Gardening With the Young at Heart

Longtime Gardeners Keep Their Hands in the Soil

When our bodies grow old, our eyes may not see as well, and our fingers may not be as flexible as they once were. This can make it challenging to plant vegetable and flower seeds, especially when the seeds are too tiny to see or to hold. Loss of eyesight, dexterity and mobility forces many long-time gardeners to give up their passion for gardening altogether. This can be a sad, even depressing, experience. I remember the first spring my grandmother asked me to bring her impatiens out of the house and transplant them into her window boxes. She was frustrated that she couldn't muster the energy to do the planting herself, but was perfectly capable of doing all the watering thereafter.

There are many ways to help older gardeners continue gardening and to keep their gardening passion alive--or even discover the joy of gardening for the first time. In early March, I volunteered to do a seedstarting workshop with residents of the Converse Home in Burlington, Vermont. I decided to bring along some of our Accelerated Propagation Systems (APS) for residents to use to plant their seeds. I viewed this as a bit of a risk. I assumed the APS would be too complicated for folks who were accustomed to peat pots and nursery trays--not capillary mats, pegboard stands and water-level gauges. To my surprise, the APS was a great success. The residents enjoyed learning about and working with the new equipment, and because the units are self-watering, they proved to be less work for the staff of the Converse Home. The APS trays are neat and easy to hold and plant in. For residents who couldn't sit at a table or preferred to sit in more comfortable chairs, we placed the APS systems and some moistened germinating mix on a cafeteria tray. With the trays resting on their laps, the residents were able to plant their seeds with very little effort or strain. Even better, there were residents who had come to the workshop without any interest in planting seeds but soon found delight in planting in the APS.

In less than two hours, we planted tomatoes, beans, zinnias, marigolds, and peppers. One resident, Mr. Merrihew, chose to plant his tomato seeds in peat pots. Unable to hold the tiny seeds, he made a crease in a piece of paper, dumped the tomato seeds in the crease, and pushed the seeds one-by-one into the planting hole with the tip of a wooden plant marker. Other residents with the same problem simply broadcast their zinnia and bean seeds into the germinating mix in nursery trays. This caused a little crowding in some trays but it was OK; we were having fun. Weeks later, I heard that the beans had begun to take over the Converse Home's sunroom and had become a source of laughter for many of the residents. On a hot day in May, one resident, Constance Stone, helped us plant a good number of the seedlings out in the residents' garden.

Watching the seedlings develop brightened up the residents' days and helped them look forward to spring. And for those folks who were avid gardeners in years past, it brought back the sense of joy and wonder they felt from watching their own gardens grow.

I learned a few tips in this workshop:

  • For large groups, I suggest wetting most of the germinating mix ahead of time for people who may be sensitive to scents or particles that float in the air. Save some of the moistening for those who consider getting their hands dirty part of the fun.
  • There's no reason a seedstarting workshop like this needs to be messy. Come prepared with a few basics and you'll be just fine. We covered the main worktable with newspaper.
  • Consider bringing a few supplies that will make the job easier. We used a Flexi-Tub and spray bottle for mixing and moistening the Germinating Mix and a Potting Tidy for portioning out the mix. We used cafeteria trays to hold the APSs on people's laps for easy planting. We used Wooden Markers to make planting holes and to mark what was planted. Finally, to fill the APS water reservoirs, we used a slim, long-nosed watering can. We used mostly APS-12, which are sized especially for windowsills. APS 12 take up little room and are the best choice for growing plants where the only source of light is the sun.

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