#249–Gardening with arthritic thumbs . . .

I garden with arthritic thumbs and unsteady legs in a yard where the trees cause a lot more shade than they used to. My back area is on a north-facing slope, so the sun is limited to mid-March to mid-October. And that’s where my greenhouse is located. It was the only place large enough and without trees.

A deer is browsing on the other side of the railing. there are four terraces on the slope between where the house is and the greenhouse. It takes work to keep everything weeded, watered, pruned. And in the case of the tall white Shasta daisies, they need to be tied up or they will blow over.

When my late husband, Walt, and I moved here 35 years ago, the trees were my size or a few feet taller. None were taller than the house. And down below is a steep slope to some houses very close to Mercer Lake. And we had a fabulous view of the lake. Now my lake view is nearly gone. Trees have grown quite tall along the slope between the ridge and the lake. And so have the trees on either side of the house. The alders between my neighbors to the west and us are also quite tall now. When we moved here, they were so short, we had shouted conversations back and forth. It took several years, before the alders blocked the view of each other’s houses and backyards from the decks. Now they are quite tall;  I can only see the house in winter when the trees lose their leaves. The back edge of our property was defined by blackberry bushes. It took some doing, but there are none remaining on our property. So I planted 18-inch high vine maples. along our northern boundary. There were a few years when the deer thought they were quite tasty, but they survived and are now about 20 feet tall.

This shot was taken just after the tree trimming was done last week.

I have changed also. I used to run up and down the slope and two step our back stairs skipping every other step. I used to carry heavy redwood chairs up the stairs to the decks in the summer and take them back down to the basement in the winter. I used to be able to work out in the yard all day long.

I still two step the stairs, but now that means, I place both feet on each step before moving on. The same redwood chairs are on the deck all year now. And when I work outside for a few hours, I have to come in and take a nap. I walk very carefully up and down the slope. Since last summer, I’ve had a railing along two sections of steps and sloped pathways that make it possible for me to go down to the greenhouse and back. I couldn’t do it without the railing.

I used to grow all kinds of veggies in the greenhouse and in the terraces down below. But the shade now makes it difficult to grow veggies.

Last year was the first year not to grow tomatoes in the greenhouse. I only had petunias in there last year. I love petunias. Unfortunately, so do the deer and rabbits. I have some petunias on the decks also. I filled the greenhouse with petunias and dahlias last year. I used to have lots of dahlias, but they need full sun. So they gradually got replaced.

A variety of petunias on one side (left) and zucchini and sugar snap peas on the other side.

Now all my veggie beds are filled with perennials. Most years I have filled in with nasturtiums, but they did not self-seed this year like they have in the past. So I planted marigolds instead.

This year, I couldn’t resist the lure to grow some veggies. So I planted two favorites. I have lots of zucchini plants in the greenhouse and three pots, each with several sugar snap pea plants. They are trellised up tomato cage like structures.

Good thing I just love zucchini!

Last year, I had one very kinked leg because of an arthritic knee. It really restricted what I could do. This past January, I had total knee replacement on my right leg and had physical therapy up to April. And didn’t attempt walking down below until May. My second leg is heading in the same direction and is beginning to give me trouble, so my surgical leg has become my strong leg. It has healed very well.

Now my arthritic thumbs make my hands not nearly as strong as they used to be. I can’t push the trigger on most hose sprayers. I have to have the old-fashioned nozzle style to water the yard and wash the car. I hand water; I don’t have sprinklers. I think it’s not necessary to have sprinklers here, since I only water the total yard in July and August. So far this year, I’ve done it once. I will now do it once a week until the rains come back.

My arthritic thumbs make pruning difficult if the branches are very thick. I have ratcheting clippers that make it possible for me to handle all but the heaviest pruning jobs. They cost about 10 times as much as regular clippers, but for me, they are worth it.

I can still bend over and get a lot done. And I have a bench that I can move along and sit on to do weeding. But I don’t get down on my knees anymore. It’s just too hard to get up!

Yardwork just takes a lot longer for me now, and I don’t have the stamina I used to have. And the trees provide more shade, so I’ve had to replace several plants and change from vegetable garden to more perennials. I just had the trees pruned for about the third time in the last 20 years. This latest pruning will give the rhodies in the front more sunlight. A few of the rhodies had only a few blooms this year and are becoming leggy as they reach for the sun. So it was time for more tree pruning.

Sugar snap peas in their tomato cage like trellis pots.

I wouldn’t dream of cutting down the trees. I love their silvery trunks. Many years ago, I dreamed of a house with trees just like my trees look now. So I’ve waited a long time for these trees to become what they are now.

I love working in the shade because I have a love/hate relationship with the sun. Those of us who live where it rains a lot, love and appreciate sunny days. But I have had about 50 skin cancers, including one melanoma on my face, so I am leery of being in the sun from about 10 to 3. I really appreciate the shade my trees provide—even if I can’t grow veggies and dahlias.

I have someone who whacks down the grassy area below, prunes the larger shrubs, cleans out roof gutters and drains, and blows off the driveway. He also does special projects from time to time. When he first started working for us, he was about 22. Now he is in his mid-fifties and thinking about cutting back.

Friends have asked me why I don’t move into town and have a smaller house and yard or just an apartment with a patio. And I have thought about it. But I like the view. I like my neighbors. I like having lots of space around me, with no neighbors really close. I don’t want to hear someone sneezing or coughing next door. All this space has spoiled me.

I had many more blossoms on shorter, stronger branches on my hydrangeas before the additional shade.

And I like the fact that up here on the ridge, we don’t have the fog that is right along the ocean’s edge and up the river or the wind that comes up in summer afternoons throughout most of Florence. Those of us who live here, refer to it as “paradise.”

So as long as I have the railings to help going up and down the slope, someone to help with the big stuff, and am willing to take the extra time and effort to make it work, I’ll stay here and do much of the gardening myself. I love it here.

Next week I’ll tell about what it was like when we first moved here and the trials and tribulations of landscaping (taming the wilderness) ourselves.

About crossingsauthor

Judy Fleagle spent 22 years teaching 1st and 2nd grades and 21 years as editor/staff writer with Oregon Coast and Northwest Travel magazines.Since 2009, she has written five books: "Crossings: McCullough's Coastal Bridges," "The Crossings Guide to Oregon's Coastal Spans," "Around Florence," "Devil Cat and Other Colorful Animals I Have Known," and "The Oregon Coast Guide to the UNEXPECTED!!!."
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