Downsizing Your Garden & Staying In Place

If, after reading my last post, you’ve weighed the pros and cons of downsizing and decided to stay put, there are a few things you can do to age in place comfortably. Call your local home builders association and ask about builders who are Certified Aging-In-Place Specialists (CAPS) for any indoor modifications you need to make to your house. For yard and garden help, read on.

Your goal outside should be to make gardening easier and more pleasant. It’s called Adaptive Gardening and involves adapting your landscape and garden design, as well as your plant palette and gardening techniques to your changing physical and mental capabilities. The challenge is to garden smarter, not harder. At the end of the day, your goal is to feel a sense of accomplishment rather than a sense of pain.

One of the first things to consider is reducing the amount of space you have under cultivation. Do you use all of your back yard? Many people have nothing but grass growing all the way to the back lot line but never use it for anything. Yet, you have to mow the lawn every week and keep it weeded. 

One way to reduce the cultivated area of your yard is to plant trees and shrubs in the unused area, cut a wandering path through it and then let it grow naturally. Nature will fill in the bare spaces. I did this with the hill at the back of my property and now get more compliments than I got when I was cultivating it. The cultivated photo is on the left and the natural photo is on the right.

If you prefer lower, more colorful plants in that area, consider a wildflower garden. Initially, you prepare the soil and plant it much like you would a lawn. Instead of having to mow every week, you can sit back and enjoy the flowers. You only have to mow the wildflowers once a year, in the fall. The seeds, dropped by the flowers, will germinate and grow next season. One word of caution: I’ve heard complaints that some packages of mixed wildflower seeds that you see advertised may contain many weed seeds. With that in mind, you may want to buy the various seeds and mix them yourself. A horticulturist at your garden center can help you select the right seeds. Also, if you hire someone to mow your yard, be sure they’re willing to mow the wildflowers, and put it in the contract or you may be stuck with the job.

Speaking of mowing, when you add up the time or money necessary to mow the lawn, not to mention the fertilizer and weed and insect control that might be necessary, you’ll probably find that the lawn is a bigger drain on your time, energy and budget than any other gardening activity. That’s why many senior gardeners are replacing all or part of their lawns with low maintenance ground cover.

Here are two other aging-in-place gardening tips. Replace your perennials with shrubs. You don’t have to dig up shrubs periodically and split them to keep them within bounds. You only have to prune them occasionally. The second tip is to plant all your annuals in containers. Buy the plants in nursery pots and just slip them into lightweight decorative containers. This makes it easy to change them out when they’re through flowering and you can easily move the containers wherever they’re needed.

Adaptive Gardening while aging-in-place is covered in more detail in my book, The Geriatric Gardener: Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. To order your copy, visit

Is This The Year You’ll Downsize?

As this gardening season winds down, it’s a good time to review what you did in your garden and how you feel. If you have felt overwhelmed during the season or new health challenges have presented themselves, you may want to weigh the pros and cons of downsizing.

Downsizing isn’t a sign of defeat. It’s simply a new chapter in your life. If the pros outweigh the cons, it might be a good time to make a move. Home prices are high so you may be able to realize enough from your current home to buy a smaller home on a smaller lot with a lot of upgrades you thought you could never afford. As you age, these added amenities, coupled with the many aging-in-place services that are available, could make your downsized home truly your forever home.

Start your thought process by removing the word “downsize” from your vocabulary and replacing it with “rightsize” because that’s what you’re doing. A rightsized house will have enough room to live comfortably. Be sure its only one story and you won’t have any stairs to climb, and you won’t have extra rooms to clean, heat and cool. When I rightsized 20 years ago, my midwinter gas and electric bills dropped from about $300 a month to less than $200. I think my highest may have been $185 during a brutally cold winter.

A rightsized yard will force you to garden smart. Reducing the size of your garden can bring out creativity you may not know you even have. Maybe you’ll plant veggies in with the flowers so you can just step outside to harvest them (See the tomato plant in the photo). Decorative raised beds will enhance your outside décor while easing your knee pain. Less grass means less mowing. You get the point? 

You can continue gardening even if your idea of rightsizing is moving to an apartment or condominium. Those options may require even more creativity. Your landlord or HMO (Home Owners’ Association) may have rules that regulate your gardening activities but few will prohibit plants like they prohibit pets.

Apartments may not have space for in-soil gardening, especially if you live on an upper floor. However, many have balconies where you can grow flowers, vegetables or even dwarf trees in containers. You may also be able to grow an herb garden on your kitchen window sill and indoor garden with flowers and foliage plants, all of which need only minimum care. For really creative, carefree gardening, consider growing air plants (Tillandsia).

Condo rules vary with the type of condo and the whims of the board. High rise condos have the same space and access restrictions as apartments. Townhouses, on the other hand, often have decks or patios on which you can raise containerized plants. Some even have a small plot of ground beyond the deck or patio where they permit you to garden. Just be sure of the restrictions before you sign on the dotted line.

As I have written before: The only reason to give up gardening is by choice, never by circumstances.

For more information on rightsizing, a chapter on deciding whether to downsize or not begins on page 62 and a chapter on how small space gardens can be beautiful begins on page 24 of my book, The Geriatric Gardener – Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. To order your copy, visit

Fall Is For Planting, Even For Senior Gardeners

The dog days of summer are behind us, replaced by fall, and fall is for planting. If the cynic in you is thinking that Fall is for Planting was just created for nurseries and garden centers to get rid of left over spring and summer stock, it’s time to modify your thinking. Weather conditions make fall the ideal season for planting. Days are still warm, nights are cool, the soil is warm and rain has returned, providing newly planted trees and shrubs with ideal conditions for them to become acclimated before winter descends upon us.

Many garden centers bring in fresh stock for the season. So, this would be a good time to replace those labor intensive perennials with low maintenance shrubs. Be forewarned, though, you’ll probably need help so have your assistants lined up before you invest in plants. It can be a real chore to dig up overgrown perennials. If you’re giving the perennials away, the recipient(s) surely won’t want to wrestle with a big, heavy root ball either, so they’ll have to be divided before they go to their new homes. This is not a job most senior gardeners should be tackling, at least not alone.

You can probably handle the potted shrubs you’ll be planting but it would be nice to have help digging the holes and hauling the mulch or handling balled and burlap plants. The hole should be two to three times wider than the diameter of the root ball but only as deep. If the shrubs are potted, remove the pot and loosen the soil around the roots before planting. If it’s balled and burlap, put the plant in the hole and then cut the wire or twine holding the burlap to the plant. Leave the burlap in the hole; it’ll decompose.

After the plant’s in the hole, backfill, stopping periodically to tamp down the soil to avoid air pockets. Thoroughly water, spread about three inches of organic mulch then sit back and enjoy your new low maintenance shrub(s). 

Fall is also for planting trees. They’re planted the same way as shrubs. Resist the temptation to stake them unless they’re subject to very high winds. Young tree trunks should get used to being buffeted by prevailing winds. They need to be able to flex in the breeze.

Fall is also for planting cool weather annuals like chrysanthemums (mums) and pansies. But I recommend planting them in containers. They look nice in containers and are easy to dispose of when they’re finished blooming. You can do all the necessary work without kneeling down or lifting heavy containers. I buy my plants in nursery pots and just slip them into lightweight decorative containers. 

Using the ideal fall weather conditions to plant new trees and shrubs now will give them plenty of time to become established in their new home before going dormant (deciduous) or slowing down (evergreens) for the winter. As a result, they’ll require less care next spring. That should be incentive enough to plant this fall.

A chapter on using autumn to simplify your garden starts on page 94 of my book, The Geriatric Gardener – Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. To order your copy, visit

Bulb Planting For Senior Gardeners

Photos courtesy of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs

It’s September and garden store ads are reminding you that spring flowering bulbs are now available. You know you need some to fill in your bulb garden. Last spring, you noticed that some of your flowers were absent, leaving unattractive bare spots. You dread the thought of replacing these bulbs. It takes time, money and a toll on your knees. Here are some tips that might make the experience a bit less stressful and painful:

• Buy a long handled digger or planter. There are a number of styles available. Check online garden supply sites, garden centers or big box stores that sell gardening tools. You can then perform the tasks that follow standing up, rather than kneeling.

• Before buying new bulbs, find out why the existing bulbs failed to grow last year. If the soil’s disturbed where you planted, your bulbs may have been dinner for critters. Dig down and see if there’s still a bulb in the hole. If there isn’t, this question is answered.

• If there’s no sign that an animal disturbed the planting site, dig down and check the bulb. Make sure the bulb is planted right side up. The pointed end should be facing upward and the flat, hairy root end facing downward. Check for excess wetness. Squeeze the bulb lightly; a waterlogged bulb will feel soft and squishy. Bulbs don’t like to swim. 

• Have you fertilized your bulb garden lately? Bulbs don’t need fertilizer when you first plant them but they may need it to regrow in successive years. A soil test is the best way to know if your soil has sufficient nutrients to support plants. Fertilizer doesn’t feed plants. They make their own food through photosynthesis. Fertilizer replaces depleted soil nutrients that are necessary for photosynthesis to take place.

• Think back to when you planted the bulbs that aren’t regrowing. The life of a bulb, like any plant, is finite. Unproductive bulbs may have just lived their useful life and have to be replaced.

• An alternative to using a long handle digger or planter is to transfer your bulb garden to raised beds. Make the sides of the beds high enough that you can sit on them and work comfortably using the same tools you’ve been using right along. You can transfer the bulbs from your current bulb garden or plant new bulbs in your raised bed. Another low impact alternative is to plant your bulbs in containers. I’ve even seen them in galvanized horse troughs that can be found at farm supply stores.

There’s more on raised beds, including a photo of very attractive raised beds, on page 34 of my book, The Geriatric Gardener – Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. To order your copy, visit

Teaching The Next Generation To Garden

It took a pandemic to get people out in the garden and, hopefully, they’ll continue to garden as life gets back to normal. I’m also hopeful that growers will soon be able to supply garden centers with all the plants and seeds they need.  Did you wonder how all these new gardeners learned how to garden so fast? I’m sure the answer is You Tube videos.

If your children depended on You Tube to teach them to garden, how much more satisfying would it be for you to take your grandchildren, and even great grandchildren, under your wing now and start teaching them while they’re young. Besides passing the legacy of gardening to future generations, you can also cultivate a legion of helpers. And teaching them the adaptive techniques you’re using now may even prevent unnecessary pain as they age. They’ll already have good habits.

To keep their interest, you’ll have to be sure to involve them in all phases of making the garden, not just the jobs you don’t want to do. That includes participating in soil preparation, planting, harvesting and, most of all, eating. I speak from experience. Remember the World War II Victory Gardens? We had one in the back yard and all I recall ever being able to do was weed, and how I hated it. I don’t recall ever being able to harvest the vegetables. As a result, I’ve never grown a vegetable garden. All of my gardening has been ornamental with an emphasis on trees and shrubs.

My four-year-old great granddaughter is enjoying just the opposite experience. The top photo shows her planting a seedling that she grew from seed. Before anything could be planted outside, she wanted to start the garden so badly that her parents bought a seed starter kit, complete with lights. With parental guidance, she planted the seeds and kept them watered, and could tell me everything she was growing. After she was able to plant the seedlings in the raised bed, she has helped, with her parents, with the weeding. The bottom photo shows her picking the first bean, which she promptly ate.

The two examples show the genesis of one who will likely be a lifelong gardener and another who buys his produce at the supermarket or farmer’s market. I’m sure my great granddaughter’s getting a better hands-on learning experience than the adults who’ve had to depend on You Tube videos to learn how to garden. The kids you introduce to the joys of gardening will surely have pleasant memories of you, and the times they spend with you will be remembered at family gatherings for years to come. 

There’s more on getting the family involved in gardening, and calling upon them to help you  on page 60 of my book, The Geriatric Gardener – Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. To order your copy, visit

Watering Tips For Senior Gardeners

Next to weeding, watering is, arguably, the most difficult job for senior gardeners. It’s boring, time consuming and tiresome. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Here are tips for taking some of the drudgery out of making sure your plants receive the inch of water they require each week.

Not all plants need to be irrigated if you don’t get an inch of rain for a week. Mature trees and shrubs, for example, have fully developed roots that have grown out and down to find water. However, if you’re in the midst of a prolonged drought, as much of the nation is now, you may have to provide some assistance if the leaves begin to shrivel or fall. Newly planted trees and shrubs do need supplemental water when Mother Nature short changes them.

Perennials will likely need supplemental water, as will annuals. But if your annuals are nearing the end of their life, it would be more economical and easier for you to just let nature take its course and then replace them with fresh plants. Keep your water source in mind. Most of us either pump it from a well that has a finite supply or buy it per gallon from the municipal water authority. That begs the question: Is it practical or necessary to water the lawn?

The answer to that question is yes you have to water if you want to maintain a lush, green lawn. Watering a lawn requires using a sprinkler and that wastes a lot of water. When you spray water into the air on a hot, sunny day, a substantial amount will evaporate before it reaches the ground. Holding a hose to water tires you out before you can water the lawn sufficiently because plants prefer the entire inch of water at one time.  Choosing not to water your lawn is OK. Turfgrass has the ability to go dormant in a drought. That’s why it’s brown instead of green. When the rain returns, it’ll turn green again.  

Unless you have an automatic irrigation system with drip emitters, I recommend using soaker hoses (pictured) for trees, shrubs and planting beds. These are porous rubber hoses made from recycled tires. You only open the spigot a quarter turn and the water oozes out. Opening the spigot any more can result in the water enlarging the holes in the hoses. Soaker hoses are like budget drip irrigators. They slowly place the water in the plants’ root zones. Soaker hoses are easy to connect to a timer so they’ll turn on and off at set times. It’ll probably take close to an hour for soaker hoses to provide an inch of water. It could take even longer if you have several soaker hoses attached to each other and snaking through a large planting bed.

Last but not least, containerized plants will almost surely need watering. And these plants

will need watering more often than in-ground plants. The soil in the container can hold only so much water and when it’s used up, the plant roots cannot spread out to find more water.

My strategy has always been to use soaker hoses for perennials and young trees and shrubs. My annuals have always been planted in containers that I watered with either a hose or watering can. The lawn has always been left in Mother Nature’s hands. This strategy has worked well for me through the years.

There’s more on watering with soaker hoses on page 28 of my book, The Geriatric Gardener – Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. To order your copy, visit

Senior Gardening In The Summer Heat

Here in the northeast, we practically worship summer. That’s because its annual stay is so short. We like to spend as much time outdoors as we can. For some people, that can be dangerous.

Everything’s good in moderation. That includes the sun and summer heat. Too much sun can be dangerous for people of all ages. The cause of many of the dermatology procedures we endure as senior citizens got their start during our invincible years. Gardeners of any age should use sunscreen and wear a brimmed hat that shades your ears and neck, as I model in the photo above. Sunglasses protect your eyes. Not wearing them can exacerbate age related macular degeneration. It’s a good idea to wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt, too.

An important aspect of adaptive gardening is to have at least one shady oasis where you can rest and rehydrate. The larger the garden, the more rest areas you should have so you don’t have a long walk back to the single rest area. Be sure your shady rest areas have one or more comfortable chairs and a container of cold water. Although dietitians may tell you that any non-alcoholic liquid is good for hydration, nothing beats cold water. One of the first signs that you’re dehydrating is difficulty staying balanced when standing. You don’t want to fall. Falls are one of the major causes of injury among seniors.

The best way to adapt if temperature extremes bother you is to schedule your gardening at hours when it’s not too hot or too cold. Heat sensitive senior gardeners should garden early in the morning or in the evening when it has started to cool down. Those bothered by cold temperatures would probably be more comfortable gardening in the afternoon when it’s warm

Even if heat doesn’t bother you, it’s still best to do your most strenuous work in the morning and less strenuous work later in the day. No matter how good your health, your aging body tires as the day progresses. As fatigue sets in, your “A” game becomes your “B” game, and that’s when accidents and mistakes occur. It would be a shame to work hard all day only to end the day with an error that’s costly in time and money. Worse yet, fatigue caused errors can result in serious injuries.

When the TV meteorologists recommend staying inside in the air conditioning, it’s wise to heed their warning. The work will wait. The need for weeding, or whatever you were planning to do, will still be there when it cools down. Your health is more important. Besides, there isn’t much to do in the garden In July and August, so you can space out any work you’re planning and still have plenty of time to get it done. 

One of the objectives of adaptive gardening is to enjoy your garden more than you enjoy gardening. In July and August, one of the best ways to do that is from your deck or patio on cool days and out the window on hot days.

Full chapters on each important point covered above are in my book, The Geriatric Gardener: Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. To order your copy, visit: 

Wildlife In Your Senior Garden: Pleasure Or Pain?

Courtesy of Wildlife Biology Student Jacob VanDress

Depending on your viewpoint, wildlife can be a source of joy or frustration in your garden. You can really enjoy them only when you realize that their visit is for the purpose of eating, rather than putting on a show for you. If that doesn’t excite you, it would probably be best if you discourage them or keep them at a distance. 

Mammals are the most destructive but also the most fun to watch. Deer can climb up on their hind legs and eat tender twigs about eight feet up in a tree. They’ll do it whether you invite them or not, especially in the winter when they have slim pickings in their natural habitat. In New York State, it’s illegal to intentionally feed deer. Officials don’t want them to become domesticated and depend on people for food.

Not too many people I know like the antics of field mice but rabbits are fun. However, all rodents can kill a tree.  In summer, they have plenty of food in their natural habitat. In winter, when food’s scarce, they chew around the base of trees to get to the tender inner bark. If they chew all the way around the tree, this girdling destroys the tree’s vascular system and the tree will die.

Although squirrels drive dogs crazy, they put on good shows and collect nuts so you don’t have to clean them up from your garden. Be careful, though, that they don’t set up their homestead in your attic. That goes for field mice, too. They can squeeze into your house through very small spaces. The first thing you know, they’re helping themselves to your food and leaving you with messes to clean up.

Birds and butterflies put on enjoyable shows without leaving destruction. They’re easy to attract and it’s OK to feed them. In fact, feeding these creatures is encouraged. Decide what birds frequent the area and put out squirrel resistant bird feeders with the seed mix they like and a bird bath, then wait for them to arrive. Some birds need help with nesting material and others like to live in birdhouses. If you’re plagued by mosquitoes, you might want to put up a purple martin house. These birds love mosquitoes. It’s best placed away from your patio, though. The parents remove their youngs’ waste and jettison it shortly after they leave the house. In fact, cleaning up droppings and keeping the feeders and birdbath full are about the only ongoing maintenance you’ll need to do to enjoy hours of avian antics.

Butterflies are excellent pollinators as well as beautiful to watch. Research what species frequent your area and what they require to keep them happy. You’ll surely need bright color flowers that produce nectar the butterflies like. As they land on flowers to enjoy the nectar, they pick up pollen on their feet and deposit it on another flower when they stop for another drink of nectar. The most important attractant for butterflies is food for their young. This is very species specific. Monarch caterpillars, for example will eat only milkweeds. Butterflies may feel more welcome if you put out butterfly houses and a puddler, which is like a miniature birdbath just for butterflies. Both items can be purchased at specialty shops selling bird supplies and online.

Since the major goal of adaptive gardening is to keep your senior garden simple and easy to maintain, my recommendation is to encourage birds and butterflies while keeping mammalian wildlife at bay. 

A chapter in my book, The Geriatric Gardener: Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors, has more about attracting birds and butterflies to your senior garden, including a photo of a monarch butterfly on a Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush) that I took while lying in my hammock on the patio. Visit to order the book.

Ergonomic Tool Update

Tools are on the mind of many senior gardeners. Interviewers always ask me about ergonomic tools. When I make presentations, tools become a major topic of discussion. From these discussions come some good ideas, which I’ll share with you periodically.

Recently, I presented adaptive gardening tips to a group of fellow garden writers and they shared their ideas with me. When discussing, for example, ways to help people with arthritic fingers grip shovels, rakes and hoes better, I recommended foam pipe insulation. (The black foam that’s wrapped around air conditioner lines.) Another writer volunteered that she uses pool noodles instead.

Pool noodles are lengths of hollow foam that kids play with in swimming pools, and have several advantages over pipe insulation. Pipe insulation is slit to allow it to be wrapped around the pipe. When installing it on your tool handles, that slit has to be taped, as do the two ends to keep it in place on the tool. Pool noodles can just be slipped onto the tool handle and taped in place.

While pipe insulation is available only in black, pool noodles come in a variety of bright colors. You can also buy duct tape in a matching color to secure the foam to the tool. The bright colors make it easier to see the tools if your vision is getting a little dimmer. The color may also be the stimulus you need if returning tools to the garage or shed slips your mind occasionally.

Another discussion at that presentation was about how well the Cobrahead single tine weeder/cultivator works. This tool is available in the original short handle (pictured), a mini and two long handle versions (different length handles). One of the writers shared how well she likes the mini. She said it’s just the right size and weight for her. I have an original and a long handle Cobrahead and prefer the original. The handles on both the original and the mini are plastic, making them lightweight and easy to grip. The long handle has a wood handle that’s a bit heavy.

Cobrahead makes the long handle tool for gardeners who have trouble kneeling but many with knee problems are turning to raised beds. This makes either short handle Cobrahead a good tool choice if you have raised beds or are able to sit or kneel to work in the garden. See more at

There’s more on ergonomic tools on page 26 of my book, The Geriatric Gardener – Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. Visit to order your copy.

Your Low Maintenance Senior Garden Can Be Beautiful

Why do you garden? To keep busy or to enjoy the beauty of your work? Probably a little of both. Regardless, low maintenance is an important element of adaptive gardening, and you don’t have to sacrifice beauty for low maintenance. The amount of care your garden requires depends on the design and the plants you select. 

When selecting plants, may I suggest shrubs instead of perennials. Many perennials require enough care that it’s hard to consider them low maintenance. If you really want to reduce your maintenance, make most of your shrubs evergreens. Boxwoods, taxus (yews), some junipers, euonymus and dwarf evergreens require little or no pruning and they stay green all year. Besides looking nice during the growing season, they add color to your winter garden. The branches on evergreens are very flexible. Snow can bend them to the point that you want to go out and knock the snow off. Yet, if you resist the temptation, they’ll return to their normal position when the snow melts.

Selecting native plants can also improve your chances of them being low maintenance. I’m not an advocate of native plants only, especially with all the hybrids, nativars and cultivars on the market. (Cultivars of native plants are called nativars.) The two most prized plants in my yard are a gingko, originally found in China, and a lace leaf Japanese red maple. But I do recommend natives for gardeners who don’t have the time or inclination to thoroughly research the behavior habits of the introduced plants you’re considering.    

Cottage gardens are low maintenance and very colorful. Small yards lend themselves to cottage gardens but you can also set aside an area in a larger lot to plant a cottage garden. This type of garden is very popular in England and they’re catching on here as well. They are informal gardens that give the impression that the plants just grew where the seeds were dropped but they’re really very carefully designed. Here’s another place where all, or mostly native, plants will be your best choice. Be sure you’re selecting the right plant for the right place, though. Position the plants close together to discourage weeds and mulch between them. Then sit back and enjoy a sea of color all season long and for many seasons to come.

Replacing some or all of your lawn  with groundcover, will reduce the time you spend maintaining your garden, or the money you spend to have someone else maintain it. An increasing number of senior gardeners are willing let go of some grass and replace it with groundcover. When they see how much time is saved many gradually replace all of it. Groundcover doesn’t require weekly mowing, multiple fertilizations and weed control applications during the season.

These ideas should be viewed as thought starters. With the time and labor you save, you can come up with other creative ideas for simplifying your garden so you can enjoy it more. Check the photo for some ideas. When the prospect of joint replacement surgery loomed, this gardener replaced most perennials with shrubs in raised beds. In his retirement, her husband learned how to do artistic stonework and built the raised beds. He also built wide, smooth paths and removed stairs wherever possible.

More ideas for simplifying your garden and making it low maintenance are in my book, The Geriatric Gardener: Adaptive Gardening Advice For Seniors. To order your copy, visit