It all started with a concrete pot. Toni Gattone was an enthusiastic new master gardener, eager to transform her Larkspur garden using many of the tricks and principles she had learned in training. She knew she shouldn’t be moving heavy objects with her bad back. But she went against her better judgment and moved that darn pot anyway.
She threw out her back and found herself prone and in pain, unable to do a task as simple as deadheading her roses.
It was during the two weeks she spent flat on her back on the couch that Gattone determined to find a way to adapt so she wouldn’t have to give up the one hobby that gave her so much joy — gardening.
She remembered an article she had clipped and saved about two women who helped seniors adapt their gardens so they could continue tending them as their abilities changed with age. One line in the article stood out: “Garden smarter, not harder, so you can garden for life.”
That line became the impetus for her research project that eventually became her book, “The Lifelong Gardener: Garden With Ease & Joy at Any Age.” Published by Timber Press, which specializes in books about nature and gardening, the handy book is filled with tips and advice on how to garden at any age or with any ability, or disability.
Gattone covers the gamut, from ways to avoid injuries to ergonomic tools to methods like elevated raised beds and vertical gardening that don’t require stooping and bending and can even be tended while sitting in a chair or on a stool.
“For a gardener, more than anything else, it’s the fear of not being able to garden that keeps them awake at night. It’s the same as if somebody tells you you can’t drive anymore,” she said.
“Initially I wrote the book with seniors in mind. But I’ve come to realize that there are thirtysomethings that have physical issues they need to try to work around.”
Gattone stresses a holistic approach that starts with attitude, one thing you can control. She offers 12 “Be Attitudes” that include being in a “glass-half-full state of mind,” being good to your body, being humble enough to ask for help and keeping active in your life. Then, she said, take honest stock of what you may no longer be able to do, such as chores that require movements that cause you pain, before coming up with a modified plan for what you can do safely.
Marty Marcus, a retired social worker from Novato, in 2013 had a stroke that came after two heart attacks. He also has arthritis in his back. For a time, he used a wheelchair. After he met Gattone through her husband, a former colleague — both are social workers — she inspired him to become a master gardener in Marin County.
“She told me about a lot of different tools to use, and she gave me hope that I could do more,” said Marcus, 68, who has experienced some loss of mobility and balance, making bending and reaching tough. Some of the adaptations he’s adopted to stay active in the garden include having his son-in-law build him 3-foot-tall raised beds so he won’t have to bend, a movement that can leave him dizzy. Because he is on blood thinners, he avoids using knives and pruners that could cut him, leaving rose tending to his wife.
He also uses a reversible kneeling seat, which has two upright handles on either side for leverage to help him rise from kneeling. Turn it over and it becomes a seat for resting or for working in containers. Gattone said it is one of the most “indispensable tools” for adaptive gardening. She also likes Komfy Knees from Garden Works, lightweight neoprene kneepads with comfortable straps that go above and below the knee to soften a kneel.
Marcus said he also works only 15 or 20 minutes at a time and then takes a 5- to 10-minute break.
“I used to be able to work two to three hours in the yard and not stop at all. Now I make sure I pace myself,” he said.
Here are a few more of the many tips Gattone offers for safe gardening:
Balance can be a problem as we age. Make sure walking surfaces are smooth. Give up climbing ladders to trim trees and hedges. Clear clutter from your yard and put away hoses. If you use a walker, add a pouch to carry tools.
If you have stairs, add handrails or turn them into wide, curving, gently sloping paths.
If your hands aren’t strong, work out the muscles with a squeeze ball. Add cushions to your tool handles and incorporate adaptive tools with better leverage and grip. Consider using children’s tools, which are lightweight. Buy smaller bags of compost and mulch. Wear protective gloves. Try battery-powered tools for pruning and trimming.
Dress to protect yourself from the sun. Wear a wide-brimmed hat (a baseball cap doesn’t provide all-over protection). Always wear sunglasses, light-colored cotton clothing, sturdy shoes or long-sleeved shirts. Or you can create forearm guards by cutting up old socks.
Use proper form to avoid injuries. Bend by squatting through your knees and hips rather than at your waist. Carry things close to your body with your elbows tucked in. Reach for high objects without twisting your body. Keep your wrists and joints in a straight position and attach ergonomic grips to your tools to support that alignment.
Use a dolly, wagon or cart to move heavy objects. Avoid overhead work that involves reaching to prune or trim. Use long-handled tools or a step stool or get someone else to do that work for you.
Break things up
Divide jobs into small parts and do a little every day instead of all at once. Work in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid high sun exposure.
In addition to elevated raised beds, you can use elevated containers or window or railing boxes. Another option is vertical gardening, such as growing plants in hanging baskets or on trellises, arbors and pergolas.
For more information about adaptive gardening, including Gattone’s blog and online store, visit tonigattone.com.