Gardening seniors nourish themselves, the earth
Fifty-year-old Jess Schaal can’t stand grass. “To me cutting grass is bad for the environment, so I dug up most of my backyard,” he says. Instead of grass, Schaal grows wildflowers.
In addition to the environmental benefits, Schaal, like many seniors, digs in the dirt and has uncovered some wonderful health benefits.
“For me, it’s a stress reliever,” he says. “After spending a day in the office in front of the computer, you can go home, get outside, plant. It’s good to be able to get some fresh air,” Schaal says who works as a design manager for Advocate Health Care’s Media Center in Park Ridge, Ill.
Sometimes Schaal just walks around during the week, watering, deadheading (removing dead parts of flowers for growth) and picking insects off plants. It helps him decompress and unwind from his day, he says.
And he is in good company. A 2010 survey published in Hort Technology found that gardeners age 50 and older enjoyed better quality of life compared with non-gardeners.
Gardening can require quite a bit of maintenance, which means a lot of time is spent outdoors in the heat. “You have to be careful as you get older that you don’t overdo it,” Schaal cautions. “Wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water so you don’t get overheated and dehydrated.”
Another ‘green’ benefit
The maintenance part of gardening can be hard work, but Schaal says mulching helps, which acts like a blanket over soil to help reduce water evaporation. This ultimately means he can conserve water use.
The water he does use for his garden comes from Mother Nature. “I don’t like to use a lot of well/city water so I have three rain barrels,” he says.
Schaal has been an avid gardener since he was a kid. “I’ve been doing it all my life. My mom always had a huge vegetable garden—and still does—and my grandmother did as well,” he says.
He grew up in a rural area called Potosi, Wis., where his family had to garden because it was their food source. Continuing in that tradition, Schaal still takes his food from garden to table. He grows cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, onions and spinach and enjoys that it’s organic food he and his family can enjoy daily.
“There’s something about growing your own food, planting it, cultivating it, watching it grow and eating it,” he says. “More people should do this and get the pleasure of growing it and eating it. I think a lot of people miss out on that.”
But more people are catching on. Around 15 percent of the world’s food is now grown in urban areas, usually backyards, vacant lots, rooftops or balconies.
His vegetable garden improves his nutritional health and rejuvenates his body. But his flower and plant garden give back to replenish the earth by using native varieties.
“When you plant more native things, they don’t need as much care since they adapt to the environment easily,” Schaal explains. “That means it’s good for the environment, too. They also attract beneficial insects such as lacewings, which eat a lot of harmful bugs like aphids, or the honey bee population, which is rapidly declining because of the increased use of herbicides and pesticides.”
For seniors interested in gardening, Schaal recommends container gardening as a good place to start, and may be ideal for those in assisted living facilities or who have a patio or deck. “You can buy pots that are faux clay so they’re lightweight and potting soil and begin growing a garden on your patio,” he recommends.
If you just want to dip a toe in the water, “patio tomato plants are available in gardening stores, which is a good way to see if you actually like gardening,” he says.
For Schaal, gardening is a fixture in his life that always offers something new. “It’s ever changing, and you can always buy new plants,” Schaal says. “So, it never gets boring or redundant. Something is always blooming, growing and changing every day.”
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health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.