Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Adaptive Gardening at its Best, Hidden in Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward

by cathym on March 14, 2019

story and photos by Duane Pancoast

The graying of America has been taking place for decades. According to Scientific American magazine, the ratio of workers to retirees was 4:6 in 2014 and projected to be only 1:9 by 2100. These figures, called the Potential Support Ratio, were calculated by dividing the number of people 20 to 64 years old by those 65 and older.

One definition of retirement is being able to do what you want instead of what you have to. For many, that means spending more time in the garden. For a growing number, however, the ravages of old age catch up with them before they have a chance to fulfill that dream. Knees, hips, and backs give out. Arthritis limits finger movement. Cardio-pulmonary and respiratory problems limit the amount of time you can spend in the garden. Eyes fade and our memories may not be as sharp as they were. 

Although this may sound pretty grim, it’s not all that bad. Gardening is one pastime in which people can adapt and continue well into their later years. In fact, the process by which seniors modify their gardens and gardening techniques to continue gardening is called “Adaptive Gardening.” Bad knees forced me to begin adapting more than ten years ago, which is why I have taken such an interest in the subject and write a blog entitled the Geriatric Gardener. 

Recently, I was introduced to two gardeners whose beautiful gardens are tucked into Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward, about two blocks from each other. Both gardens are as unique as the gardeners. 

The raised fish pond in the back corner of Marian Boutet’s garden. When she has the brick path replaced with a wider, smoother surface, the steps will probably be replaced with a ramp.

Marian Boutet’s backyard garden is approximately 60 by 60 feet. Although plagued by knee pain, the 73-year-old has spent lots of time working in the garden since retiring from Kodak 20 years ago. She has been living in the same location for 30 years and the garden has been evolving for 25 years.  

Before “Embrace Imperfection” was an adaptive gardening mantra, it was the theme of Boutet’s garden. The layout is very informal. Edibles are mixed in with shrubs and the hardscape is quite rustic. Walkways are made of brick and fieldstone, which Boutet’s husband John installed. There is even a fish pond in the back corner.

An overview of Marian Boutet’s garden from the deck.
The brick and fieldstone paths in Marian Boutet’s garden will be replaced with a smoother material to accommodate a walker or wheelchair.

Boutet uses a folding bench/kneeler when gardening. When placed in one position, it is a bench. Turn it over and it is a kneeling pad. The legs of the bench become railings that help her get up from a kneeling position. These can be purchased online or from garden supply catalogs.

Boutet uses adaptive tools like the trowel pictured that will work well in the raised beds that are in her future. She is also planning to make the paths wider and smoother to accommodate a walker or wheelchair.

This trowel is one of Marian Boutet’s adaptive tools.
Foliage plants like these in Marian Boutet’s garden require far less care than flowering plants.

Slowly, Boutet, who likes unstructured gardens, is eliminating lawn in the front yard and replacing it with beds of shrubs. John mows the remaining lawn and does much of the other heavy work, with some chores being turned over to neighborhood teens.

— • —

Although she is working to simplify her garden, Marcy Klein hasn’t really embraced imperfection in the same way as Marian Boutet. Klein’s garden is long and narrow, stretching from a street in front all the way to a street in back. The width of the house covers about half the property and the gardens fill the other half.  

The ten individual gardens contain nearly 200 plant varieties. Klein’s husband Rick Schaffer, a painter by trade, separated all the gardens with exquisite stonework. This resulted in waist high raised beds, which are easier for Marcy to work. Schaeffer also built paved pathways that have few steps and are wide enough to accommodate a walker. 

In the back, the gardens are shielded from the street by six-foot Japanese style fencing and beautiful Japanese gates to the street and driveway. Behind the fence and street gate is a Japanese garden. 

Some of the few steps in Marcy Klein’s garden are beside the boxwood garden.
The waist-high stone walls define the meandering pathways as well as holding raised beds in Marcy Klein’s garden.

Klein is a retired graphic artist who taught classes on easy gardening at the Rochester Civic Garden Center. She also took a class on designing healing gardens. Both have equipped her well to adapt to age-related limitations.

Over the years, Klein has planted more shrubs and fewer perennials and annuals because shrubs require less care. They don’t have to be deadheaded or divided like perennials or changed out seasonally like annuals. This has resulted in more foliage plants, a conscious decision since foliage plants are easier than bloomers. She has also taken great care to make sure there are no invasive plants in her garden.

Klein has grouped together plants with similar water needs. This is good for the environment as well as the gardener’s workload. Ideally, plants that require the least water should be at the higher elevations and those that need the most water at the lower elevations, where they can often do well from the runoff from the higher plants.

Marcy Klein and Rick Schaeffer’s front yard. Note the pine straw mulch.
Some of Rick Schaeffer’s stone work in front and surrounded by boxwood, this garden shows off repurposed statuary and a column in Marcy Klein’s garden.

Klein has seven coniferous trees and shrubs, which produce a goodly amount of needle drop every year. She leaves those needles right where they drop to mulch under the plants. Again, this is a tremendous saving of labor, and it’s good for the tree/shrubs and the environment. Down south, people use a lot of pine straw mulch, which means they actually pay for the same mulch Marcy Klein gets free. Then they have to cart it home and spread it.

The whole garden is in shade because of the mature trees overhead. With benches and seats placed strategically throughout the garden, there is no shortage of places to take cool, refreshing breaks. Alternate working and resting in the shade with a cool drink of water is one of the most important things aging gardeners can do. However, many don’t take frequent breaks if it’s too far to walk back to a resting place.

Although most beds are raised, there is still a certain amount of low work to be done. So, Klein also has a lightweight, padded kneeler with arms.

— • —

Klein and Schaeffer open their garden to many garden tours, so Klein has applied her graphic art experience to design and reproduce a map with all the gardens diagramed and all the plants cataloged. She didn’t say whether the copy she gave me was done for my visit in particular, but it does have a section at the bottom titled “Help for Geriatric Gardeners.”

Victor resident Duane Pancoast writes a blog on adaptive gardening at thegeriatricgardener.wordpress.com. He is also founder and CEO of the Pancoast Concern, Ltd., a 33-year-old marketing communications firm serving green industry clients.

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