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Working with elderly gardeners

By Kristi Hendricks

I am currently visiting with my aunt who has been an avid gardener for my entire life. Her back yard is adjacent to a golf course in Des Moines, Iowa, separated only by a chain-link fence. I am in my 50s and she is four decades my senior. As any young woman who has been gardening for so many seasons, there were some unexpected challenges to helping her get her yard even close to her unusually high standards. I thought perhaps someone might benefit from the lessons I learned.

1. Do what they want done and grow what they want you to.

Elderly gardeners know what they want done. If they are anything like my aunt, they have not really accepted that they are not capable of doing it, herself. Simply put, she does not really want help. Mentally she is sharp, and it took some coaching just to get her permission to do anything. She has been gardening so long she knows exactly what she has grown. It was a bit surprising when she grabbed her cane to make sure that I knew which plants were weeds and which were flowers.

2. Get appropriate equipment.

She has great taste in quality garden tools, her hose was durable, long and way too heavy for her to manage, unless you ask her. I got her a high-quality flex hose that is very lightweight and collapses when the water pressure drops. We also bought an installed long soaker hose so she can water without moving the hose. And finally, a wand nozzle with a variety of spray types and wand adjustments makes it easy to reach areas without needing to move around.

3. Communicate as you go along.

Living in Virginia and someone in another state, means that some common names for plants change sometimes based on geography. It also helps to get some buy-in as you go along. Roles reversed; I might be more resistant to doing things differently. I suggested mulching the beds to hold moisture in and reduce watering requirements.

4. Get rid of garden stuff that is no longer valuable.

We disposed of generations of solar lights, broken tools, pots and various stuff that accumulates over time. We were careful to save things that still had some value. In fact, some of the unique ornaments that were able to be salvaged or revisited provided some happy memories when removed from the garage and returned to service.

5. Remember, it is not your garden.

We are creatures of habit; I prefer food more than flowers. When I return, I hope she will be able to enjoy and maintain her garden, that I helped her with.