As gardeners we are very conscious of the life span allotted to the various plants we grow in our gardens. Some may be annuals, some perennials, some biennials. All of us will have had things die prematurely, sometimes for no apparent reason. Equally, most of us will have had the odd annual that manages two or three years before giving up, a biennial that goes on for three or four years. We are probably aware that some exceptional plants can live for thousands of years, Bristle Cone Pine or churchyard yews perhaps.
As humans we are part of the animal kingdom and the parallels between our longevity and the longevity of plants are tenuous at best. But we do grow old and we will eventually die. Those of us with reasonable sized gardens probably enjoy slightly longer life expectancies than the average.
As we get older though, it is inevitable that our capacity to look after our gardens will diminish. Typically this is a gradual process, punctuated by setbacks in the shape of illness and injury that can easily become turning points between coping and not coping.
This week I felled a 22 foot magnolia and a massive clump of hazel, using a pole saw, long armed pruner, bow saw and chain saw to do so. I am 65. I was less confident climbing the magnolia to tie on ropes and cut off branches than I would have been ten years ago. In ten years time it is highly unlikely that I could do it at all.
Most of the tools were in fact borrowed from some people who are about ten or fifteen years older than me and whilst they have purchased the tools, they no longer feel able to use them. I do some work on their mature garden to help them out.
I know a lot of people in a similar position, with gardens that have been a source of pleasure for many years now starting to become a liability and a burden as their ability to cope with them ebbs away.
It is not a case of what to do when one reaches this point, because it generally is not a point but a drawn out process. It creeps up on you. The standard of maintenance falls but you’re still in control. You stop doing certain things, like bedding or growing vegetables. You get someone in to mow the grass and cut the hedges. There isn’t the same pressure of necessity with garden maintenance as with getting a water leak fixed, or a rotten window replaced. Those things have to be done and probably never were DIY jobs. You pay someone to do them because you have to. The garden is more like decorating, you learn to live with yellowing paintwork and faded wallpaper. It’ll see me out becomes our excuse and our refuge.
The garden is often different in the sense that there is usually a high degree of emotional and physical investment in our patch of ground and collections of plants. We don’t want to see it slide but are powerless to stop it. We cannot do it ourselves and we cannot afford to pay someone else to do it because it is the product of 25 hours a week work plus a few more planning and plant purchasing on top of that and most of us cannot afford a full time gardener.
A garden in a state of moderate decline can be an attractive and romantic place. The edges are rougher, it feels looser, more at one with nature. Or so we tell ourselves. Maybe we really are happy with that, finding a different sort of pleasure in a changing landscape. Maybe we are deeply unhappy, frustrated by being unable to do at all the things that for many years we did for pleasure.
An unsympathetic onlooker would say the solution is simple; move. But you have got the garden where you wanted it to be, after many years of input, some of it backbreaking and expensive. You don’t want to move. This is your Shangri-La, you’ve surely earned the right to sit in it with a glass of beer in hand.
What then, is the answer?
I have been a horticultural professional all my working life. I draw on that experience all the time when I am gardening. I have professional quality tools because they were the tools of my trade and they make things easier. I use herbicide, in the form of glyphosate, very sparingly but in ways that save me work. When it comes to techniques like digging, not that I do much, I know how to do it to most effectively bury weed and reduce future work, and how to do it with minimum effort.
I have a six foot steel bar, which enables me to move almost anything and to get out tough roots. It takes me longer to dig round a rootball with my narrow trenching spade but its narrow blade with rounded end goes in a lot easier than a normal width spade. I have a small diamond stone which I use to sharpen my Felco secateurs; they will cut easily through stems that identical looking secateurs won’t touch. Loppers would give me more leverage, perhaps I should buy some.
And so on. It seems to me that there isn’t much discussion in the media about garden maintenance for older people. Have I just missed it? I feel like I should start a meme of gardening tips for old codgers. Are there lots of older people producing and reading gardening stuff on blogs and the like, or is it mostly younger people?
There must be a million tips and tricks that individuals use to help them keep maintaining the garden they want. I have to admit I haven’t really looked, perhaps I should google “gardening for old codgers” and see what comes up.
It’s widely recognised that gardening is very good for our physical and mental well being. With ever greater numbers of old people, keeping people doing it for longer could be a significant contributor to older people’s health.
What is your experience? Are you getting on a bit yourself, or helping out aging parents perhaps? Or maybe you make a living as a gardener, working for elderly clients. Could gardeners be helped to keep their gardens going for longer?