Aching back? 10 tips for senior gardeners

Ankle pain is connected to knee pain.  Knee pain is connected to hip pain.  Hip pain is connected to back pain.  That’s just the way it is for many senior gardeners—at least for me.

Because of all my aches and pains plus muscles that sometimes don’t work quite like they used to, I’ve been adapting the way I garden.  Here’s my list of what I’ve changed to avoid unreasonable pain and suffering.

I share these tips because many senior gardeners aren’t the least bit tempted to hang up their gardening tools in the garage and retire to the teak glider on the front porch as the sun of life slowly sinks toward the horizon.  We adjust our gardening ways and learn practical tricks that help us avoid pain that comes from bending, stooping, and lifting.

1.  Don’t waste a squat or bend.  Squatting or bending isn’t the problem.  It’s standing back up again that brings the pain.  When I’m down, I look around and see what other chore I can do without getting up and then bending again.  If I pull a weed, I look to see if there are more within reach.

Weeding with my favorite
arms extender

2.  Grow longer arms—or shorter legs.  One gardening challenge is that plants often don’t grow at a height that maximizes my tending to their needs.  Weeds often hunker on the ground—two feet below my hands.  My arms would be so much more useful in the garden if they were two feet longer.  Or maybe I could shorten my legs by fifty percent.  Lengthening or shortening my extremities isn’t possible—so I’ve done the next best thing.  I’ve invested in a weeding hoe that lets me accurately weed close to my garden plants without damaging them.  CLICK on the highlighted words if you want to see short videos on “Long-Handled Tools” and “Using the Collinear Hoe” at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds website.  Other sources offer similar weeding hoes under such names as “diamond hoe” or “winged weeder.”  Key features for senior gardeners with aching backs are long handles so you seldom need to bend and relatively narrow blades so you can weed close to your favorite plants without damaging them. 

3.  Start crawling again.  I suppose we all crawled when we were one year old.  But we learned that crawling isn’t the most efficient mode of human locomotion, so we copied our parents and took up walking.  But as a senior, I hasten to add that crawling can be an excellent remedy for avoiding pain in arthritic or deteriorating joints.  If I’m sitting on the ground by a tomato plant and want to move the four feet to a sweet-pepper plant, I can struggle and wobble to stand and walk—or I can crawl from tomato to pepper.  I cannot remember when I first started my senior crawling, but it is a real back saver.  You may feel a bit awkward at first, especially if  neighbors are watching, but generally a muffled “Woof!  Woof!” will divert their attention—or make them smile.

A good weeding hoe has a narrow
cutting blade and points that let you
dig out stubborn weeds without stooping

4.  Beat the heat.  The old saying is that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.  There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement.  Most of us aren’t mad—or dogs—and few readers will be Englishmen.  The point is that summertime gardening is hottest when the sun is high in the sky and wilts both plants and senior gardeners.  Smart seniors do their hardest gardening chores in the coolness of the morning, when the dew is still on the green beans—and the temperature is 55°F, not after noon when the temperature soars into the 90s.  Of course, the temperature begins to moderate in late afternoon, but evening gardening is warmer than morning gardening.

5.  Weed when the soil’s not wet.  I don’t waste time weeding when the soil is wet.  If I hoe or pull weeds when the soil is wet, many of the weeds will be only temporarily inconvenienced and will re-root and grow to greet me in another week or two.  I usually wait two or three days after a soaking rain so the soil dries a bit.  I weed in the morning, leaving roots exposed so the weeds, not I, wither and die in the noonday sun.   

6.  Shrink your garden.  Are you old enough to remember your mom looking for a “Sanforized” label when she bought you new clothes—so she would have some assurance they wouldn’t shrink?  These days I look around our gardens and landscape features and hope to find some that aren’t “Sanforized”—so I can shrink them.  In recent years I’ve abandoned a large island bed because there really was no point of keeping it up other than adding pain to my lower back.  I’ve reduced the yearly number of tomato plants from about 35 to 23.

Mulch suppresses weed sprouting and
makes them easier to remove

7.  Mulch, mulch, mulch.  Most gardeners know the many benefits of good quality mulch.  One benefit is that a two- to three-inch layer of mulch helps tremendously in weed suppression and removal.  I use straw mulch around tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and strawberries and pine bark/fines mulch in our flower beds.   I decapitate newly sprouted weeds on a weekly basis with my weeding hoe.  The job takes just a half hour if I do it regularly. If for some reason I have to pull a weed, the mulch usually makes the job easy.

8.  Stop total tilling every year.  Springtime soil preparation can be hard work—a real pain in the back or joints, whether you use a shovel or fork or a tilling machine.  I used to turn over my garden from edge to edge, leaving no spot unturned, no weed unburied.  But then I read articles about no-till gardening and gardening in raised beds.  I decided the key is preparation of soil where crops will grow, not to the border areas or walkways where I never plant.  Since I dig a lot less now, I have less joint and muscular pain.  In fact, I’ve just about abandoned my shovel for cutting, lifting, and turning garden soil.  After 15 years, I’ve amended most of our gardens to the point where my long-handled warren hoe slips easily through the soil and prepares it for planting better than my shovel ever did.   

9.  Be brave and yell “Help!”  I used to climb trees and saw away with a chainsaw.  I used to use a sledge and wedges to split logs for our fireplace.  I used to climb up on the roof and hang over the edge like a monkey to inspect soffit and fascia or clean the gutters.  Note the past tense.  I used to….  If an ice storm or a thunderstorm rips a huge limb off a pine, I don’t climb the tree with my chainsaw dangling.  I call a grandson and ask if he or a friend….  Grandkid, neighbor, niece or nephew, who’s there to help you prepare this year’s garden?  As you chat with your helper, clever you might even pass on a bit of gardening wisdom.

10. Be creative!  Holly, one of three Howard County, Maryland, Master Gardeners known as the “Veggie Chicks,” told me a story about her dad, an aged gardener who sorely missed his vegetable garden after moving into assisted living.  “Dad always liked to start his tomatoes from seed,” Holly explained, “so by gosh that’s what we did. When they were big enough to transplant, I bought an Earth Box with a trellis to put in front of the large window in his room.  I had to rig a fluorescent tube light above, as the plants became leggy because they didn’t get enough natural sunlight. Dad liked big, juicy, slicing tomatoes, but we planted grape tomatoes, hoping they would grow better.  Dad wasn’t overly thrilled with them, but the staff loved to come in his room to visit the “jungle,” as they called them, and to pop a few tomatoes as a snack.  He was happy to share! Several years later when he moved to a group home, we grew tomatoes in large pots and drywall buckets on its sunny deck and had much better luck and bigger tomatoes.”  Yes, be creative—and garden on!

That’s my list of tips to help keep senior gardeners in their gardens.  Now it’s your turn.  Please post a Comment below with your special tip for avoiding the aches and pains of senior gardening.

9 Comments on “Aching back? 10 tips for senior gardeners

  1. Great article Bob. Couple of things I might add are that while I like my colliner hoe for large weeding chores, my 3 inch winged weeded is my favorite tool for close work in my intensively planted raised beds. I will add that even with long handled tools, I often have to adjust the angle of the tool by bending the metal where the handle attachs to the blade. Sometimes, being tall has its disadvantages.

    As for crawling, I don't, most times, I just sit on my butt beside my raised bed and scoot along with out getting up. So what if my jeans get grass stained.

    Finally, both before and after working in the garden or for that matter any chore that requires use of aged muscles, stretch both before and after your workout.


  2. Thanks for adding your insights and experience, Kent. Your long, flat gardens make scooting a great alternative, but my hillside mini-gardens encourage me to crawl more. Can you believe two gardeners are having a conversation about scooting and crawling? What works, works!


  3. Nice post Bob. My grandfather was ready to call it quits on his garden last year before I stepped in and took over. I did all the hard work like tilling and weeding and I even supplied most of the seed and plants. I really enjoyed spending the extra time with my grandpa and am looking forward to it this year as well. I drove down to his house at least once a week after work throughout the summer. Maybe that was his way of addressing #9 on your list?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, Brian. Grandparent-gardeners all over the world will be asking for your phone number! I hope you see the joy in your granddad's eyes as you help work his garden. Priceless!


  5. These are excellent gardening tips for those of us who are getting a bit older and less flexible. My husband started an herb garden on the deck. It looks amazing every year and is also fragrant. It is also easier than going to the backyard to tend an entire vegetable garden.


  6. Good move, Sandy & husband! Modern container gardens, with water reservoirs, are a tremendous improvement over the buckets and pots of yesteryear, which often had to be watered several times a day. I can almost smell your “fragrant” herbs. Two thumbs up!


  7. Bob, I think you covered the basics pretty well. I have chosen to plant some beds around the perimeter of my property in dwarf evergreens and smaller shrubs including native shrubs a la Doug Talamy to develop a more naturalized edge to the garden/yard. The up side is that is one more bed I only have to mulch and prune. I will use garden artifacts to add interest and focal points when the bed shrub bed looks a little lacking in color or movement.
    Just in case you were wondering, I scoot and I crawl. I used to have a rolling seat by Ames (no relation) to use for limited seating chores like digging with a trowel and hand pulling weeds but I usually ended up on my knees even with the seat. I think that seat must have been too much fun because one day it disappeared. Pretty sure the kids busted it up .


  8. Great tips. I have a couple to add. I’m transitioning from the overload of perennials I had to more shrubs. I also found the best plastic garden cart at Aubuchon for about $90 with two big bicycle wheels on the front. I can pull it full with one hand – love it! I’ve had the cart for three years now, and I can pick it up, put it in the back of my truck, and take it to gardens when we have work days. And with regard to getting down, I use the Garden Supply’s tractor scoot with bucket that runs about $80. That I’ve had for at least ten years now, and all I’ve done to it is replace the tires. The money for these two tools is some of the best money I’ve ever spent. Thanks for the tips.


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