Gardening Past 70— Try “No Dig” Garden Techniques
Mary Johnson, editor
Scientists are discovering that gardening is an excellent source of moderate to intense physical exercise that can help you lose weight and stay fit years after many younger folks are wearing a spare tire and complaining about their backs. Scientists have found that garden chores are good for our brains and cognition — caring for plants helps to delay symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The garden helps me keep my sanity, and now studies have found that gardening is a real source of lowering stress and blood pressure. And gardening is a great way to improve your nutrition if you grow your own fresh fruits and vegetables.
But most gardeners eventually slow down and experience physical changes that can pose obstacles for working in the garden. For me, years of hoeing weeds and forking compost in a market-sized garden has caused problems in one of my shoulders. But rather than giving up the garden, I just gave up some old ways of doing things and tried new ones. Here are six ways I’ve adapted my gardening, and as a result the garden is better than ever!
- Down-size. A few years ago, I cut the size of my vegetable garden in half, from a small market garden plot down to one that’s still large, but a more manageable 55 by 40 feet. I still plant directly into the soil, but a neighbor who also down-sized swears by raised beds, built from timber. I was dubious at first. Raised beds often remind me of sandboxes for grown-ups. But my neighbor has a series of raised beds, and she boosts productivity by sequence sowing and inter planting. One of my readers down in Florida sent me pictures of his tomato set up. He’s got sandy soil so to grow tomatoes he plants them into large 5 - gallon buckets into which he drills holes in the bottom, and then fills with a good compost/potting mix. From the pictures it looks like he gets masses of cherry tomatoes.
- Start early, or work after the hottest part of the day, and hydrate before going out: I work between 7-10AM during the spring through fall. As I’ve gotten older, I get dehydrated more easily. That can cause dizziness, muscle cramps, fatigue, you name it. Dehydration is one of the most common side effects of many prescription medications. So, get hydrated, and keep drinks close to your work area.
- Stop tilling and hoeing weeds: Several years ago, I discovered Charles Dowding, a Master gardener who has developed fantastically productive no-dig organic vegetable gardening techniques. His system really works! Dowding has written a series of great books designed as courses in gardening and has dozens of free videos available on YouTube. The technique is simple. Take all those Amazon and other cardboard shipping boxes that take up so much storage room and open them up to lay flat. Use those boxes as weed block by laying the flattened cardboard on area where you want your garden to be, preferably the sunniest spot in your yard. No pre-weeding or tilling necessary. Dowding has access to and uses lots of compost. I cover the carboard with about 4 inches of well-rotted leaves and then 2 to 3 inches of home-made compost. Dowding recommends leaving the new plot to sit for 6 months to a year to break the weeds’ life cycle. I usually leave my plots go for 6 to 9 months, and there are a few weeds that will need some removal. But the weeds are fewer and the soil is so fluffy and loose they come out very quickly and easily. After 6 months you can plant and will be rewarded with vigorous, healthy growth.
- Keep squatting and kneeling: Use muscles or lose ‘em! Falls become more dangerous as we age, but gardening is a way to condition muscles to keep us on our feet, balanced and, more sure - footed. We bend, squat and kneel all the time in the garden when sowing seed, pulling weeds, or just to pick crops. The same thigh muscles that scream when we squat are the same ones that need to contract to help us stand.
- Reduce weeds using a no till system and mulch: One of the advantages to Charles Dowding’s system of no dig gardening is the significant reduction of weeds. Tilling and digging turns up weed seeds laying dormant in your soil which then annoyingly sprout and thoroughly cover your beautifully clean tilled soil. Dowding’s system tends to kill dormant seeds by preventing light from getting to them. There are always still a few and I always carry a weed bucket and weeding tool with every trip to the garden. Dispatch when young before they can go to seed or spread. I use plenty of leaves as mulch to prevent re-growth, but straw and other mulches work too.
- Plant flowers and vegetables together: I only have so much energy, but I love growing flowers too. Growing them in the vegetable garden is old fashioned, it’s charming, and the scarce honey bees and other pollinators that are drawn to your flowers will also reward you with bushels of squash, melon, beans and other vegetables that bloom and set fruit or seed. I grow a long list of all sorts of flowers — poppies, larkspur, nasturtiums, marigolds, Brown Eyed Susan, dahlias, sunflowers, zinnias, (and more). Most are self-sowing, and they re-sprout from one year to the next— I simply transfer the seedlings to where I need them.
- Water deeply, less often: The water source for my garden is a good 50 feet away and I have 100 feet of hose. That can be heavy to lug around and store. The hose is easier to handle if kept on a professional type heavy-duty hose reel. I can quickly unwind and rewind my hose and I still manage that much better than my younger friends who anxiously want to help me with it. Maybe ten years from now they can. I’ll let you know.