Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about aging. It’s not a constant thought — just one of those nagging inner voices that likes to pop up every so often. I think it’s because of my thumbs.
Before I get into that, just let me say that in a few months, I will be 56 years old. While that technically is no longer considered “old,” the everyday aches and pains, creaks and cracks are reminders that I’m just on the other side of middle age.
That sort of stuff I can handle, though. I always knew that as I aged I would naturally get as rusty as the garden tools I photographed for this post. My father has had a bad back for as long as I can remember. My maternal grandfather, his knuckles large and knotted, used to warn me from early on about cracking my own. And just like many of my relatives, eyeglasses are a necessity for me.
No one, though, ever told me about aching thumbs.
Yes, my thumbs hurt — so much so that there are times I don’t trust my grip. I’ve even had to start using some yard tools with fatter handles just to give my thumbs a helping hand. Weeding, a chore I adore, now feels like some kind of sado-masochistic task — and because I don’t know the safe word, I have to take a few days off to relax the strain on my back.
This aging stuff has come up more frequently of late. On New Year’s Eve, Joe brought me to the emergency room of the local hospital because I had chest pains that weren’t quitting. Within a few days, I had my 14th coronary artery stent placed. Thankfully, there was immediate relief and orders from the doctor to lower my LDL through diet and exercise.
Not too long after that, friends hosted their regular gathering of new and vintage friends. As we all sat around in small groups and one larger group, we went through the litany of aches and pains and medical issues each of us was facing. Somewhere over the years, we had all crossed over that threshold to become a cliché of aging Baby Boomers. (For the record, I plan on letting my doctor know I avoided the dessert buffet.)
I think I first became aware of my aging a few years ago. I remember — I don’t know how long ago — standing in a store and catching a glimpse of a graying middle-aged man wearing Dockers, glasses, a sweatshirt, and holding a winter coat over his crossed arms. After a beat, I realized it was my reflection in a store mirror.
At the time, my thumbs felt great. Perhaps because I wasn’t experiencing physical pain, it was easy for me to forget that I was, in fact, getting older. If not for my reflection, I was still very much a youngster on the inside. I think that’s the reason I love a postcard from my friend Cathey. It’s an illustration of a young boy in overalls and a straw hat and he’s planting. Not only is this how I see myself, but it’s also how I like to think I’ll be in later years.
Until this something called a thumb thing started. Now, I worry that my older years will be more like Vito Corleone in the opening scene of The Godfather. You know the one — he’s heavy, out of breath, wheezing, and playing with his grandson in the tomato garden. For a film about an organized crime family, it’s actually a very nostalgic and sentimental moment, until Vito collapses and dies. While I can think of worse ways to go, heavy, out of breath, and wheezing doesn’t sound anything like the boy on the postcard.
All of this brings me to the garden — or more accurately, to me as an aging gardener with aging green thumbs in a garden. I find myself looking around, wondering if there are steps to take today so my garden and I can both age gracefully tomorrow. For guidance and inspiration, I look to Sydney Eddison, gardener and author.
I was first introduced to Ms. Eddison in 2000, when she was profiled on an episode of Martha Stewart’s early television show. I remember being so impressed with her passion for gardening, her energy, and her knowledge.
Now that I’m all thumbs, I am reminded of one of her books, Gardening for a Lifetime: How To Garden Wiser As You Grow Older. It’s filled with advice — based on her experiences — on how to bring your garden along with you as you age. I think that’s probably a topic most of us never consider as we design beds and plant borders.
Among her recommendations are:
- Embrace shade. In South Florida, that’s already a given, but shade gardening requires less work than sun gardening.
- Perennials tend to require more labor, so switch to shrubs. In my own garden, I’ve started to add flowering shrubs. I’m going with dwarf varieties for two reasons. Proportionately, they seem to fit better in my small yard — and in my mind, they seem to require less heavy pruning than full-size varieties. When I gardened up north, hydrangeas were my favorite.
- If perennials are a must, choose those that are low maintenance. In Florida, my go-to plant — if you can ignore the razor-edged leaves — are bromeliads. Lately, though, I’m having fun with orchids tied onto trees. Up north, bulbs and Autumn Joy sedum were old reliables.
- Don’t forget container gardening. Because of their height, it’s easier on the back when planting and caring for whatever’s growing in them — and they can be changed up each season just to keep the garden interesting.
I’d also like to add my own bit of advice. If you can, start riding a bicycle. Joe and I recently purchased two, and we try to ride each day to help lower our LDL.
Beyond that, though, I suggest this because when I approach an incline, I stand on the pedals and pump to get up to speed and then coast on the downside. In that brief pedaling/coasting moment, I’m a 10-year-old again — an invigorated and exhilarated 10-year-old with some rust and an aching thumb that’s poised to ring the handlebar bell.