Gardening Is Not for Wimps!

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately schlepping plants around, dug a large Taro, my Red Banana, a Heliconia, dug and divided a large Bromeliad, moved a 5 year old Furcraea in a large ceramic pot downstairs to the basement, planted a 20 gal Palm, a 10 gal Astelia and a 4′ b&b Golden Irish Yew that felt like its root ball was full of lead …doing the Fall drill…and feeling it.  I’m getting older.  I retired last spring and, though still active, I’m not as active as I was even recently.  I laid down my scooter two months ago at about 30mph…my shoulder is still not the same after having slammed into the asphalt.  I’m not swimming or doing my other stretches and exercises as much because it causes me shoulder pain….Shit!  I’m still trying to learn patience, maybe that’s the problem…the ‘trying’ part. I looked up an article I wrote and had published in the HPSO Bulletin Fall 2009, reread it, and decided to post it here again, as is.  I, hope that it will be helpful to all of you.  It’s about our bodies and this thing that we do, gardening, coping and things we can do to improve the relationship they share.

Gardening covers a lot of ground from no-till vegetable a-la Ruth Stout to John Jeavons’ Biodynamic/French Intensive method, alpine troughs to Zonal Denial and Topicalisimo, a balcony pot to acres of intensively developed park land, bonsai to backyard habitat. Each of these can be approached with a widely varying degree of physicality, but all of them require that we use our bodies to create, shape and maintain them. Most of us quickly learn our limits once we are immersed in our gardens. Our fantasy is fueled by our visits to other gardens, nurseries and thumbing through magazines. Reading books, taking classes and attending speaking events of those more experienced than we are can either further fuel or suggest that there may be limits to what we can practically accomplish. It is through our own experience in the garden that we learn just which muscles we must use, over and over, to bring life to our imaginations. I think it is the very rare individual, or wealthy one, who once so engaged does not rethink their plan. Experience opens our eyes. Sometimes what we are trying to do is a poor fit for the site, and the pain and suffering we have been enduring is a signal, a suggestion, that maybe we should modify our plan. Whatever we choose to do will involve work.

Ten years (now more like 15) or so ago, while working as a horticulturist for the City of Portland Parks and Recreation management, I became concerned at the increasing number of injury claims staff were filing as well as time off from injuries not directly attributable to work. For example, carpel tunnel surgeries and tennis elbow from years of gripping, pulling and clipping, blown ACLs, recurring back spasms and herniated disks, rotator cuff injuries and even hip replacements. The city contracted with an ergonomics consultant to assess what we were doing wrong and how we might correct it. She interviewed us and watched us doing various tasks. She talked to us about keeping our spines aligned and vertical, and we asked her how as we dug trees and hefted large b & b stock or spent hours weeding and hoeing. One day at the Washington Park Rose Garden, she met with a group of us about to begin the annual February rose pruning. It was in the low 30s with frost on the ground, and she was there to demonstrate some warm up and flexibility exercises, but it was too cold for her. It was then that she gave us her assessment. Coming in, she had no idea how physical our work was. As a group our ages averaged in our mid to late 40s. We were on the downhill side. She called us “occupational athletes” because of the demands our jobs routinely made of us and was at a loss, beyond stretching exercises, as to what to suggest that we do.

As home gardeners we generally have the luxury of deferring work until the conditions are more to our liking or that we feel better, but there is still work to do. If a plant or grouping has proven to be more of a chore than we expected, we could remove it. If we choose to do an ornamental flower garden, we soon learn that such a garden, even if filled with perennials, is not an object that we plant and sit back to passively enjoy for years. Even if the soil is perfectly prepared and every plant well chosen for its particular site, plants will grow more or less to their described size and our intercession will be necessary. Many will root and spread, others seed about or spread via rhizomes or stolons, while others die out in the center as they move into their neighbors. Unanticipated shade resulting from the growth of one over-achiever causes the decline of a neighbor, or a failed tree brings with it a blast of sun to our shade garden. All of this requires editing or a resignation to what we set in motion by making our selections. We prune, hack, dig, clip, haul, lift, drag and separate roots when we attempt to salvage or divide our many garden residents. We dump and repot our pots, move them to winter shelter or compose temporary vignettes around the garden to fill seasonal holes in the composition or to hide an unanticipated failure. We spread mulch to build our soil and protect our borderline plants from winter’s assault. As a result of all of this, many of us choose to practice a more naturalistic style of gardening, one less dependent upon our active participation, but even this requires our vigilance to protect from the invasion of the many aggressive species that we or our neighbors have invited in or have elbowed their way in uninvited. In spite of this we each find our reasons to keep at it. So, given this, it behooves us to do what we can to strengthen our bodies and improve or maintain our flexibility.

Our physical health and fitness are a major factor in our ability to stay active in our gardens and to feel that particular kind of enjoyment that comes from our participation. Age and the gradual decline of our physical capabilities is inevitable, but the rate at which this happens and our ability to regain some of what we once may have lost is not fixed. By taking care of our bodies we insure that we can pursue and enjoy our passion longer.

Garden work is highly seasonal. Certain times of the year can place heavy demands on particular parts of our bodies. If we depend solely on our time in the garden to maintain our fitness, we will be more subject to injury when we move from slack to heavy workloads. There’s probably not a fitness trainer anywhere these days that doesn’t press on their clients the importance of core strengthening and maintaining or improving flexibility. Gardeners should take note of this. As I wrote earlier, even though we may not consider ourselves to be athletes or particularly athletic, the demands placed upon our bodies by our passion are significant.

Twenty years ago I was diagnosed with early degenerative disc disease. This resulted from a malformation of two vertebrae and a life that had thus far refused to recognize physical limits. I was stunned. I suddenly had this image of myself unable to continue in my chosen field and vocation living life in chronic pain and bent over. My doctor told me that I needed to keep moving so that my back would not continue calcifying, but I needed to minimize impact. That’s when I started doing yoga, and while I have not been entirely consistent with my practice, I continue. It informs how I hold my body and how I perform many of the tasks I regularly face.

Now whether I am raking, squatting or lifting I try to be aware of how I’m doing it. Yoga teaches you many things about being in your body, among them

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remaining anchored to the ground. Don’t merely stand there, but press back into the earth lifting your frame from your feet to the top of your head. Keep your muscles active. Don’t collapse or just fold when you bend over because it places undue stress at your hinge point. Breathe fully whatever you are doing; not only do you need the oxygen when you’re exerting yourself, but doing so helps you keep your muscles active and engaged better able to protect yourself from injury. To do this requires core strength, not burly biceps necessarily or massive quads, but the strength to maintain good body position and use appropriate body mechanics. Yes, this includes your abdominals and all those muscles of your torso and legs that enable you to move strongly and efficiently.

Each of our stories is different, our physical histories and the ways that we approach the physical challenges of our lives. While a young man, I attacked my work with a kind of physical abandon almost as a competition to see just how much I could do, others no doubt began with a much more cautious approach. Age will catch up with us no matter which path we have chosen. Being sedentary or overly cautious will not protect us from injury or wear. The physical fact of our bodies is that they were intended to move. What we need to learn is to move them wisely and confidently. Movement is the physical expression of the body. The body is in partnership with the mind and spirit. To be fully expressive, to live fully, requires that we inhabit our bodies, and if we do that, we find that we move with strength, and grace, and always in relationship with the world around us. If it is done beautifully, it approaches dance. Think of our movements in the garden as a kind of dance with our partner, the garden. It is something that should give us joy, both the result and the being, the doing. I am convinced that had I not changed my practice and my approach to my work, I would have had to stop doing this years ago. I no longer run or play basketball, too much jarring, but I still ride bicycles and swim several times a week, staying strong and loose. The payoff is that I can continue living the rest of my life much as I want.

Again, it is a fact of life that as we age we wear out. We become less capable at the same time that our knowledge and experience is peaking. In some ways this seems almost cruel; on the other hand it can be this same maturation that gives us the knowledge and experience to revisit earlier decisions as well as habits that have proven to be destructive. In our youth we may have recognized no reason to change, whereas now we may see things very differently. Find activities that are significant but still fit you, because it will do you little good if you don’t follow through. Start practicing yoga, or pilates, take Tai Chi or some other gentle form of stretching and exercise. Commit to walking. Go to the pool. Go dancing and, for the few who it may fit, start lifting weights. We live in a society that has idealized ease and convenience. Automatic this and that. Prepared foods. Personalized service. Faster, quicker, less time, less effort. We seem to have forgotten that it is through engagement with others and our world that we create the beauty that can feed our spirits. Without engagement, we are reduced to being consumers. If we only consume gradually, we forget what is truly beautiful, and we accept what we are given. This is what our bodies offer us. A respite. A way. A garden that feeds our souls. We do ourselves a disservice when we shrug and accept the two great levelers, time and gravity, prematurely.

When I’m in my garden I love to just putter. I’ll walk around, sometimes with camera and waste all kinds of time just looking at how it is, how well something works, how I could change it, and going over in my mind what I need to get rid of before it gains the upper hand. There are certain tasks I hate, especially when repeated over the years, but I perform them out of necessity or break them into little pieces so they don’t seem so onerous. I’ll do rudimentary cost/benefit analyses and gauge how much guilt I might feel when I remove a plant. But you know, the older I get the less guilt I feel when removing one that has caused me years of pain and suffering or promises to extract it into my future.

It is with our bodies that we do, that we experience and that we measure ourselves. For now, I still have too much fun trying new plants and combinations, which can translate into a lot of old fashioned work. To concede my body at this point is not an option. I still love digging in the dirt. I still take pleasure in the physical expression of my body, the power and the skill with which I can move it. Ultimately it is the instrument, the mechanism, by which I shape and live in the landscape. It is still my turn! Here’s to a long and productive gardening life to all of you!

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2 thoughts on “Gardening Is Not for Wimps!

  1. annamadeit

    “Without engagement, we are reduced to being consumers.” What a great quote! And yes – I just paid the penalty for easing up on my stretches for too long. My chiropractor set me straight yesterday, so with refreshed abandon, I’m ready to have another go at it! :)

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