Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Gardening for a Long and Happy Life

“…every time I take up my pencil to try and write I feel confused by the mass of things I want to talk about, and more than half decide that it would be better to leave it all unwritten.”  — Marion Cran, Joy of the Ground, 1928

Have you noticed at all how current news disseminators are packed with lifestyle advice; like we’ve all lost a grip of ourselves trying to live well, healthy, contented, and fulfilled. The latest such column to catch my eye appeared around the time I was contemplating the wisdom of compiling a list of improving resolutions for the New Year. Written by Dana G. Smith for the New York Times, and published on January 4, the title vowed to give me The Seven Keys to Longevity. I’m in.

In reading said column, I found the inches  packed with just the sort of thing our parents used to yell-tell us: “Get outside, you!” is probably the single most uttered directive in any language. Ms. Smith’s article revealed a good deal of common sense, but instead of Mom pushing me out the front door with the admonishment, “go play with your friends”, I learned that Dr. Anna Chang (specialist in geriatric medicine) advises putting friendships first. So, we can all tick that box – relationships built in the world of gardening have staying power, often built via groups, clubs, volunteering; in short, we who garden together stay together.

Lasting friendships are made in the garden, and one of mine was made many years ago in a Hartley greenhouse, and renewed by frequent visits to their Chelsea showcase, as here in 2014. Garden shows are like watering holes in the savanna, where we can meet up to learn, be inspired…and lust after new plants.

Exercise, however, is held to be key to a ripe old age, and research has revealed that doing what you enjoy is the most beneficial activity one can pursue to get happily over the hill. To this end, I’ve torqued my core in gym-based workouts with weights, twisted my knees in yoga, and stumbled on the treadmill. ENOUGH already! It dawned on me that the active, often heavy-duty gardening we’ve all done for umpty-um years is what kept us bopping along. All that sunshine and fresh (often brisk, frequently damp) air has kept our synapses snapping and the blood moving merrily along. And will continue to do so. Just watch the biceps bulge as you turn that compost heap!

Let’s not forget the constant drumbeat of “Eat More Plants”, or in Motherspeak, “Eat your veg.” Fruit of course, isn’t a problem, it’s no challenge to consume as much as possible as often as possible, as my grandson would happily agree  — I swear he’ll turn into a strawberry. Green and leafy can, however, be troublesome, but picked from the garden and caressed with olive oil, accompanied by a freshly harvested tomato…well. What’s not to like? In my various suburban gardens over the past twenty years, I’ve tucked vegetables among the ornamentals (gathering edibles from between the yuccas in Texas was rather a hazard-filled). Plants seem to do better together among varied friends than in segregated seating. And that’s another thing — companionship of shared interests is another life booster, and aren’t gardeners great joiners, sharers and commiserators, ie. the best of friends?

In 2012, in the confined space of my Allentown, Pennsylvania garden, I squeezed giant kale among the perennials, shrubby herbs between the box bushes and tomatoes with the dahlias.

This year I plan to install a hammock between the peach and the plum tree for intermittent recovery snoozes. Getting enough sleep is a cornerstone of aging well, but can prove nigh-on impossible if, like me, you’ve an active mind, or, like me, small furry pets who announce the break of day by jumping on the bed…repeatedly. Thankfully,  dawn hours are the best for gardening because once the sun is up it it can get too hot, thus early morning wakening is the key to success. So, tick the box if you’re up and out by 6am, hoeing, pruning, dead heading, “being the gnomon of your own sundial”, as one old-fashioned garden friend used to say to me.

Marion Cran was an indefatigable gardener and author, whose jocular, often irreverent approach brought people together around the sturdy tentpole of gardening.

Other keys to success include positive thinking, yet although we love to gripe about the weather … or whatever… we gardeners are probably the most positive among human beings since we never, ever give up, even when site, soil, climate, critters blight and you name it, are set against us.

To conserve health it’s recommended to follow your physician’s directions. That’s easy! Rare is the gardener who doesn’t seek advice – or willingly dispense it. Moderation in all things, or as my mother was fond of saying, “a little bit of what you fancy does you good.” That could be a tough one, resisting the siren call of the nursery… “just one more plant … okay … three…” You know the pattern.

Wrapping up, the essential bow on the gift of longevity is given to those who remain physically active. So, pick up the spade, hone the secateurs, sort the seeds… and when the weather cooperates, “get outside, you!” There’s a beautiful day in the garden just waiting to be enjoyed, and as the seasons advance it will only get better. Happy New Year!

©Ethne Clarke 2024

To read the article in the New York Times “Well” section that inspired my article, visit https://rb.gy/y6g2q3.

Marion Cran’s quote comes from a favorite chapbook in my library, The Gardener’s Companion”, compiled by gardening historian, Miles Hadfield, published by J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, London, 1936. Marion Dudley Cran (fl. 1907-1942), was the first woman gardening broadcaster in Britain, and the celebrated author of some 20 books and many articles on gardening lore and practice. The Garden of Ignorance (1913) is one of her better-known books; Gardens in America followed her visit to the United States and Canada in 1931. Visit https://thegardenstrust.blog/2017/02/18/marion-cran/ for more about her life and work.