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And May You Stay Forever Young, at Least in the Garden

As we get older, most of us develop aches and pains. As gardeners, we need to learn how to move and use our bodies so we don’t end up feeling like a quarterback after a sacking. I love working as a garden coach, partly because I am, at heart, a teacher. I also like finding solutions to almost anything. One of my clients, a woman with a bad shoulder, got me thinking about all the tricks I have learned over the years to minimize pain caused by gardening.

My client and I were planting some pretty big hostas. They were in large plastic pots and probably weighed about 15 pounds each. I showed her how to hold the pot upside down in one hand, and smack the bottom of the pot with the other so the roots and soil would slide out. But with her bad shoulder, she couldn’t do that.

I taught her to cut open the pot instead. It’s a technique I use when working with trees in pots. I placed the pot on the ground and inserted the blade of my ever-present pruners into one of the drain holes at the bottom of the black plastic pot. I slit up the side to the top, and sliced again across the bottom. Then I rolled the root ball free of the pot. Finally, I tickled the roots to loosen them up so they will be ready to explore their new environment.

Getting down on your knees to plant anything (or to pull weeds) is tough if you have arthritic knees or hips. I can recommend a couple of ways to deal with it. My late friend Marguerite Tewksbury, a lifelong organic gardener who lived in Windsor, started carrying a hoe in the garden in her late eighties. She used it like a walking stick, and it helped her getting down — or up. By leaning on a hoe, you can distribute your weight and make a more stable, three-point stance.

I am young and healthy at 67, so I don’t need any aids getting down to weed. But sometimes at the end of the day, it’s nice to have something to lean on when getting up. I like a 5-gallon pail for that; I can push up on it and get up more easily, with less strain on my back. Or sometimes I use my CobraHead weeder to help push me up a little.

When picking beans recently I found bending over tiresome for the time it took to pick all my beans. So I used a 5-gallon pail to sit on. Gardener’s Supply (www.gardeners.com) makes something that looks very good, a “garden kneeler.” It has hand rails at the sides for getting up from kneeling or you can convert it into a seat.

If you suffer from carpal tunnel, pruning may be painful. Most manufacturers now make hand pruners with a rotating grip that allegedly minimizes the problem. The Fiskars company has come out with a series of pruners and loppers that employ gears to reduce the amount of pressure it takes to make a cut. I have a pair of their biggest loppers, and find them fabulous. The gears really do reduce the work of cutting larger diameter hardwood branches.

One of the most ingenious tools I ever saw used was a homemade corn planter used — and made — by a man in his 90s. I saw him using it as I drove down the road, and I stopped to talk. He could no longer bend down to plant the seeds, so after his garden was rototilled by his son-in-law, he used a hoe to make a furrow for the seeds. Then he planted using a 30-inch piece of garden hose to get the seeds from his hand to the ground.

The hose poked up through a wide tin can (perhaps a fruit cake or cookie tin). He put all his corn seeds in the can, and then picked them up one at a time and dropped them into the hose (which poked a couple of inches into the can). Then he moved along a few inches and did it again. I’m sure that corn tasted mighty good to him, in part, because he had figured out how to keep on gardening.

Some of my friends who have moved to retirement communities keep their hand in gardening by planting in pots on a deck. Instead of 20 tomato plants, one or two in self-watering containers is what they manage. A pot roughly the size of a 5-gallon pail will do nicely for a tomato — and not have much room for weeds. Smaller pots sitting on railings can handle lettuce or basil very nicely.

If your back bothers you, be careful when hoeing or raking. Don’t lean forward. Keep your back straight. And if you need to pick up a bucket of weeds, place one foot forward and as you bend, tighten your tummy muscles.

None of us is getting any younger. But if you like gardening, you should be able to garden forever. I intend to. Please write or e-mail me if you have a good tip or trick. I’ll post them on my Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com.

Contact Henry Homeyer at P.O. Box 364 Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746 or email him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. He is the author of four gardening books and a recent children’s book about a boy and a cougar, “Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet.”