As a busy caregiver, taking care of the garden, whether it’s your own or for the person in your care, may be low on your priority list, or you may feel a little out of your depth due to the lack of a green thumb.
Whether gardening for caregivers or gardening for the elderly or persons that are physically handicapped, gardening can actually be very therapeutic for everyone.
Gardening can actually be very therapeutic for everyone.
As a beginner gardener, I used to think that gardening was a chore best left to green thumbs until as a family, we decided to stop trying to achieve the perfect lawn (it was never going to happen) and embrace a low-maintenance landscape design. Today, my parents’ backyard is a complete 180 degree change from the weed-ridden jungle it was a few years ago, and we look forward to each sunny day that we can spend outside.
Here are some low-maintenance gardening tips for caregivers, and for those in your care, from a novice gardener:
Hardscaping and landscaping
Consider hardscaping your yard (or parts of it) to minimize the amount of work needed to maintain the space.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, “hardscape” refers to incorporating hard building materials such as gravel, stone, brick, or wood into the design of a landscape. This can include building retaining walls, paths, patios, stairs, and driveways.
Hardscaping the yard was the best solution for my 70-year-old dad, whose battle with the weeds and patchy grass never got easier as he aged. We did the hardscaping by paving over the grass with patio stones coupled with landscaping by establishing flower beds along the gentle slope at the back of our yard with gravel pathways in between.
Ask for gardening help
Not only did this hardscaping and landscaping project virtually eliminate the amount of work he had to do in the yard, but having a nice, clean, and relatively bug-free space to enjoy the fruits of my labour sparked an unknown green thumb in me and now I’m happily cultivating my new caregiver gardening hobby every chance I get.
Which brings me to my next point: asking for gardening help.
My family couldn’t have accomplished this massive project without a lot of help. A landscaper estimated the cost of paving the yard and building retaining walls on the slope to be about the price of a luxury sedan. So, my mom reached out to some friends at our church, and two Saturdays later, the gardening project was complete.
With only the materials to pay for, we had the makings of a beautifully hardscaped backyard oasis. It wasn’t professionally landscaped but every time we enjoy being in our garden (which has truly become an extension of our home during the summer), we remember the generosity of friends coming together to help my aging parents create a garden that people of all ages can enjoy.
You don’t always have to wait until there’s a big project to tackle before you ask your family and friends for help with the gardening or yard work. Whether it’s mowing the grass, or pulling up weeds, a lot can be accomplished in just a short amount of time if the work is divided up between a few people.
Gardening with perennials
We chose perennial flowers and shrubs because they come back year after year, reducing the amount of planting and gardening will need to do each spring. Once planted in the ground or container, most perennials will thrive with regular care (watering, weeding, and pruning) for numerous years, giving you the most out of your dollar.
The best thing about perennials is that most plants can be divided after a few years, giving you more plants that you can use in other parts of your garden, or give away to your friends or neighbours.
In my experience, the best perennials are the ones that almost seem to thrive on their own with minimal assistance from me or my elderly parents.
Sedum - For example, sedum are incredibly resilient perennials and thrive in almost any condition: rocky soil, clay soil, sunny locations, and shady areas. You can break off a stem, stick it into the ground, and in no time at all, it will start growing into a smaller version of the main plant. By the next year, it will be the same size as the original plant it came from.
Lavender – This is another perennial plant I recommend having in your garden. Not only is it drought tolerant and easy to grow, its blue, lavender, purple, or white flowers are great in dried floral arrangements, in craft projects, and even for cooking (although I’ve never tried it in any of my recipes). The scent of lavender helps to ease anxiety and insomnia, so if you’re taking care of someone who has trouble sleeping, it may help to place a vase of lavender in their room to help them relax at night.
Hosta - In my garden, the hardest-working – and most prolific – perennial plant of them all is the hosta. This plant has an incredible work ethic and resilience that I aspire to. Hostas come in many varieties and sizes and look great in borders of formal gardens or in more natural, woodland landscapes. Not only is their foliage attractive, their tall, spiky purple or white flowers attract bees and butterflies to your garden, helping to pollinate other flowers and fruit-bearing trees. Hosta plants thrive in sunny or shady spots, and can bounce back after rough handling – such as the massive uprooting, dividing, and transplanting I did last year, working with ten mature hostas that were crammed into a small plant bed. By the time I was finished, I had twenty-one new hostas lining the new border along the fence. By the end of summer, the new transplants were looking lush and healthy, almost as if they hadn’t been put through such a traumatic time just a few weeks earlier. Once your hostas are established where you want them, they practically raise themselves.
Raised bed gardening
Raised garden beds are a great idea if you are setting up gardening for the elderly to do or if you or the person you’re taking care of has chronic pain due to an injury or surgery. Gardening activities like bending over to weed, lifting heavy bags of soil or mulch, and digging at ground level may be too difficult for seniors or anyone that is handicapped.
Consider using raised plant beds or containers of different sizes to add variety and visual interest to your garden, to help make it easier for gardening seniors – and, to save yourself from a world of pain later on.
And even though the plants are real, the decorative features you use don’t necessarily have to be. Fiberglass, cast stone, vinyl, and polyurethane are lightweight materials that have been used to create landscaping elements such as boulders, planters, paving stones, and even wood, to offer you the look of the real thing without the added weight.
Having the right tools can help to minimize any potential injuries that you as a caregiver, or a senior in your care might get from gardening.
Long-handled hand gardening tools like trowels, weeders, and cultivators, plus knee pads and a mat, and tight-fitting gloves are always within reach whenever I’m in the garden. I also try to wear a long-sleeved shirt, stretchy pants, a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and an old pair of running shoes to protect me from the sun’s rays and from getting cuts and scrapes.
I also keep an insulated bottle of ice water on the deck and take frequent drink breaks under the patio umbrella to stay cool and hydrated, especially on hot, humid days.
Make sure the person in your care is also well protected from the elements when he or she is out in the garden, especially when the sun is at its strongest.
There’s a surprising social benefit in gardening that far outweighs the amount of work we put into it. The same people who helped us with our DIY project are always invited to backyard parties and barbecues, and we’ve sparked up new friendships with some of our neighbours who are also gardening enthusiasts.
Taking on the garden as a shared responsibility has given us more opportunities to bond as a family, reduce stress at the end of the day, and sparked a new hobby in an area we didn’t have much interest in before. Gardening for caregivers can be a great way to relieve stress. See also, our Elizz article on 10 Caregiver Stress Relievers.
If you’re new to gardening like me, I encourage you to give it a try; you might find yourself just as surprised as I was about how it can change the quality of your life. Keep in mind that gardening is also one of the best dementia and Alzheimer’s activities that you can incorporate as part of your caregiving.
For more information about resources for caregivers at Elizz, please visit our caregiver services page.