Some of what we learn in life comes out of books. Some is taught by family. But there’s a whole bunch we learn just by being humans and living in this world for enough years.
I grew up loving gardening. We lived in suburbia, so I had all the room that I needed and parents who encouraged me. With youthful energy and enthusiasm, I saw no limits.
I soon learned that limits were close ahead. My first was a restriction by space. I started college while living at home (College Station), but when I moved to a small room adjacent to Ohio State, all I had was a windowsill. But my three little windowsill plants pulled me through — along with Sunday afternoon visits to garden centers and greenhouses.
In graduate school, I always had a greenhouse for my research. When I taught high school, I had a greenhouse for my students. When we moved to DFW so I could work for Texas A&M as extension horticulturist, I bought a small greenhouse. Then we bought a small acreage outside DFW so we could raise our kids in the country. (They never went outside.) With a couple of acres to call my gardens surrounding our house, I knew virtually no limits.
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That was until I started to develop aches and pains and I was told that I had psoriatic arthritis. Suddenly, those two acres began to seem daunting, and I started to condense my gardening activities into more manageable spaces. “Wants” started giving way to “capabilities,” and my life gradually adjusted.
From all of that, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me immensely. Some are obvious, so if you’re light-years ahead of me, please be patient. News gets to horticulturists slowly.
Making gardening easier
Here are things that have worked for me. Hope they’re of help as you garden.
• Use a smaller scale. I no longer build 50-foot beds and fill them with color. I use smaller plantings, and I position them where they’ll receive the most views — entries and patios.
• Look for longer seasons of color. Annuals are colorful for months. Even my favorite perennials bloom only for two or three weeks. My daylilies have given way to coleus, crotons and copper plants. They’re colorful from spring until frost.
• I’ve invested in large, decorative pots that let me tend my plants without having to stoop or kneel so many times, and I’ve bought tools that make the tasks easier. Timed-release fertilizer is my ally for all of my potted plants, and water wands and water bubblers make that job faster and easier.
• Buy only plants that are perfectly adapted. Before you check out at the garden center, ask a veteran nurseryman, “Am I about to make any mistakes in buying what I have in my cart?” Let them advise you of any high-maintenance crybabies you’re about to adopt.
• Keep your plants properly watered and fertilized. Healthy plants are a lot less work than sickly plants that become invaded by insects, diseases and weeds.
• Buy tools to make your chores easier. Really good hardware stores and the very best nurseries have supplies of gardener-friendly tools. The good ones are smaller, lightweight and have better handles.
• If you’re gardening indoors (or assisting someone who does), choose plants that will hold up for many months and that will do so without a lot of care and attention. Sansevierias, aglaonemas and ponytails are three great choices. If you have ample light, grow African violets in self-watering pots.
A learning experience
The good thing about gardening, as I proved back in college, is that you can practice it just about anywhere.
Each Monday afternoon, our grandson Joseph (just turned 7) and I take leftover flowers from a local flower shop to the senior living center where his great-grandmother held him only months before she died.
We’ve been doing that for two years, and the (mostly) ladies in wheelchairs line up near the door when they think he’s coming. They love to decorate with their flowers, to set on their windowsills, and Joseph takes great pride in choosing flowers for each of his friends there. I stand off to the side smiling. And sometimes shedding a few tears of joy.
Meanwhile, he has learned empathy, patience, kindness, peace and acceptance. He’s learned that not every lady will want one of his flowers on a given day. He knows she might change her mind the following week, and he’s willing to wait. Meanwhile, it’s on to the next friend as he says, “Hope you’re having a great day. Would you like a flower?”
Yep. You really can learn a lot while you’re gardening. Joseph continues to teach me.
Finally, on a somewhat related note, I’m going to admit that I now have a handicapped permit and occasionally use a cane when walking long distances. I’ve even ridden a cart — two years ago when visiting Disney World with our family.
What I’ve observed is that you might as well be invisible if you’re riding in a wheelchair or on a cart. Not only do people dart back and forth right in front of you, but many also ignore you when greeting the rest of your family. One could easily feel “in the way” in that setting, and that made me sad — not for my plight, but for our society.
I was taking photos of all the beautiful plants those four days, but I learned a lot more about people.