Category Archives: In the Garden

Gardening after sixty

By Jackie Clay-Atkinson

Nearly all of us garden in some form or another. After all, isn’t growing our own food one of the tenets of self-reliance? Besides that, it’s fun, fulfilling, and good exercise. Biting into that first sun-ripened tomato, crisp, sweet carrot, or oh-too-juicy melon makes all that planning and work worthwhile instantly. But as we age, some of the work becomes more difficult and we need to find new ways to do the things that make that garden not only possible but more enjoyable, too. Now that I’m over 70 years old, I think it’s safe to claim that I know a few things about this.

Jackie Clay-Atkinson has been gardening her entire life. Now over 70, she has adapted her methods and overcome many of the physical challenges of continuing to garden.

Some things about gardening pretty much stay the same, no matter what age. For instance, I will always be found on our shady front porch, cutting green beans, shelling peas, or shucking sweet corn to can. That doesn’t seem a bit like work, even to my body with all its previously broken bones. (Remember, I wasn’t always old!)

But some tasks are getting a bit more difficult, so instead of quitting, I just try to think of ways to make them easier. There is usually a way to accomplish a task without all the strain it used to take.

Hauling loads

I used to just take the wheelbarrow down to the garden full of manure, mulch, or whatever, and then back up the steep hill, full of rocks, weeds, or debris. It seems like that hill has gotten steeper and longer and my bad elbow doesn’t seem to like lifting those heavy wheelbarrow handles any more.

So instead of the wheelbarrow, I find myself using our riding lawn mower and two-wheeled garden trailer, instead. Not only can I haul, sitting down, but the trailer has a dump box so I don’t have to lift heavy debris out of it, either. And my handy trailer also hauls boxes and buckets of feed, wood shavings, and garden produce from our six big gardens, all with me sitting down. Not so shabby!

But the riding lawn mower and trailer won’t fit into some smaller areas, such as when I want to transplant a young fruit tree or a clump of peonies. I’ve found that by using a snow saucer or plastic toboggan in these tighter areas, I can easily slide the unmanageable, heavy item around on the ground with little effort.

Another handy way to move heavy things is by using a two-wheeled moving dolly. These little carts are inexpensive and you can use them to move everything imaginable, from railroad ties to refrigerators. I often use them to move 100 pound sacks of feed around the homestead. I used to be able to not only lift, but carry those sacks quite a distance with ease, but that was three compressed vertebrae and a damaged shoulder ago. Now I just drag them out of the back of our Subaru, slip the moving dolly’s “foot” under the sack, and off to the barn we go.

As I age, I find myself growing more crops on a trellis. This helps eliminate a lot of bending while tending and harvesting crops. Here are some beans growing on a stock panel trellis.

I’ve moved tons of landscaping rock, boulders, bales of straw, and railroad ties for raised beds with mine, and it doesn’t show any wear at all.

Gardening up

In the last few years, I’ve found I’m growing more crops on trellises now, instead of in rows or beds on the ground. Reasons for this are pretty much physical. After all, it’s easier to pick pole beans rather than bush beans, and easier to harvest cucumbers hanging from a trellis instead of bending to find them in a bed on the ground. Growing on a trellis also lets you grow more food in a smaller area than when you grow on the ground. It also keeps your vegetables cleaner.

A trellis can be just about anything, but the easiest, strongest, and nicest to handle and pick from are those made of welded livestock panels or “cattle panels.” They are sturdy, not too heavy to handle, easy to cut into shorter lengths with a pair of long-handled bolt cutters, and very easy to attach to steel T posts, driven into the ground every 8 feet or so. I use zip ties for a quick, easy fix, since they’re easy to remove in the fall.

Welded wire “cattle panels” are ideal trellises. They can be attached to T posts with zip ties, are sturdy, won’t sag, and can be reused year after year. They come in 16-foot lengths.

On these trellises I grow pole beans, cucumbers, melons, peas, and sugar pod peas. The wind will never blow them down, nor will the weight of the crop cause them to lean or sag. Come fall, you just have to cut them loose, remove the old vines, and lean the panels up against the garden fence. I even use them in the berry patch, making an arbor for the grape vines to climb up. I put two 16-foot panels horizontally, ten feet apart where the rows of grapes are, fastening the panels to steel T posts, then hump four more panels up over the row, placing the ends inside the horizontal panels and tying them together with fence wire (zip ties will eventually photo-degrade and break). This makes a very attractive arbor and keeps the grapes up and easy to pick.

Just like growing vegetables on a trellis, we have entirely switched to caging our tomatoes. For years I just let them sprawl on the mulch in the garden, but the more tomatoes I grew, the more my back complained about all that bending to pick them. So I started staking them up. That was fine, but required a lot of work, bending to tie the vines to the stakes as they grew taller. I tried about every cage known to man and the results were always the same; the tomatoes would get heavy and tall and a strong wind would eventually blow the cages over, even when a wooden stake was driven in to help hold the cage upright.

Tomato cages made from leftover rolls of concrete reinforcing wire are the best we’ve ever used. They keep sprawling tomato plants and their pendulous fruits off the ground and are easy to reach through. By attaching every cage to a T post, they never tip over.

Then my husband, Will, began making tomato cages from concrete reinforcing wire. We were given several partial rolls by a friend who just wanted to be rid of it following a construction job on their place. So Will cut lengths so the cages would be about 18 inches in diameter, just folding the wire back on itself to hold the cage together. They are awesome! These cages are easy to pick tomatoes from, as the squares are so large.

We solved the problem of the cages blowing over by pounding a steel T post in next to the tomato plant, then sliding the cage down over both the plant and T post. Now we never have a tomato plant tip over, and I can easily harvest tomatoes without creeping along on the ground.

Bending and kneeling

One of the best things I’ve found to help me harvest such low crops as bush beans is a simple, lightweight plastic seat which fits inside a plastic bucket. A friend gave me one, and now I wouldn’t garden without it. Sure, you can just turn a five gallon bucket upside down and sit on that, but that raised edge sure cuts into you after a few minutes of sitting. This plastic seat is comfortable and you can sit on it for a long time. The bucket and lid are lightweight, waterproof, and you can vary the height of the seat by choosing the right bucket — some are three and a half gallons, others are five gallons, and a few are six and a half gallons. I like the latter, as it’s taller, and therefore easier to sit down on and get up again. I’ve found these seats at local farm and ranch stores, especially during the winter when folks are ice fishing.

Picking fruit and nuts

A couple of years back I fell off our barn roof. Now my husband doesn’t want me to climb up high any more, but we have a nice orchard of fruit trees and in the fall, there are hundreds of apples, plums, cherries, and other fruit to pick. My grandma used to have this handy fruit picker which was like a wire basket with wire claws to pull the fruit off with. I found one, complete with a screw-together pole to make it longer at our local farm store for less than $40, and I’ve used it ever since. When the trees get too tall to use it, we prune the tops so they stay short. The trees are standard trees, meaning they could get 30 feet tall, but with judicious pruning, they grow out instead of up. I can pick safely from the ground with the picking pole.

Tree nuts are harvested off the ground in most cases. I remember many family events in the fall where Mom and Dad would drive way out into the country, down wild dirt roads, looking for walnuts and shag-barked hickory trees. When we’d find one on the side of the road, we’d all hop out and start filling bags. Well, that was fine when I was 16, but now all that stooping, bending, and crawling about is definitely out. However, I still like nuts.

Luckily, someone invented a rolling nut harvester. This is an oval shaped wire basket on a long handle. You just roll it over the ground and the nuts pop in through the wires and stay inside. You can harvest pecans, walnuts, hickory nuts, and more without bending, stooping or crawling on the ground. Many gardening catalogs carry them, and you can find them in many farm and ranch stores. This inexpensive contraption will let you harvest all the nuts you’d ever want in a very short time. It will even pick up fallen fruits such as plums or crab apples.

Tilling and cultivating

We used to till our garden with a big TroyBilt “Horse” rear-tine tiller, but as our gardens got more numerous and we got older, even that easy-to-run tiller took a lot out of us. We decided to buy a tractor-mounted tiller. Yes, it was costly (around $1,400), but now we can till an acre in less than an hour. For those who don’t have such a large garden, consider downsizing your tiller to fit your physical needs. If we kept a smaller garden, I would trade in my big “Horse” for the smaller “Bronco.” It may take longer to till the garden with a smaller tiller, but it weighs much less and turns easier. If you need something bigger than a hand held tiller, but not quite the size of a tractor tiller, you can get a rototiller attachment for most brands of riding lawn mower.

A garden bench at the edge of your garden will ensure that you have a place to take frequent breaks, while a moving dolly makes it easy to transport heavy items.

We love our little Mantis tiller. Because it weighs only 20 pounds, it is easy for us seniors to start and handle. But they’re not a sissy machine! I’ve always likened them to a crazed weasel, they dig so furiously. We use them for cultivating around plants, between rows, and even for loosening the soil to dig in fruit trees. I work the tiller around the inside of the hole, then shovel out all the loose dirt. Soon you have a nice big hole for your new tree.

When you have a small garden, you might consider a battery operated tiller. While these tillers are not powerful enough for breaking sod or tilling the spring garden after winter, they are fine for all that cultivating and weeding between plants. They also have the additional benefits of being very lightweight and silent. So they don’t break your back or annoy your neighbors.

Use more mulch!

The older I get, the more mulch I find myself using, not only in our vegetable gardens but in the berry patch and even my extensive flower beds. When I was much younger, I read Ruth Stout’s wonderful book, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, introducing generations to deep mulching with organic material such as straw and marsh hay.

We have an acre of main garden by our house and we only weed it by hand once. First we till it completely, then we plant. When the plants are up four or five inches, we till again and weed between the plants with a hoe or by hand. Next we add an 8-inch layer weed-free reed canary grass between the rows and around the plants where appropriate. We won’t have to weed again all summer, except for the occasional pulling of a weak, stray weed here and there.

One caution though — only use weed-free and chemical-free hay or straw. Weed seeds, even hay seeds such as timothy, can make future gardening a nightmare. Some hay crops are treated with herbicides such as Grazon to kill weeds but not the crop. These herbicides remain in the manure from animals who have eaten chemical-sprayed hay and also the hay/straw itself, not only killing weeds but also damaging all the plants in your garden. Be careful and ask the grower about any chemicals sprayed on their crops.

Not only does mulch keep the weeds down but it also helps retain moisture around the plant roots, reducing the need for frequent watering. And it breaks down over time. Our mulch is nearly gone by the time we till in the fall and tills in very easily at that time, increasing the tilth of the soil. Where we used to have sand, gravel, and rocks, we now have nice loose black dirt.

Containers and raised beds

As many folks get older, they begin growing more and more crops in raised beds or containers to reduce the bending and other physical care of the garden. It’s amazing how much food can be grown this way.

A friend of ours actually has no garden soil at all; they live on exposed ledge rock. She and her husband garden in five-gallon buckets with drain holes drilled in the bottom, sitting on platforms all around the outside of their deck. In these buckets, they grow tomatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions, cucumbers, beans, and squash. Another friend grows much of their produce in five gallon buckets lined up along the paved approach to their garage.

Still another friend uses stacks of large tires and cattle watering troughs to garden in. Even if you don’t want tires or stock tanks in your yard, you can still build traditional square or rectangular raised beds of cedar or other rot-resistant wood.

One of my favorite garden helpers is this simple plastic seat which fits into the top of a five-gallon bucket.

My husband is making a gardening table for one of our sons who is wheelchair bound, by bolting half of a 55-gallon plastic barrel to a sturdy framework of 2x4s. It will be just high enough for him to access easily from the wheelchair.

Other hand-held tools

One of my big annoyances was the grass which grew up along our raised beds in our house garden and the raised beds in the front yard. We do have a gas-powered string trimmer, but that darned thing is hard for me to start with a bum shoulder, and I hated to ask Will to do that puny job every time the grass grew up too high.

Finally, I bought a cheap, battery-powered string trimmer. I wasn’t expecting it to work that well, but it whacks grass and weeds nicely and I can work for quite a long time before having to recharge it. This trimmer is lightweight, quiet, and easy to use.

One of my nicest garden tools is my Cobrahead hoe. This sharp, oval-shaped hoe is like a flat tooth on a swan-neck, attached to a long handle. I can easily reach and hoe weeds from way under my perennial plants, dig up a dandelion or thistle or make shallow rows to plant carrots.

Planting new seeds can really be a back breaker, but I made myself a handy tool to allow me to precisely place seeds all while standing. I took a three-foot-long piece of 1-inch PVC pipe and attached a small funnel to one end. The small end of the funnel feeds into the pipe. I glued a seed cup to the pipe near the funnel (the cup is just a pop bottle with the top cut off). Now, after making my row with a hoe, I place seed in the cup then just walk slowly down the row, placing the end of the pipe into the furrow and dropping one seed at a time into the funnel. It travels down the tube smoothly, making perfect placement of the seeds possible without bending over at all.


I think one thing which keeps older folks from gardening more is simply attitude. You know, the “I’m too old to do that” mentality. Yes, some things get harder as you age; that’s a fact of life. Arthritis, muscle pain, and old (or recent) injuries all take their toll, but when you don’t just give up and quit, the rewards are terrific. Even my Mom was actively gardening from a walker in her early 90s, despite terrible rheumatoid arthritis.

I’m convinced gardening is one of the best forms of exercise going. Just don’t over do things while keeping your body moving and your mind active and happy. No matter what type of gardening you do, there is always some form of stretching, bending, and moving involved. All of these are good for us, but tiring. Put a bench down by the edge of the garden like I do. Work awhile, then go sit down. Repeat several times and it’s amazing how much gets done. Instead of quitting gardening because it has become too hard, try to figure out ways to make it easier.

If parts of gardening are simply too hard no matter what you try, hire the job out to a neighbor. It won’t cost much and will let you continue gardening even longer. Better yet, interest your grandchildren or neighbor children in gardening early on and hire them to help with the heavier jobs. That’s a win-win situation as you’ll be passing down a priceless life skill to a younger generation — a worthy goal for a gardener of any age.

Jackie Clay-Atkinson lives with her husband, Will, on their homestead in northern Minnesota. She has spent a lifetime gardening, raising livestock, preserving food, and developing productive homesteads in Montana and New Mexico in addition to her current location. She has written countless articles and numerous books, some of which can be found on our website,


Fresh figs

By Kristina Seleshanko

When we moved to our 15 acre homestead, I was thrilled to adopt a mature orchard. Most of the common fruit trees were there, including apples, plums, cherries, and pears. And then there were four fig trees. Suddenly I realized I’d never even tasted a fig … unless you count Fig Newton cookies. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about figs — and I must say I’m as delighted with those trees as I am with the other fruit trees in our orchard.

It turns out, fresh figs are something of a rare and delicious treat. The reason so few Americans have tasted fresh figs is that the fruit is delicate when ripe; truly ripe figs would never survive being shipped to grocery stores and handled by multiple customers. Happily, however, figs grow in many areas in the United States: zones 7 – 11. (Potted trees that are brought indoors during winter can survive down to zone 4b.) Figs, then, are an excellent addition to the homestead.

Fig growing requirements

Figs like well draining soil. Ours are planted in clay, but they are on top of a hill that drains well. Ideally, though, loamy soil rich in nutrients is best. Figs prefer a pH of 6.0 – 6.5, and like an area that gets full sun.

Plant fig trees where they are protected from winter wind. Avoid planting them where they will receive direct sun in the winter, or they may come out of dormancy too soon; then, when a cold snap hits, the trees will be damaged and you may not get a harvest that year.

Plant bare root trees 15 to 20 feet apart in the late fall or early spring. If you’d like to train the trees into bushes (mature trees are 15 – 30 feet tall), you may plant them 10 feet apart. Figs are self-fruitful, so if desired, you can plant only one. For the best harvest, I suggest planting several varieties, selecting early-, mid-, and late-fruiting types. In this way, you can have fresh figs from late spring through late fall. Some fig varieties produce an early crop (called a “breba”), as well as a more plentiful, later crop. It takes about two years to begin seeing mature fruit on most fig trees.

In areas with mild winters, figs need no added winter protection. In places that get regular snow, you’ll need to protect the trees by mulching thickly with hay or leaves, and wrapping branches in a blanket when temperatures drop below freezing. In the coldest climates, plant a dwarf tree in a pot that’s at least three feet across and two or more feet deep, and bring it indoors during the winter months.

Fig tree care

Use 8-8-8 fertilizer on fig trees: One pound of fertilizer for every year of the tree’s life (or for each foot in height), up to 12 pounds total per tree. The best time to fertilize is when the tree is budding. If fertilizer is too heavy in nitrogen, you’ll end up with trees that have lots of leaves, but no fruit.

Newly planted trees need consistent watering; don’t let them dry out. But mature figs don’t mind dry soil. (In fact, figs become tasteless when trees are over-watered). However, if the tree’s leaves begin to droop, it’s time to give them a soak. Don’t stress your fig trees by under-watering, since this makes them more vulnerable to their main nemesis: nematodes.

Pruning can be light; cut away any dead branches, and trim as needed to keep the tree the size you desire. Always prune in later winter, before new growth begins.

How to tell when figs are ripe

Knowing when to pick figs is a bit of an art. Since the fruit stops ripening once it’s picked, and since under-ripe figs are pretty tasteless, it’s important to pick the fruit at the right time.

The first clue that figs are ready to harvest might be color. Most figs start out green and gradually turn a dark brown or even blackish color as they ripen. However, there are varieties of figs that stay green even when ripe, so color isn’t a hard and fast harvesting rule.

This nearly ripe fig is still firm. Once it softens, it will be ripe. I like to wait even longer, until the figs begin to develop cracks in the skin, when they literally burst with flavor.

The best indication that a fig is ripe is how tender it is. Unripe figs are hard; when figs get soft, they are ripe. But for the very best flavor, wait to harvest until the figs develop cracks. In fact, though it may sound gross to some people, in my experience, the best indication that a fig is perfect for eating is when ants or fruit flies are on it. The fruit flies will fly away when you pick the fruit and the ants are easily wiped off.

If your figs don’t have much flavor, you’re picking them before they are fully ripe, or you’re over-watering the trees. Another indication that you’ve picked a fig too soon: There is sticky sap in the stem.

How to use figs

Of course figs make an excellent snack, eaten right off the tree, but once your fig trees are mature, you’ll have more figs than you can easily eat this way. Figs taste best when stored at room temperature, but they last longer if kept in the fruit bin of a refrigerator. Typically, I store them in the fridge, remove what I want to eat, and allow the fruit to come to room temperature before eating it.

Figs are also excellent in both savory and sweet dishes. Some typical uses for fresh figs include fig galette, cake, or pie; as a pizza topping; roasted with goat cheese, ricotta, or yogurt; or baked along with chicken, lamb, or duck. Figs can be stuffed with blue cheese (and perhaps cooked in a frying pan until the cheese is melted), and halved or chopped figs are wonderful in a fresh green salad.

Fig Newton-style cookies

These take a little time to prepare, but are absolutely scrumptious — especially when they are still warm from the oven. If you want to save a little time, you may substitute the filling with fig jam (see recipes, below).

For the dough:

    ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
    ½ cup granulated sugar
    ½ tsp. grated lemon zest
    1 large egg white
    ½ tsp. real vanilla extract
    1½ cups all purpose flour


For the filling:

    2 lbs. fresh figs
    ¼ cup granulated sugar
    Juice from half a lemon


In the bowl of a mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and zest. Beat in the egg white and vanilla. Add the flour and beat until dough forms.

These fig cookies are a bit involved, but so delicious that I find they’re worth the effort.

Place the dough on a piece of plastic wrap and flatten into a disc. Cover completely with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Remove the fig stems and chop the fruit. Place the prepared figs in a medium saucepan, along with the sugar and lemon juice. Use a potato masher to mash the ingredients together. Cook over medium high heat until sugar has dissolved and the mixture bubbles. Stir often. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the mixture is reduced by about a third and is starting to gel, remove from the stove and allow to cool completely.

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper until it measures about 12 x 16 inches. Cut into 4 equal strips (about 12 x 4 inches each). Using a spoon, place filling down the center of each strip. Fold the dough over the filling and pinch the edges of the dough together. Cut each piece into 10 cookies and place on prepared baking sheet, seam side down. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden.

Preserving figs


The easiest way to preserve figs is to dehydrate them. Even though figs are soft and juicy, they dry quickly. I typically cut them into quarters and dehydrate at 135° F. overnight. Store in a glass jar with an air tight lid and place in a cool, dark location. You can snack on the dehydrated fig pieces, or use them for baking and cooking. Because figs are so fragile when fresh, most fig recipes call for dried figs, so having a supply of dehydrated fig pieces is great.

Most recipes call for dehydrated figs, since it is almost impossible to come by the fresh ones at the market, so a good supply of dried fig pieces will always come in handy.

Dehydrating figs is simple. Simply quarter and dehydrate overnight.


Just like most other types of fruit, there are two ways to freeze figs: with or without syrup. In both cases, for the nicest looking and best tasting figs, it’s a good idea to treat the fruit with lemon juice. Use 3 tablespoons of juice for every quart of water, and dip halved or chopped figs in this mixture.

To freeze using a syrup, The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends a heavy syrup: 2¾ cups granulated sugar and 4 cups of water. Heat the water on the stove, add the sugar, and stir until it’s completely dissolved. Allow the syrup to cool completely. Gently fold in prepared figs and place in freezer proof containers, leaving one inch of headspace.

To freeze figs without syrup, pack prepared figs into freezer proof containers, being sure to leave one inch of headspace. If you want to be able to remove just a few figs from the freezer at any given time (say for smoothies), lay the prepared figs in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the freezer. Once the figs are frozen, pop them into freezer bags.

Frozen figs tend to be mushy, so plan to use them for smoothies or baking such things as cakes and cookies.

Fig freezer jam
    4 cups chopped figs (stems removed)
    2 cups granulated sugar
    ½ cup of water
    1 Tbsp. of lemon juice


Place prepared figs in a large saucepan and add sugar and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 40 to 60 minutes.

Fig jam is a delicious and uncommon treat that will keep some of that delightful fruit handy all season long.

Stir in the lemon juice and cook for 1 minute, then remove from the stove and allow to cool completely. Pour into jars, leaving 1 inch headspace, allow to cool, then freeze.

Makes about 2 pints.

Canning figs

Whole figs

For best results, choose only just-ripe figs.

Wash the fruit, but do not remove the stems. Place figs in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Boil for 2 minutes. Drain.

Create a light syrup for the figs by bringing 5¾ cup of water to a boil and adding 1½ cups granulated sugar. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved.

Add the prepared figs and boil gently for 5 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons lemon juice per quart jar (or 1 tablespoon per pint jar) and fill jars with figs and syrup. Leave ½ inch headspace. Process pint jars in a hot water bath canner for 45 minutes, and quart jars for 50 minutes. If you live above 1,000 feet elevation, you’ll have to adjust your processing time according to the instructions in a modern canning manual or the National Center for Home Food Preservation website (

No added pectin fig jam
    about 5 lbs. fresh figs
    ¾ cup water
    6 cups granulated sugar
    ¼ cup lemon juice


Fill a pot with water and bring to a boil. Pour over the whole figs. Allow to stand for 10 minutes, then drain.

Cut off stems and chop fruit. Pour into a large pot. Add ¾ cup of water and the sugar, stirring until sugar is fully dissolved. Bring to a boil and continue gently boiling until the mixture thickens, stirring often.

Add lemon juice and cook for 1 minute.

Pour into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Process half pint or pint jars for 5 minutes if you live below 1,000 feet elevation, 10 minutes if you live between 1,000 and 6,000 feet, and 15 minutes if you live above 6,000 feet.

Makes about five 8 oz. jars.

Kristina Seleshanko homesteads on 15 mostly wooded acres; she is the author of 25 books, including The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook, A Vegetable for Every Season Cookbook, and Starting Seeds. She blogs at

Why gardening is such good exercise, especially for women

By Tom Kovach

There is an old maxim about exercise: “The best exercise is the one you are willing to do.”

For us rural folk, one of the exercises we are usually willing to do is gardening, because it is part of the lifestyle of living in the country. How lucky for us, because a growing body of scientific evidence says that gardening, even when compared to such strenuous exercises as swimming and jogging, is one of the best exercises a human being can do. The reason is gravity and our evolved need to interact with it.

Ilene Duffy, whose mom, Kathy, suffered from osteoporosis, gardens as a way to help stave off the symptoms of the condition.

Gardening has us bending, digging, twisting, stooping, lifting, carrying, and huffing and puffing to overcome gravity as we plant, nurture, and harvest our vegetables. Swimming lacks the pull of the earth against our bones and muscles, and jogging lacks the constant flexing of our bodies that gardening requires.

Although gardening is good for both sexes, it is especially good for women who are more prone to osteoporosis as they age. Some years ago, in a study undertaken at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville called Physical Activity and Bone Density Among Older Women, it was found that women 50 and older, who gardened at least once a week, showed higher bone density readings than those who engaged in other types of exercise including jogging, swimming, walking, and aerobics.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Lori Turner, then an associate professor of Health and Science at the University, said that research has long shown that weight-bearing exercise can help women maintain healthy bones. “By knowing which exercise provides the greatest benefit, women can design a workout regime that ensures strong bones as they age,” Dr. Turner said.  She added that such preventive measures may reduce the number of people who develop osteoporosis, a debilitating disease that threatens almost 50 million Americans.

“Within our study, more than half the women, 57 percent, showed low bone density,” said Turner. “There is no question that osteoporosis is a problem in our society. But if we persist in only treating the disease, the number of victims will never drop.  We have to find ways to prevent it.”

To gain a comprehensive look at the effects of exercise on older women, Turner looked at the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a data set collected by the National Center for Health Sciences, which contains information on more than 40,000 people. From a pool of women ages 50 and older, she examined how often they performed different activities including gardening, calisthenics, bicycling, dancing, aerobics, swimming, jogging, walking, and weight training. Turner’s research showed only two activities to be significant in maintaining healthy bone mass: gardening and weight training.

Turner said: “We hadn’t expected garden work to be significant. Gardening is sometimes taken for a dainty activity. It’s not. There is a lot of weight bearing motion going on in the garden, like digging holes, pulling weeds, hoeing, and pushing a mower or a tiller.”

The outdoor exposure to sunlight also boosts vitamin D production, which aids the body in calcium absorption.

But gardening and other weight bearing exercises are beneficial for everyone. Doctors noticed years ago that patients recover more quickly after major surgery if they are made to get up and walk (interact with gravity) the morning after surgery. Previously, patients were thought to need bed rest at the start of their recovery, but patients who were encouraged to walk the morning after surgery, even if only across their room and down the hospital hallway, seemed to jump start their recovery.

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is conducting numerous studies today to ascertain the effects of zero-gravity over prolonged periods on astronauts. They have discovered that human cells do not properly grow healthy muscles and bones unless they vigorously interact with gravity. The debilitating effects of the lack of interaction with gravity became apparent when astronauts returned to earth after lengthy stays at the International Space Station. The astronauts can neither walk nor even stand, but must be carried from their re-entry capsules. It turns out the astronauts had lost both muscle and bone quality.

Since it can be expensive to study weightlessness on earth, some NASA earth-based studies have involved subjecting test subjects to six months of bed rest as a way to simulate near-gravity situations. They have the test subjects lie in bed for 60 days, eating, defecating, doing everything while laying down. They are hoping the tests will lead to ways to deal with the effects of zero gravity over prolonged periods. The same muscle atrophy and bone loss happens to these test subjects that happens to hospital patients who are bedridden for weeks at a time. Like the patients, the test subjects must undergo physical therapy to recover their former ability to interact with gravity.

Evolution has simply conditioned the human body to depend on gravity to help it produce the biological material that lets its cells successfully produce new bone and muscle. In a nutshell, humans must interact with gravity to remain healthy. The more vigorously we interact with gravity, such as when we garden, the healthier we remain.

Save seeds, save money, grow better


Once upon a time I bought bedding plants from the nursery to grow my first ever vegetable garden. They grew well and I had a nice harvest. I thought I’d save some money on the following year’s garden, so when those plants set seed I saved seeds to plant the following spring.

The results of my first seed saving efforts were dismal. Some of the seeds molded in their paper packets over the winter. Others failed to germinate in the next spring’s garden, and those that did were spindly and disappointing.

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Melon pits, sheet composting, and compost tea

By David Goodman

As an utter cheapskate, I’ve spent much of my life finding ways to re-use and stretch everything I own. This definitely extends into the gardening realm.

If you’re like me, you can’t stand throwing away anything that might feed the soil. If you’ve been known to snag bags of leaves from beside the road, or take home coffee grounds from the office for your roses, keep reading, because I’ve got some ideas for you on composting almost everything without building a pile, buying a tumbler, tending worms, or measuring temperatures.

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Cut garden costs by saving seeds

By Jackie Clay-Atkinson

One of the costliest parts of growing your own food is buying garden seeds each spring. These days, a single packet of seeds can cost $5.99 or more. And a whole lot of folks are becoming concerned (and rightly so) with the presence of GMOs in our seed.
Fortunately, saving your own seeds from the garden is very easy and will save you money, too. But a lot of people are confused about just what seeds to plant in order to save seeds at all.

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Growing carrots and parsnips

By Jackie Clay-Atkinson

Most of us love carrots, and those of us who know how good parsnips taste love them too. But over and over, I hear people say their rows either didn’t come up or that they never got a decent crop. Carrots and parsnips have gotten a reputation as being hard to grow. Because of that reputation, a lot of folks have just stopped trying to raise them.
These folks that have given up marvel at our lush rows of carrots and parsnips, demanding to know how we even got them to come up at all. In reality, it’s no secret. We’ve found out how to grow them easily, with no tricks involved.

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Grow your own salad greens

By Sylvia Gist

I like my salads to be colorful and tasty, which means I need a variety of “greens.” I like dark and light green leaves, red leaves, and different leaf shapes and textures in my salads.

Red-tinged winter lettuce planted in August

To get the ones I like, I grow them myself. One of the big advantages is that most grow quite fast so I don’t have to wait months to get a crop. Most also can be harvested over a period of time. Many are cold hardy so you can grow them throughout most of three seasons, depending upon where you live. Grab a seed catalog that caters to your climate and peruse the appropriate sections to find what appeals to you.

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Rhubarb: The pioneers’ pie plant

By Jackie Clay-Atkinson

 Rhubarb was first cultivated in China in pre-medieval times and eventually was traded along the famous Silk Road to Russia and most of Europe. From there, settlers brought it to the New World, tucked in among other roots and seeds destined for new homesteads. As the frontier expanded westward, pioneers dug up chunks of their plants’ roots, wrapped them in burlap sacking, and brought the plants with them. Back in those days, rhubarb was known as “pie plant.” As sparse as foods were back in the 18th and 19th centuries, rhubarb was much valued and passed from one family member to another, one friend or neighbor to the next. Continue reading Rhubarb: The pioneers’ pie plant

Rhubarb: the garden’s tart treat

By Charles Sanders

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that is used as a fruit. It is known scientifically as Rheum rhabarbarum and is a relative to dock and buckwheat. Rhubarb is also a common, old-fashioned homestead crop. The broad-leafed plant is grown for its sour stalks and is used in making deliciously sweet and tart pies, cobblers, and sauces. An early season crop, it enjoys the cooler days of spring; once the weather starts heating up, rhubarb will bolt.

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