Some time ago I mentioned I was working on some aging in place strategies for an elder’s garden. The blog’s been a bit quiet for a while for a variety of reasons, most recently because Ye Elder Blogger had an ear infection that left me with vestibular neuritis. Vestibular neuritis is a catchy term for an inflammation of the eighth cranial nerve. The nerve runs from the brain to the inner ear. The acute phase lasted about a week and left me pretty much flat on my back with my eyes closed. I lived on ginger ale to help subdue the nausea and vomiting. The world revolved in a very nasty fashion every time I opened my eyes or moved. Once I was vertical again, I couldn’t walk without hanging onto things. Movement brought back the symptoms in milder form. I couldn’t read or use the computer at all initially and then had to limit my time. Any kind of nerve injury typically takes a long time to heal. At this point I’m almost six weeks out and my primary problem is my balance. So when I’m outside, I use a walker. The side benefit to this experience was what I learned about creating the elder’s garden.
I have been making changes in my garden for some time with an eye to being able to keep gardening as I get older. Aging in place when you live on a ranch is a very different kettle of fish when compared to living in an apartment or suburban home. An elder’s garden has to be designed around your physical limitations, with the idea that as time goes by you will have more of them. Among other things, I have switched almost entirely from beds to containers. I still grow flowers in beds, but the veggies, summer fruits and grains are now container-grown. The mainstay of this system is 30-gallon barrels cut in half with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. They were plentiful and free. Ditto almost 200 3-gallon heavy duty plastic pots. I have about 60 5-gallon pots collected over the years and a couple of dozen 20-gallon tubs which once contained the supplements we use for our cows. I also have several medium to large metal water tanks. They were retired from the pastures because they leak. Finally, I have a couple of salvaged cast iron bathtubs. A motley collection, but it works.
Slopes, Rocks and Wood Chips
I considered removing the garden beds in the old garden entirely. It was much more work than we wanted to put in, so I elected to leave them in place and put the pots on the surface of the beds. The garden – which encompasses both the old kitchen garden and the much larger garden next to it – is roughly 7,500 square feet. Not all of that is usable space, however. I have one area in the old garden with several car-sized rocks. The northwest side of the old garden was planted with shrubs and flowers and has a largish cedar tree in the old fence-line. Both gardens slope to the south for maximum light. Like all the soil on this place, both are littered with multiple rocks. Hubby took out as many of the really big rocks as he could. We smoothed the slope and covered it with wood chips. The local PG&E and vegetation management crews appreciate having a place to dump their wood chippers. When they’re working up here, we have a steady stream of free wood chips coming in.
Soil, Water and Worms
Among the benefits of the new system:
- I use less water and spend less time watering. I already hand water daily. The spring that feeds my well has a limited recharge rate, so I can’t use sprinklers.
- I can custom-build the container soil. Hubby has a big pile on the flat outside of the garden, right next to the road. He can bring up good soil when he does some excavating or cleans out the ponds. We add the chicken litter, sheep pen cleanings, horse manure etc. to the pile. He uses the backhoe to stir it all together.
- I can add things like compost, kelp, minerals, lime or blood meal to the individual pots. Growing a heavy feeder like corn? Extra blood meal in those pots but not in the ones where I put the pole beans. With the beds, I pretty much had to add everything everywhere.
- I was a little worried about earthworms, as the beds were teeming with them. Turns out they climb up into the containers through the drainage holes, so each container has its own colony.
- Less bending to weed and plant, since the pot surface is much higher, especially those on the beds. I have a trick knee and can no longer spend long hours kneeling as I did when younger.
Strategies for The Elder’s Garden
My illness and subsequent instability reinforced that these changes will be A Good Thing as I grow increasingly more decrepit and infirm. In addition, I learned some things about mobility with a walker.
- You must clean out the paths – fist-sized and smaller rocks tend to roll when you step on them. Your ability to carry things is limited. Although it’s surprising how much you can get in a gallon zip-lock bag that you can clamp in your teeth).
- Your ability to carry things that need two hands is nil. You can hang a bag on the front of the walker but you can’t carry heavy things. The bag will swing when you walk and may upset your balance. Didn’t try a backpack but a smallish one might be an option. I was able to carry an empty pot by holding it with two fingers and using the others to grip the walker handle.
- I found that I needed to have several trowels in strategic spots so I didn’t have to carry one. Ditto rakes and shovels.
- A heavy-duty plastic lawn chair can be pressed to service as a walker. This is handy for weeding. You just walk, plant the chair in a nice flat spot and sit down to weed. Given the size of the garden, I think I’ll get two or three more so I don’t have to carry one too far.
Ill winds and silver linings aside, I do hope that I will eventually be able to get around outside without the walker. Vestibular neuritis can last for months, though, and there is no way I’m going to give up gardening for the duration.