Miss Floribunda: Green-‘Thumbing a Ride’ to ‘A Ripe Old Age’
Dear Miss Floribunda,
I am nearly 90 years old and still gardening because my knees still bend pretty well, and I like to grow my own vegetables. I’ve heard that most people who reach the age of 100 are either farmers or gardeners, and I think I stand a pretty good chance. However, I just got diagnosed with a melanoma on one of my ears. I always wear a cap with a visor when gardening, which has protected my bald pate and my face, but it never crossed my mind that my ears could be in danger. This ridiculous indignity makes me think of a silly song from around 1950, “I’ve Got Tears in My Ears from Lying on My Back in Bed While I Cry Over You.” I’d rather pick strawberries in the forever fields the Beatles sang about, if not roses in the garden Lynn Anderson wouldn’t promise. Though I wish I were a “Macho Man,” I admit I’m a lot more like “Willie the Wimp.” To get to the point, I’d like to know about any other garden dangers that could keep me from becoming a centenarian.
“High Hopes” of Hitting “One Hundred Years” on Hamilton Street
Dear “High Hopes,”
Along with Loretta Lynn’s rose garden, there are things that can’t be promised. However, I think that with your sense of humor, love of music, the nutrients in your home-grown vegetables ― and probably a very good set of genes ― moderate gardening could very well help you “hit” the age of 100 like a Golden Oldie blockbuster. Studies in the so-called Blue Zones, where there are significant numbers of centenarians (think Japan, Denmark and even an Adventist community in California), show that gardening and farming on family-owned land greatly increases longevity.
Now, I assume that you’re going to have surgery on your ears and after that will protect them with a hat and sunscreen. Perhaps you might consider blue-light preventative treatment for your skin. A light, loose-fitting long-sleeved cotton shirt will protect your arms and torso without being too hot, and a terry-cloth bandeau under your hat will absorb perspiration. In the meantime, let’s not forget that you are absorbing vitamin D from the sun, which strengthens bones, sharpens mental acuity and reinforces the immune system. Of course, be sure to drink plenty of water at regular intervals to prevent dehydration. You don’t mention whether or not you wear gloves. If not, I hope you’ve had a tetanus shot within the last 10 years, avoid the use of harmful chemicals and don’t cultivate seriously poisonous plants.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about gloves. Allowing your hands contact with soil and its microbiomes could boost your immune system, serotonin levels, electromagnetic energy intake, and strengthen your bones and joint ligaments. The last one is particularly important because fear of falling and breaking a bone could deter seniors from gardening.
And I wonder if the fact that your knees still bend well might not be a benefit of what I assume is a lifetime of gardening. My Aunt Arthritica, though a mere child of 75 who has been gardening for only 30 years, does not have your good knees and depends upon a garden kneeling bench. Not only do their pads help with comfort and their bars with balance and getting up easily, but most have pockets for keeping her tools at hand and in full view. She also pays a small delivery fee to have bags of soil enhancers brought to her garden.
As a lifetime gardener, you are also probably allergy free — for those who aren’t, there are effective medications. Use insect repellent if insects bother you. Consider planting aromatic herbs that repel ticks, mosquitoes and other pests.
If you keep your gardening low-tech and limit yourself to using simple hand tools like a spade, trowel and clippers, you should avoid any serious accidents. The farmers who do not live long usually are the victims of their efficient machinery, if not the chemicals they use. Happily, the care and attention you need in order to use any kind of tool keeps you alert and staves off dementia. However, if your eyesight is failing, consider following the example of my cousin Myopia and paint tool handles day-glo orange to keep from tripping on them. She also paints her plant poles a knock-your-eye-out color and tops them with shiny tin cans.
As you get still older and find it harder to stoop, consider using sturdy raised beds, especially ones that are custom-made to a convenient height. Make sure that the spaces between the beds are wide enough for a wheelchair, should that need arise.
In general, fresh air, sunshine, invigorating natural aromas, moderate exercise and nature’s beauty enhance both physical and mental health. Horticultural therapy involving hands-on gardening can slow dementia, lower blood pressure, reduce weight and, along with proper diet, may prevent or help control type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Let’s not forget perhaps the most important benefit of having a small garden in one’s retirement years: It makes a person not only willing but happy to get up in the morning! There is a special joy in going out to see what shoots have popped up, what flowers may be budding, or what fruits and vegetables might be ready to eat. Having something beautiful or tasty to share keeps one in touch with neighbors.
I’m happy to report that the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS) plans to meet for a plant exchange on Oct. 16 at the home of Betty Buenning, 5202 42nd Avenue. There will be a brief outdoor meeting at 10 a.m. Only the vaccinated should attend, and mask-wearing is encouraged. The meeting will be cancelled if the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate ticks up to an unsafe level. The HHS website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org, will carry that information.