An Old Stereotype, or a Shining Example? My Tribute to Older Gardeners

by Genevieve on February 9, 2009

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I keep hearing it around the internet – an indignant exhaustion with the stereotype of gardeners as elderly ladies, puttering about their rose gardens with flowered gloves on.

Maybe the sensitivity comes from the fact that most gardeners are in the over-40 crowd, and don’t want to be prematurely aged by their passion. I can understand that.

But speaking for the younger crowd here, I LOVE the stereotype of the elderly gardener! I admire my older clients who have stayed vital and fit through gardening, and any association with those silver-haired charmers is OK by me.

Seriously, who doesn’t have a soft spot for those energetic older ladies with a keen eye for pruning, and a wicked zucchini-chocolate cake recipe to hide some of those bazillion zucchinis we end up with each year?

I think it’s fun to imagine myself someday in an outsized gardening hat, wrinkles aplenty, with beautiful mature shrubs and a trail of grandchildren racing about my lawn. That’s why I came up with:

Five reasons I adore older gardeners!

1. They are open to trying new things, but not swayed by the latest trends unless they actually work.

Older gardeners often have enough money to try the newest plant introductions, but they are ruthless about ripping them out if they don’t perform. They haven’t got forever to mollycoddle that delicate beauty into being happy – and why should they, when they’ve discovered so many sturdy plants over the years!

Likewise with new techniques – my older gardening friends take a long view of gardening practices, so don’t mind trying a new product or way of doing things for a year, but if they don’t see results, then it’s back to the tried-and true.

2. They are fit, energetic, and right in the thick of things.

When I think of older gardeners, I think of someone who’s kept fresh and vital with being active in the open air. I know twenty-year-olds who aren’t as fit as my seventy-years-young clients!

All that activity’s good for the mind, too. My older gardening friends are also avid readers and love to learn new things. There’s always something new to try in gardening, and I think that excitement about trying new things in the garden crosses over to the rest of life.

3. They are thrifty and can teach us a lot about sustainability.

Most of our older gardeners have lived through the Great Depression, and so they have plenty to teach us about stretching our dollar. Why buy fertilizer when your friend has a horse? Why buy a new plant when you can divide the one you’ve got?

My Dad tells me he couldn’t take my Grandma Lillian anywhere without her disappearing into someone’s yard and returning triumphantly with a snipping of some new plant. Her purse always had scissors and a baggie ready for such occasions.

4. They love to share their knowledge.

Garden personality Susan Harris talks a lot about the importance of regional gardening advice, and older gardeners are the best source there is. Heck, they’ve often been gardening for over fifty years in the same climate!

Try it: corral a friendly-looking retiree in the perennial section of your local nursery and ask them what really works, and what they’d never plant again. Bet you a buck their advice on what to try will outlive the suggestions of the whippersnappers working there!

grandfather and grandson gardening

5. They show the new generation how joyful gardening can be.

Parents are so busy putting food on the table and wiping up spills that they don’t always have time for the blissfully slow processes of gardening, especially not with a small helper who wants to “weed” one’s new veggie starts and “prune” that peony we’ve been jollying along.

But Grandma and Grandpa have a little more time to give. Read about how Fern’s Grandma helped her learn to love gardening by giving her some easy-to-grow and fun-to-watch cuttings. Now Fern’s such a passionate gardener that she has her own container gardening blog!

You know what older gardeners need?

They need their own action figure, so we can all revel in the super-awesome-coolness that is the older gardener. Hey, it worked for librarians, didn’t it? Action figure model Nancy Pearl’s the epitome of cool, comfortable shoes and all.

So who’s your favorite older gardener? Is it Grandma or Grandpa, or a neighborhood friend who always has a cutting to share? Tell me in the comments below.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Heiler February 9, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Hi Gen,

My favorite is Sue Jabin, owner of the Gardening Angel in Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s 73 years young and operates the best gardening company in West Michigan. She manages over 20 employees!

She also heads up the gardening efforts for all of my built projects.

Good post!

Chris Heiler
Editor- LandscapeLeadership.com
Follow me on Twitter

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Genevieve February 9, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Wow, Chris!! Talk about busting up a stereotype! Awesome! Some people just gather steam as they age, I guess. Wow.

Your mention of Sue actually reminds me of one of my first gardening instructors – a 70-some-odd fellow, Gus Broucaret. He had polio as a kid, and went on to have a successful career as a tree-climber/ arborist/ landscaper even with a bad leg. I think he was in his early seventies when he taught me some 12 years ago, but he’s still teaching in San Francisco, alongside his son Robert.

He had the best stories and made being a landscaper sound like the coolest career ever – full of adventure and fun (and muck and manure, but he made that feel cool too). He was the one who gave us all the real-world advice to keep us from making idiots of ourselves on our jobs – the little tricks you learn as you go – how not to set the rake, tips for not trailing mud about when we use Mrs Jones’ restroom (across her white carpet, naturally!). He was a star.

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iona February 9, 2009 at 7:18 pm

Right On!! Let’s here it for the old folks. My garden has been my solace in so many ways. I hope I keel over in my garden at 103.

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Genevieve February 9, 2009 at 9:16 pm

I’m so with you Iona! I bet they’ll bury me with my beloved Bahcos.

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Aerie-el February 9, 2009 at 10:36 pm

I have to say my mom is my favorite gardener ever. I went back home to help her this summer, bringing her to radiation treatments, doing errands, odds and ends. And of course to help with the gardening. But even in the summer heat, with the effects of the radiation treatments, and me badgering her to stay out of the sun and relax, she was still out there, digging in the dirt, tending the soil. She had this big ol’ straw hat on, tied down with a huge scarf, looking just like Kate Hepburn. We still kid her about it, she was so dang cute. And spunky. And energetic, amazingly so. Yup, my favorite gardener would be my mom.

Aerie-el’s last blog post..RED, WHITE, AND GREEN

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Genevieve February 9, 2009 at 10:49 pm

That is so sweet, Aerie-el! I can just imagine her with her scarf and straw hat. I’m sending good wishes for her continued energy and good health!

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Fern February 10, 2009 at 12:37 am

It’s true that there is a lot to learn about thriftiness and recycling from older folks. My grandpa is a master recycler. He grew up in the depression when nothing went to waste. I work for his company, and every piece of paper in our office is used twice. The first time for whatever it was originally meant for, and the second time as scratch paper to take phone messages. He saves yogurt cups to organize small things like paperclips and thumb tacks….My grandma was the same way. Like you mentioned in your post, I learned to love gardening with cuttings from her plants.

Fern’s last blog post..Growing an Apple Tree in a Container

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Susan Harris February 10, 2009 at 4:52 am

Nice post! I got a Google Alert for my name and when I saw the title of the post I thought “Sheesh, I’m old now!” Then I see you describe me simply as a “garden personality” – whew! So I may just have a while to go before I’m classified as old. Not a long while but a while, and I’ll take it.

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Ann February 10, 2009 at 7:08 am

Love the post here. My favorite older gardener is my dad. I’ve thought about older gardeners a lot this past year with my parents’ move from the family home to a retirement community. There’s a small community vegetable garden there which has renewed my dad’s interest in growing vegetables. After years of growing everything from primulas to camellias to calceolaria from seed in his small drafty greenhouse, it has been hard for him to leave this part of gardening behind. I want, in the worst way, to get a project started in their retirement community for accessible raised beds. Need to make the time to look into this.

Thanks Genevieve for another great topic to discuss.

Ann’s last blog post..

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Lindsay February 10, 2009 at 4:27 pm

I wish I had an older gardener in my family, heh. I get a kick out of the guy who does the free classes at our local nursery though. He has these big fluffy white eyebrows and quasi-Einstein hair, and he can totally crack you up while discussing such prosaic topics as pruning. He’d make a great action figure, heh heh.

Lindsay’s last blog post..Increase Your Blogging Income with Product Reviews

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Genevieve February 10, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Fern, you are so right – so many of my older clients have glass jars lined up neatly in the garage with screws and nails and such. I’ve heard that a lot of older folks wash and re-use their ziploc bags – I’d love to be that environmentally conscious and thrifty. Something to work towards!

Susan, thanks for stopping by! I think you have a ways to go before being one of our elders , but I bet you are going to look awesome with silver hair someday!

Oh Ann, I hope you can get the retirement community to get some accessible raised beds going near that community garden! Wouldn’t that be a wonderful place to set some benches and invite people to hang out? I think when I’m rich that’s going to be one of my missions that I work on – making gardening accessible to everyone. It’s such a soul-soothing thing to dig in the soil and grow things and anticipate the seasons.

LOL, Lindsay, I’m sold. We have our male action figure model, clearly! You can’t beat Einstein hair and floofy brows for quirky charm…

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Anna/Flowergardengirl February 10, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Excellent topic and tribute to the oldies but goodies. My great aunt died at 102 so I’m real young at 50. I’ve got 50 more years of gardening. Maybe I can try everything by then.

You are right about them being able to buy and toss. I tried to tell the owner of a little shop I worked for that most of her clientele were the older ladies. I could not figure out why she kept buying some of the funky garden do dads out today. I told here what us older women want. She didn’t listen to me and we kept putting gobs of stuff on the sale table. I guess she couldn’t bring herself to buy something old looking ;)

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Renate February 13, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Well, a good friend of mine that I admire a lot probably won’t like being listed as older (I’m curious how I’ll feel about that when I’m her age), so I’d have to say Ruth Bancroft, succulent goddess. Here’s a blog post on Gardenrant about an NY Times article about here, still amazing at 87. What an inspiration. http://www.gardenrant.com/my_weblog/2008/09/ruth-bancrofts.html

Renate’s last blog post..What’s deer proof here is salad over at your place

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