Planting Edmonds: Gardens for aging in place

Planting Edmonds is a monthly column written by members of Edmonds Floretum Garden Club

You are not getting any younger. Aging happens. Even gardeners age! At some point you are going to withdraw from the workforce and enter a much different stage of life – retirement!

As you approach that magic milestone. you are constantly reminded to plan financially for retirement. If gardening is an important part of your life, as it is for me, then I submit you also need to plan for gardening in the future. The planning and groundwork you lay today will ensure a long, rewarding gardening experience in your “golden years.”

I retired to Edmonds four years ago to a house with an overgrown and neglected garden. As I refresh and refurbish it, I have been thinking about how to make my garden work for the next 20 or 30 years. Based on these thoughts and my experience, I offer some advice for the aging-in-place garden. So, if you plan to “keep on gardening,” keep on reading.

Before you create your retirement-years garden – your “golden garden” – it is helpful to visualize what that garden looks like. First, where is it going to be? At your current home or a new one? For the sake of this column let’s assume you are going to stay put; that is, age in place. The same thoughts would apply to new digs as well.

Next, what would you like to do in your garden when you are older? Watch wildlife? Sit outside and read? Entertain on your deck or patio? Sit by a cozy fire? Play with your grandchildren? Have a pet or two? Grow vegetables, fruit, or flowers for cutting?

Depending on where you are in your life, it might be hard to imagine your golden years. A personal example: When I was an active corporate scientist, I met a retired co-worker at a social function. I asked him what he was doing with himself during retirement. He said, “I like to sit on the patio and watch birds.” That sounded dull to me. Flash forward: I am now retired, and I like to sit in my house or on my deck and watch birds! (As I am writing these words, a flicker and jay are relishing a bath outside my window, and it makes me happy).

When life slows down a bit, you have the time to look around you and gain new appreciation for things that you missed during the hectic working years. Step away from your go-go-go mindset, channel your future more relaxed self, develop your garden vision, and start making it happen.

The biggest barrier between your dream “golden” garden and reality may be money. Do you want to develop this garden yourself or pay to have it done for you? Another consideration is upkeep. Will you have the “gold” to have others mow your lawn, trim bushes and trees, plant annuals, and weed? If yes, you are fortunate and have fewer restrictions. If not, you need to plan for an increasingly lower effort on your part as you inevitably age.

Let’s consider four things as you create your golden garden: safety, adaptability, convenience and joyfulness.

Safety is a big deal. Falling is a major source of injury for seniors. Your retirement dreams can take a dramatic setback if you hurt yourself, so plan your garden and yard to minimize this lifestyle risk.

You may now love your long stone staircase up to your front door. When you are older this may represent a daunting climb and falling risk. Reduce tripping hazards like uneven pavers and steppingstones. Reduce steps and stairs — a gentle slope is better – and add hand railings where needed. Add some lighting to paths and steps. Something as simple as an inexpensive solar path light might save you physical and financial pain.

Here is a solar path light that illuminates an awkward step on my door landing.

Plan to minimize gardening chores that use ladders and require climbing on roofs. You may love climbing on a ladder now to prune your vigorous, beautiful wisteria, but later that is a big risk to take. Get rid of high-risk (accidental pun!) gardening chores or plan to have them done for you by family, friends, or professionals.

Your golden garden should be adaptable – able to change as you age. I once went to a retirement planning seminar where the speaker introduced three stages of retirement: “Go Go,” “Go Slow” and “No Go.”  In that first Go-Go stage, you can keep up the vigorous gardening.  Use this period to get your garden ready for the next stages.

For the Go-Slow garden, you should envision not moving as easily, not having the stamina or strength you used to and, perhaps having an underlying health issue limiting your physical activity. You are still enthusiastic about gardening; you just can’t put into it what you once did. Think about others you’ve seen in this stage like your parents or grandparents. You are going to be like that too, so plan for it.

And, finally, the No-Go stage. Now you are not going to be able to do much in your golden garden except look at it. Others will likely help maintain it for you. If your garden is adaptable, you can modify it as you transition in your capabilities and enthusiasm. For example, you may love growing annual flowers in beds. Your ability to plant and maintain beautiful annual flower beds will decline as you inevitably do. Plan by reducing these to low- or no-maintenance beds as needed, and plan how move about safely as your mobility declines (e.g., safe, level pathways).

Convenience is an important element for your aging-in-place garden. Make it easier and more comfortable to garden. For example, raised beds reduce the squatting and bending that become more difficult as you age. Look for opportunities to put planters and pots higher to make their care comfortable.

This raised-bed vegetable garden has easy access all around and a removable trellis in the back.
This espalier apple tree will only grow 4 feet high for easy maintenance and harvesting.

Weeding is a necessary garden chore. Make this easier in your golden garden. Limit bed size and use low-maintenance ground covers and shrubs. When putting in new plants, watch out for those described as “aggressive,” “spreading” or “self-seeding.” They may require more maintenance than you are able to provide. Look instead for “slow-growing” and “compact.”

Make watering more comfortable, too. Grow plants that don’t require a lot of water. Install a convenient watering system. Multiple hoses on valves at the faucet will minimize lugging hoses around the yard. Automatic watering systems — including drip irrigation for your pots — are even easier, and they are handy when you travel.

Wow! That is lot of “stuff” to think about. Well, here’s an easy, but important, final consideration: above all, design and build your golden garden for maximum joyfulness. Fill it with the things that make you happy. If you do that right your garden will give you lasting joy throughout the golden years. Some garden elements may be expensive or labor-consuming, but if they will give you great joy, they are worth it.

As your eyesight starts to blur and your brain starts to hurt from reading another article about retirement planning, start dreaming about working and relaxing in your beautiful future garden. After the financial planning, consider safety, adaptability, convenience, and joyfulness as you start to make your golden garden a reality. If you do it right, you and your joyful garden will age-in-place together, and that is something beautiful to strive for!

— By Joel Ream

Joel Ream has been a member of Floretum since 2019. He grew up in Spokane and earned a Bachelor’s of Science in botany at the University of Washington and a Master’s in botany at Michigan State University. Joel spent 37 years as a plant biologist at Monsanto, using plant physiology, biochemistry and analytics to increase the efficiency of crop production. He also worked on new weed control technologies, regulatory studies to support the safety of new products, greenhouse and field evaluation of new crop varieties, increasing the nutritional value of animal feed and developing methods to measure grain composition. Joel retired to Edmonds in 2018.

  1. Thank you. Good article with lots to think about. Not always what we Go, Go stagers WANT to think about. Good advice.

  2. Great article, Joel. When I was in the Go Go stage I was ignorant of how tall things grow in our garden paradise.
    If you have good soil that 15 foot size on the plant tag should have been 25 ft. Tags often put the size at 10 years. Have you ever seen plants stop growing at 10 years? Strawberry trees and red twig dogwood didn’t get the message!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.