Retirement Gardening

Learning to grow a few key crops could help seniors increase their access to healthy food. This retired nurse has taken this concept to the highest level, growing much of her food and using a variety of preservation methods to stock her winter pantry.

Many of you may recall seeing the long lines of cars lining up at food banks in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic. Almost 50% of Americans live paycheck t0-paycheck, one financial or medical crisis away from desperate circumstances.

Hunger and food insecurity are increasing as prices of food, housing, and fuel rise. The nonprofit Food and Research Center has assessed this issue and concluded:

Too many of our nation’s older adults struggle against hunger and poverty. In 2020, 5 million people aged 65 and over lived in poverty in the United States. Nearly 3 million food-insecure households included an adult age 65 or older in the same year. 

Food and Action Center

Learning to grow a few key crops could help seniors increase their access to food. My friend, Chris, has taken this concept to the highest level, growing much of her food, using a variety of preservation methods to stock her winter pantry, and making wine from her growing vineyard.

When I moved to my homestead in 2010, a neighbor introduced me to another neighbor, Chris, who also liked to garden. Chris and I quickly became friends, exchanging plants in the spring, visiting each other’s gardens, exchanging holiday gifts from our gardens, and sharing an occasional snort of whiskey while we complain about the weather, gophers, and the current state of the world. This year, after the snow-caused collapse of my eleven-year-old greenhouse, I asked Chris if she would be able to start seeds in her greenhouse for me. Without any hesitation, she said, of course.

Extraordinaire gardener, Chris
Extraordinaire gardener, Chris Image: SK

After retiring from nursing, Chris and her husband, Bob, moved to the 18 acres in the SW Washington Cascade foothills they had purchased decades earlier. Over the last 20 years, Chris has slowly transformed the property into a homestead that includes a 20×30 greenhouse, an orchard, an expanding vineyard, several vegetable and fruit gardens, a chicken coop, and a goat shed. And she’s not done: at age 69, she has plans to build a small log cabin shed to sell her starts and wants to build another greenhouse over her raised bed garden.

The greenhouse is used year-round, starting seeds and growing greens in the winter. The cinder block wall created wraparound garden beds for flowers and herbs.
The greenhouse is used year-round, starting seeds on the spring and summer, and growing greens in the winter. The cinder block wall created a wraparound garden beds for flowers and herbs. The goat and hens share the shed seen in the background. Image: SK

When Chris is not in the greenhouse, she is building fencing using cut trees from her land or is repairing a gate or partition in the shed that the goats decided was in their way. Oh, she is also a mason: a few years back she built a concrete block retaining wall around her greenhouse.

Sometimes I become exhausted just listening to her list of current projects.

Growing has been a generational activity for Chris' family.
Chris comes from a family of growers. Image: SK

If there is a gardening gene, Chris has it. Her grandfather had a small farm, and despite her father’s attempt to escape the farm life, he eventually developed a backyard farm, paying Chris and her siblings a nickel for every tomato worm they picked off the plants. Throughout her life, Chris has always had a garden and before moving to the woods, her suburban home was planted to capacity. Plant lovers understand this conundrum.

Farm pets: Chris helped a bit with the delivery of the triplets.
Farm pets: Chris helped with the
delivery of the triplets. They live up to the reputation of goats eating everything including bark on the wooden fencing.
Image: SK

Moving to a new region always has a learning curve for gardeners. Different weather, different soil, different pests, and the challenges of living with deer, cougar, and bears have taught many lessons but the most important one for Chris is to “live with nature instead of fighting it.” Fencing is necessary to keep out deer and keep in the “farm pets” that over the years, have included cows, pigs, geese, ducks, turkeys, and now goats. She has an assortment of laying hens and keeps me and other neighbors in eggs during the spring and summer.

Chris’ passion is the world of plants. She propagates both by seed and cuttings and occasionally buys fruit and nut trees. She is determined to push the limits of her growing zone, keeping multiple potted citrus trees and planting Pinot Noir wine grapes which prefer a more humid, and cooler environment.

An ever-increasing vineyard
An ever-increasing vineyard.
Image: SK

The plants and the homestead have been a sanctuary for Chris who lost a sister and both parents to cancer. Her husband suffers from the long-term effects of Agent Orange poisoning he was exposed to in Vietnam. She treasures the solace she has found on her homestead: “This land has been my savior in those difficult months. Digging in the dirt used up my emotional energy and turned it into positive energy.”

rocky is her garden assistant, often supervising from a flat area under shade.
Rocky is her garden assistant. Image: SK

I suspect a lot of people envision a retirement that has far less work, to-do lists, and projects but Chris thrives on her many activities. Her goal is to grow as much food as possible so when she’s not in the garden or greenhouse, she is in the kitchen canning, dehydrating, making wine, and handcrafting cream, bath salts, and potpourri. For the past two years, she has run a small farm store at the end of her driveway where she sells plant starts, freshly picked produce, eggs, jams, and jellies.

The farm store operates on an honor system.
The “Farm Store” operates on an honor system. Image: SK

She told me: “I do not consider my farm as a job. It is a way of life. Some things work some things don’t, I don’t worry about it too much.” During the winter, Chris retreats to her sewing room which is filled with fabrics for quiltmaking. In between all those tasks, she spends time in her private forest enjoying its peacefulness while doing firewise work: removing brush and trees which can fuel a forest fire.

Her raised bed garden includes a 
drying rack for grapes to become raisins.
Her raised bed garden includes a drying table for grapes to become raisins. Image: SK

When Chris and I get together we occasionally complain about our body aches. Growing food is physical and though we both love it, our aging bodies let us know when a break is needed. Chris suffers from flare-ups of osteoarthritis. She explained how she manages her older body: “I have learned to work differently to save my joints. I have a garden chair on wheels that I can sit on while pulling weeds. I scoot down the rows. I use leverage to pick up or move heavy objects. I use a hand truck to move heavy objects, use the wheelbarrow or divide it so I have lighter objects to carry. I weed whack more often than pulling so I don’t have to bend over and hurt my back any more than I have to.” She also takes afternoon naps, so I try to visit before noon!

Another garden spot: walls of green beans and tomatoes.
Another garden spot: walls of green beans and tomatoes. Image: SK

Admittedly, Chris’ homestead life does involve a lot of work – even if she doesn’t consider it work. For her (and most other food gardeners) the benefits are multiple: healthy food, good exercise, seasonal living, and a life of purpose, planning, and pride. She recognizes that many people don’t have access to land but she offers this: “I try and encourage everyone I know to garden even if they live in a place where there is no yard. You can garden in pots and still get some vegetables for cooking. You can even grow some fruit trees in pots. You can grow herbs on your windowsill. There are many ways to keep your grocery bill down and give you pleasure at the same time.” She recommends to all new growers: start small, do some research, and be willing live with failed attempts.

Chris expanded her vineyard to grow corn, tomatoes, and squash.
Chris expanded her vineyard to grow corn, tomatoes, and squash. Image: SK

Good advice for everyone as the world we live in becomes more unpredictable. Growing and preserving some of your food is one step closer to food security and self-reliance. And for many seniors who live on a fixed income, growing some of your food helps offset the rising costs of food.

Pumpkin almost ready for harvest.
Pumpkin almost ready for harvest. Image: SK

This recipe was handed down to Chris from her father-in-law and it’s perfect as a late summer meal when the garden or farmers’ markets are full of fresh produce.

Zucchini Soup

Chop and saute in olive oil: onions, bell peppers, and garlic.

Add chopped zucchini, green beans, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and basil.

Add enough water or broth to cover and salt & pepper to taste.

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