Nurturing plants nourishes spirit of elderly gardener

THE REAL DIRT

August 03, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The elderly man puts on his straw hat, grabs a shopping bag and heads for the garden.

"Let's see what's out here," says Oliver Revis, 84.

He has been gardening since before World War I, but Revis bounces down the steps toward the back yard with the energy of a much younger man. At his age, he says, working a plot surely beats being laid to rest in one.

"If I didn't have this garden, I wouldn't feel good," says Revis, of Parkville. "This is something I love to do."

In midsummer, the garden is a jungle of cucumber vines and tomato plants, 30 of which are sagging under their own weight. Rustling through the tangled growth, Revis retrieves a huge Beefsteak tomato.

"Frances!" he hollers toward the house. "Come see what I've got!"

Frances Revis, 75, examines her husband's tomato and agrees that it is big. The fruit measures 18 inches in circumference and weighs nearly 2 1/2 pounds on the couple's bathroom scale.

Oliver proudly displays his tomato. "It's better'n the ones they had at the state fair last year," he says.

Meanwhile, Frances proudly displays her husband of 54 years. "There's not one wrinkle on his face, and do you know why? Because he ate raw vegetables all his life," she says.

Growing those vegetables has also helped keep him young, says Revis. Why, he has already outlived three of his Rototillers.

"I love to get down in the dirt," he says. "I did it as a boy, and I still recommend it highly."

So do the experts who work with the elderly.

"Gardening is one of the last things in their lives over which [seniors] have control," says David Houseman of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. "Older people must live with many limitations, but the garden is someplace to go and do things at your own pace.

"Nobody gives you orders in the garden."

Houseman creates horticultural projects for the elderly in the upper Midwest, including the world's largest community garden in Wayne County, Mich. Acknowledged in the Guinness Book Of World Records, the 40-acre facility includes a 9,000-square-foot greenhouse and is managed entirely by senior citizens, some well into their 90s.

"For older people, gardening means fresh produce, exercise and socializing. It keeps you in touch with the natural side of life," says Houseman.

Some retirees can work large patches of soil in the security of their own building: In San Francisco, a rooftop vegetable garden provides the senior residents of an apartment complex with all the camaraderie and roughage they need.

Houseman offers these tips to first-time senior gardeners:

* Start with a small plot and plants that are easily grown (tomatoes, lettuce, beans).

* If you are apprehensive about beginning a garden, work alongside a friend, or ask your local extension service for support from its Master Gardener Program.

* Study garden catalogs for equipment geared to seniors, such as lightweight and long-handled tools, garden stools and knee pads.

"Garden supply houses have recognized that the senior market is there," says Houseman.

Oliver Revis has no plans to retire from his garden. Next year's crops will include two rows of Irish potatoes, he says. Of course, he will have Rototilled the soil at least four more times by then.

Meanwhile, the tomatoes are pouring in, enough to supply neighbors and friends. Now Revis is eyeing the luscious purple grapes that are ripening in clusters along the length of the 75-foot fence in his back yard.

Frances Revis studies her husband, who is studying the garden. "I've been waiting all my life for him to slow down," she says, "but I'm tickled to death that he does this."

But for how long?

Says Revis: "If I get too old to garden, maybe the man next door can come over and help. He's three years younger than me."

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