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.

Aloe, ‘ow Are You?


Aloe

I always wanted to be a deejay. When I was younger, I had two turntables, a mixer, and crates and crates of vinyl records.

There was one small problem, though.  I never wanted to get fingerprints or scratches on any of the records — which was why my vinyl collection remained in pristine condition, and the only deejaying was in my own mind.

Still, when it comes to thinking up headlines for posts, I often turn to music for inspiration — and this post about my aloe was no different. I began with “Aloe, I Love You,” courtesy of The Doors — because, I do love this plant.

Mine was a gift from Joe’s sister, Donna. She gave it to me years and years ago — and for those years and years, it was a typical northern houseplant, a solitary presence in a clay pot, brought outside in summer and over-wintered indoors.

I was thrilled to have an aloe — practical and beautiful, medicinal and magical. Each day seems to bring about new wondrous uses for the gel inside each of its pointy, succulent leaves.

The problem is that snapping off an aloe leaf to soothe a burn or an abrasion was never my first thought. No, I’d rather run for a bandage or even a store-bought “aloe” lotion than risk damaging the plant.

It was my deejaying debacle all over again — although this time I knew my being a gardener wasn’t an imaginary mind game. I just didn’t want to take advantage of a plant. I wanted it to be pristine.

But something exciting happened after bringing the aloe to Florida, where this houseplant could stay out all year long. Of course, there was the initial shock, but in time, the green became more vibrant and smaller aloes began to pop up all around the mother plant.

Aloe

My clay pot for one had become my clay pot for many, and I wondered: Is this what aloe is supposed to do?  It actually makes more plants on its own?

Then, Adele arrived with this lyric, “Hello, from the other side” — and I began to contemplate what was happening beneath the soil of said clay pot. In other words: Aloe, from the underside.

Aloe

Just like removing a vinyl disc from its sleeve, I gently tapped the aloe from the only home it has ever known. And just like holding a record by its edges and turning it over to examine it for any imperfections, I observed and marveled at what was hidden by the clay pot.

The houseplant I had always counted on to be a solo artist was more like a member of a band.   Once unpotted, the lead singer — for want of a better term — had developed a lengthy root system, each one traveling in a circle to match the shape of the clay pot.

Aloe

It’s at this point that all record and deejaying analogies come to an end. While I may be a deejay in my mind, in reality, I’m a gardener —- and unlike my treatment of vinyl, I wanted to scratch at the soil, to separate the roots and smaller plants a bit, to clip and cut and leave my mark.

As I began, I first noticed that the thicker roots were actually runners, some of them ending with a small aloe plant — and each of these had its own set of roots and runners.

Aloe

Aloe

The larger of the small aloes were easily separated from the main plant, but the smaller ones needed some clipping.

Aloe

Aloe

Aloe

I lined up pots of all sizes, as well as some hollowed out coconuts, for planting — so that each of the aloes could be a star in their own right — and, in time, fill out and make more plants.

Aloe

Aloe

The aloe that started it all was returned to its clay pot, now a bit roomier, so that it too could once again produce more plants.

Aloe

At the end of the day, when it came time to reflect on what I had learned about aloe propagation and a headline, it seemed to make sense to name this post: “Aloe, ‘ow are you?” It’s really the question I asked myself — with a cockney accent, because a name like aloe kind of begs for that — whenever I looked at the clay pot filled with plants.

That being said, it’s time to bring my tale of aloe to a close — and in the sort-of words written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney: “You say goodbye, and I say aloe.”