Tools and techniques to help in the garden when life throws you a curve

By Margeaux Emery

Injury, illness, arthritis, and other health conditions can bring the need to change how one gardens. A stroke, for example, can result in loss of strength in hands and arms. Arthritis causes pain in movement. Whatever difficulty life may bring, know there are tools and techniques to help you continue to garden. 

Ergonomic tools are increasingly easy to find in local garden centers. Research has found that their often subtle design differences may not work for everyone. Whenever possible, try tools before you purchase them to find the designs or modifications that work best for you. 

A variety of ergonomic and adaptive tools can be found on the market. Test them, when possible, to find the ones best suited to your own specific needs.

“Adaptive” tools may be harder to find due to their more specialized designs that assist gardeners with specific needs. Examples include weak grip, decreased fine motor skills or difficulty stooping and rising. Adaptive tools you might find include a trowel with an adjusted handle that places your hand and wrist in natural alignment with your arm. Gloves are available with wide Velcro straps that firmly hold a tool in your hand. These add force both to holding and digging. Shovels and other implements are offered with extendable, even telescopic, handles. 

Raised beds are another option when there’s need to reduce stooping and rising. These can be constructed at taller heights in traditional squares and rectangles or be as innovative as a “U” shaped bed that wraps around a gardener. Beds may be raised to allow a wheelchair to roll under. To determine the best height for raised beds, hold out your hands and arms and angle them until your elbows bend at 90 degrees: that’s where your soil should be. 

Raised beds offer convenience and accessibility, while square-foot gardening can produce higher yields. Other pluses: tilling is not needed and weeding is generally a breeze. Photo by Jenna Jefferson.

Adaptive gardening may mean growing plants in tall containers. These allow you to stand and easily access a bed. For stability, choose heavy, wide-bottomed containers. Opt for ceramic containers over unglazed clay to reduce the frequency of watering, and locate them near faucets for easy access.

This youth is using a gripping tool to weed. Tools with expandable handles enable gardening while seated, greatly reducing the need to bend and stretch.

Choose to Simplify or Transform
Moving to a smaller home and yard may bring about fresh challenges that expand your knowledge and mastery. A garden design change you may find yourself facing is how to downsize from massed plantings to beds that contain one or two carefully selected specimens of each plant you love. Another is to retain massed plantings in a more confined setting. One gardener faced with the downsizing dilemma of moving from 54 beds and many massed plantings to a tightly constrained space found a clever solution that keep her hands connected with the plants she prized. She passed on many to friends. In their yards she has continued to enjoy them and even volunteers to maintain them.

Master gardener Fran Scheidt invested a great deal of energy in her garden upon retiring, and it shows in lovely, well-thought-out plantings. Now, with declining interest in her own garden, she assists a group that delivers floral arrangements to nursing homes.

Changes may prompt returning some beds to lawn or switching to plants that require less care, including ones that require less moisture. Each brings change the look and composition of your yard and garden. 

Think differently, too, about your choice of plants, from ones you consider at the garden center or nursery to others already in your beds. One gardener pulled aging azaleas (Rhododendron) and holly (Ilex) from her home’s front foundation bed because they required more pruning and care than she was able to keep up with. She replaced with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and ornamental grasses. With weed barriers and mulch in place, these have proven trouble-free and the grasses’ gentle sway in the breeze was very pleasant contrasted with the home’s red brick exterior. A shaded area along the same foundation became carefree where plantings were removed and replaced with large, rounded river rocks.

Hosta are sometimes called “friendship plants” for good reason. When it’s time to dig and divide them, such as the ‘Fried Bananas’ here, along with other spreading perennials such as hellebores (Helleborus), daylilies (Hemerocallis), and Aster, save labor and share the bounty by inviting friends to assist. At the back of this photo is Hosta ‘White Angel.’ Photo by Cornelia Holland.

Find the Upsides 
The need to make a garden “just right” in size or required time can lead to surprising outcomes. Now you are able to care better for a more limited gardening space. Tending a more manageable size can lead to dramatic improvement and effect, both on the garden and your self-esteem as a gardener. In these and other ways, just as our gardens change and serve different purposes, we have to be adaptable ourselves to the conditions that come our way. With care and the right viewpoint, they are changes that rightsize us, too.

When downsizing brings questions of what to do with a special collection, consider contacting gardening clubs and even botanical gardens to explore their needs. Here, volunteers from a small new botanical garden dug and removed 400 peonies (Paeonia) to create a wide-ranging garden of their own. Photo by Brian Campbell.
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