The Graying Of Green Thumbers

THE REAL DIRT

July 18, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Gardens are ageless. Gardeners are not. I know this because, unlike my garden, I am turning gray. The only time we look alike is in spring, when the garden gets dusted with lime.

One of us is showing his age, and it isn't the yard.

Did I mention wrinkles? There are permanent crease marks on my skin, which is beginning to look like an overripe apple.

How I envy the garden! It never looks wrinkled, though I have seen crow's feet from time to time.

I can spot the birds' tracks when I'm wearing my glasses. I've worn them a lot lately, to weed and to seed and to hoe between rows. The weeding glasses are one acknowledgment of middle age. There are others. I used to stoop to weed the garden, but now it's more comfortable to sit. On a pillow.

Once, I could work in the garden for hours. Now I carry a kitchen timer and set it for 1 hour. The bell is my cue to take a break, lest I KO my bad back.

I used to feel silly calling timeouts in the garden. One day I ignored the kitchen timer, reinjured a disk and spent a whole week in bed.

That's when I decided to practice safe gardening. After all, these are the gardening habits I'll take into old age.

I want to grow up like Curtis Wormelle, 83, who tends a small plot at a retirement village in my neighborhood. Wormelle moves slowly through his vegetable patch, examining rows of beans, onions and tomatoes with keen eyes and careful deliberation.

Wormelle has gardened all his life and says he can't imagine life without a hoe in his hand. "It keeps you busy and kills the idle time," he says. "I still need a certain amount of exercise, and gardening is a good way to get it."

You're never too young to be sensible about gardening, he says: "Seventy years ago, as a teen-ager, I sat on a stool to pick peas."

TC Kathy Yeomans, 45, embraced a more restrained style of gardening several years ago, after developing back problems.

"At first I thought, 'Oh no, I'll have to stop gardening.' But then I realized that there are other ways to do things," says Yeomans. "All I had to do was talk to older gardeners."

Here's what she found:

* A 96-year-old gardener who beats the weeds to death with his cane.

* A disabled man who scoots through the garden on a modified skateboard.

* An elderly woman, stricken with arthritis, who uses a large-handled Bowie knife to dig up weeds.

Yeomans' research spawned a book, "The Able Gardener," a must for aging baby boomers who feel like throwing in the trowel with the first twinge of pain.

"Many people are ready to give up gardening when it starts to hurt. But there are good ideas to make all those chores easier," says Yeomans, a nurse in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Her advice includes:

L * Buy electric tools; they're lighter than gas-powered ones.

* Use a magnifying glass to inspect plants for insect damage.

L * Plant raised-bed gardens if you have trouble bending over.

* Wrap hard-to-grip hand tools with an Ace bandage.

* Carry tools to and from the garden in an old golf bag, or a child's wagon.

* If you can't hold a watering can, immerse a sponge in water and squeeze it over the plants.

* Use garden forks, which cause less back strain than shovels.

* Water weeds a day beforehand to make them easier to remove.

* Carry a whistle in case you need help in the garden.

Wheelchair gardening is not uncommon, says Yeomans. "All you need are wide paths made of sand, pea gravel or brick, and room to turn around at the end of a row."

Other disabled gardeners have been spotted approaching their flower beds in walkers, with bicycle baskets attached and loaded with tools.

"Almost any physical limitation can be overcome by gardeners," says Yeomans.

For the visually impaired, the author suggests a garden filled with bright-colored flowers and fragrant or textured plants, "to tickle their other senses."

Some elderly gardeners like to hang wind chimes in their gardens, says Yeomans. The sound of the chimes reminds them of where they are and what they're doing.

No one else need know why the chimes are there.

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