Tales Of An Aging Green Thumb

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.

30 thoughts on “Tales Of An Aging Green Thumb

  1. Your accompanying photos are the perfect metaphor for your words. I am sorry about your thumbs, Kevin, and hope they don’t limit your delight in your garden.

    Transcend the discomfort and keep ringing that handlebar bell!

    Rusting in New York,

  2. I’m approaching 40, turning 39 in July. It hasn’t quite hit me that I’m pretty much middle age because I still feel like I’m 30 (in mind, not body!).

    But the general feeling I’ve read from older Gen X gardeners I’ve followed the last 10-15 years as they approach 50 is that it is time to start adapting the garden.

    • Hi Misti. I would have to completely agree. It’s an odd feeling to have to force oneself to think in those terms — but it is a necessity, unless you have a staff of landscapers/gardeners who can do your bidding. 🙂

  3. I hear you! After retiring three years ago, I soon realized I’m physically unable to do as much gardening as I would like. Getting up & down and bending over cause the most discomfort – especially the next day! Like you, I’m starting to simplify. I’ve creating a naturalized corner in my back yard that can be cut back once a year, then allowed to sprawl into a bird & butterfly sanctuary. I’m also a big fan of Florida friendly bulbs! In late March I’ll be removing my declining Johnny Jump Ups and replacing them with dozens of multicolored Caladium bulbs, which will put on a continuous leafy show until Fall.

    • Hey Lynn. I’m always “delighted” when I wake up with an odd pain in a part of my body I never even knew I had — and all I did was sleep! Caladiums are an excellent choice!

  4. May I suggest you change your diet to plant based. You will feel much better you will no longer have inflammation in you joints, your cholesterol will not be a problem. I am 57 and in great health with no plans of giving up my gardening ! Vegan for a long life!

    • Hi Muffy. It’s funny that you mention the plant-based diet. For years, I’ve often scoffed at the idea that I could give up meat … But after this most recent heart issue, I’ve started sampling more and more plant-based products — and it’s not as horrible as I feared. I guess I’m taking small steps. 🙂 Keep staying healthy and happy gardening!

  5. You struck a common chord, Kevin. Even today, from the library I retrieved several Deepak Chopra and Larry Dossey, M.D. books on aging and the mind-body connection. I have ten years on you, and a birthday in a few days. LOL! Definitely inspired the books I brought home! I bounce between a level of acceptance as well as a certainty that i need to resist any age-related disease or infirmity that is within my power to change. Interesting stage of life!

    I did want to mention to you that my husband, a very strong man physically, has had a lot of trouble with his thumbs over the last few years, with pain and weakness much as you describe. He’s quite a bit older than you, but this has been going on a while. He finally had it diagnosed through an orthopedic consult as something lay-termed “trigger thumbs,” and he wears a brace at night that somehow relieves the pain. If you’re interested in learning more I can get that for you, but it may be a different condition. Meanwhile, I wish you well. It’s hard to imagine what you’ve been through with your heart, and I really appreciate the honesty with which you share. I find it necessary, and difficult, to be completely honest about my physical vulnerabilities. I think there’s a little seed of fear there. Be well, my friend.

    • Hi Debra. I too think it’s good to be honest about health issues. Although it’s a personal decision, I chose to be open about it because it’s something that’s a part of me — and also because I do not fit the textbook profile of a heart patient. Many years ago, when the odyssey started, a doctor accused me of hiding a cocaine addiction! (Definitely, not true.) I’m hoping that with honesty, it might encourage others to not ignore their symptoms and to find doctors who listen to the patient and the symptoms. Standard barometers, like EKGs and blood pressure, were always normal for me. Basic risk factors, such as weight and smoking, were also non-existent. It’s all genetics.

      Also, thanks for the info on your husband’s condition. I have a feeling there will be a doctor appointment in my future. Happy Early Birthday!!!!! You look fab!

      • I really appreciate your response and explanation about the importance of being honest about health crises, Kevin. It’s funny how private we tend to keep things about health, but I’ve never thought about it from the perspective of personal experiences being an encouragement to others to listen to their bodies. It makes so much sense. Your experience with the “cocaine accusation” is just horrible. I think it does speak to how you don’t fit a particular health profile, however. I hope this issue with your hands is much more easily taken care of! A gardener needs his hands to work well! Thank you for the kind birthday wish. I gulp a little with each new candle, but more than cringe, I’m grateful. 🙂

  6. Oh Kevin, mirrors can be so cruel. I keep seeing someone who looks much more like my father than the young person in my mind. Crazy, this aging thing. So sorry about your thumbs. Great ideas about gardening as we age.

  7. Hi Kevin, I enjoyed your writing about ageing and the garden. My grandfather gardened every day of his life till aged 90! I know how you feel though. After fifteen years here on the mountain and recently retired from teaching, gardening is hard work and my body often tells me to sit down and have a rest! So, I try to vary the jobs every day. A blessing though to be in the garden. All the best to you,

    • Hi Flavia — I hope I can garden for as long as your dad! One of the nice things about being retired is that I’m able to break up the tasks. There’s no need to do marathon gardening chores. Congratulations on your retirement! 🙂

  8. Best of luck with your thumbs! Hopefully a little less phone-typing in favor of keyboards, a little lower inflammation in your food, and those bicycles will help your thumbs and your tubing.
    I can hear that bicycle bell!

    • Hi Dorris. Yes, I do have my share of rusty tools — mostly because other tools and equipment have taken over their jobs. Some are just tools that somehow found their way into my shed. One belonged to my grandmother. It’s difficult to toss out these old friends, and there’s something quite beautiful about rust. It’s kind of like looking at my gray hair or scars on my body — each one has a story, each one is something I’ve earned. 🙂 Happy biking!

  9. Oh boy can I ever relate to this. I’m in the Medicare age bracket myself and I first began experiencing the surprising various aches, pains and strains at about the same age as you. For me it was the right knee that complained first. Then later on the lower back (hello, T4-T5 vertebrae, nice to meetcha) and most recently the upper back across the shoulder blades. I wore a carpal tunnel brace at night for 10 years after messing up my right wrist by trying to scrape spackle off a wood floor by hand… I could go on but won’t, LOL. Re: plant choices, I too am going to focus much more on shrubs than perennials and bulbs this time around. Just bought a small but very informative out of print book about dwarf conifers, in fact. My new mantra may just be “Shrubs and groundcovers forever!” LOL

    • Hello M’Lady. Sorry to hear about your aches and pains. I especially love the ones that happen for no reason at all. The ones that can’t be blamed on labor or exercise or moving or straining. They just happen. It makes me think of my partner’s grandmother who would often say, “These things happen to the living.” I guess when we think of the alternative, aches and pains aren’t so bad. Good luck with the new plant choices.

  10. Kevin, I also dealt with a series of age-related health issues in my fifties: a series of herniated discs in my spine, mysterious episodes of abdominal pain serious enough to take me to the emergency room, a stage 3 cancer, arthritis in my fingers (especially my index fingers), chronic plantar fascitis in my feet and tendinitis in my ankles, and hands that got numb when I slept and made it almost impossible to function when I got up in the morning. I remember telling the radiology technician at the hospital that I felt like my body was a car that had turned 100,000 on the odometer and all those once-reliable systems were breaking down one after another.
    Twenty years later, I no longer feel as though I am falling apart. Some of my physical problems had solutions — splints for sleeping to keep my hands in a position that eliminates the numbness problem, chemotherapy that seems to have cured the cancer, some wonderful physical therapy that helped me improve my posture and greatly reduce the stress on my spine. I also learned to adapt to my changing body: Giving up jogging in favor of brisk walking took care of my foot and ankle problems. A friend gave me a piece of waffle-style carpet padding that is magic for opening stubborn twist caps and jar lids that I can’t grip well enough to turn. (And I keep a pipe wrench in the kitchen for the really stubborn ones!) I realized that I was no longer going to strap 50 pounds on my back and hike up and down mountains, and I gave away all my backpacking gear. I’ve learned to pace myself in the garden, taking two months for a project that I might have done in two weeks when I was in my forties. Now in my seventies, my life feels richer and fuller than it did when I was in my fifties.
    The research on well-being shows that, on average, people reach a low point of emotional well-being and happiness in their fifties and then happiness climbs through the sixties and seventies (and in some studies, also through the eighties and nineties). The research also shows that focusing on positive rather than negative aspects of aging in the fifties predicts better physical and emotional health in the decades to come and longer life.

    • Hi Jean. Thank you for sharing your personal story — and your solutions. It’s why I truly enjoy reading your blog and respect you as an educator and a gardener — and I often take your words, recommendations, and advice to heart. When I reached the end, the only thing I could think of is: “I want to be you when I grow up.” 🙂

  11. After hurting my wrists digging out rocks in the garden, my new mantra has become ‘garden smarter, not harder’. Some health crises in the family have really been eye opening to the need to take care of our health. Glad you are okay after your trip to the hospital.

    • Hi Indie. It’s interesting when the sense of invincibility of youth starts to creep away from us. I think your mantra is a wise one, and it’s one that I’m also humming to myself. I even purchase plants in smaller pots, if I can, because I don’t want to break my back digging very big holes. Even will grow, in time, and it’s a little more cost effective. Be well!

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