because they drop seeds. Since weeding can be laborious, Keck suggests planting flowers in containers where the weeds are easier to control. Finally, learn to tolerate a little imperfection. You don’t want a dying or stunted plant, but if it’s flowering and looks good, “it’s probably healthy enough,” Keck says.
If you’re thinking of redoing your garden, plan for the future, Pancoast says. Put in wide, smooth walkways and replace steps with gentle inclines. Add some benches. In the end, find a way to keep gardening, even if it’s at a slower pace and with more help than was once the case. The psychological benefits of being outdoors surrounded by nature are well known and so are the physical benefits of exercise. “It’s amazing how many squats and how much core work you do when gardening,” Baer says.
She notes that her 80-year-old father, who lives in England, “still strides outside with his chainsaw” to cut off branches, but no longer uses it on top of ladders. “It is gardening that gives him much-needed outdoor therapy, especially during COVID.”
Alina Tugend is a long-time journalist who has worked in Southern California, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., London and New York. From 2005 to 2015, she wrote the biweekly Shortcuts column for The New York Times business section, which received the Best in Business Award for personal finance by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Times, The Atlantic, O, the Oprah Magazine, Family Circle and Inc. magazine. In 2011, Riverhead published Tugend's first book, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.