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Older Gardeners Adapt to Changing Climate


                      All my life, the garden has been a great teacher in everything I cherish.
                                                                                  - Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid

Gardening is highly popular among older adults, offering a host of emotional and physical benefits.

So how will a changing climate affect older gardeners?

Australian researchers examined how gardeners in central Victoria, a state in south-east Australia, coped through a prolonged period of drought. Led by Joanne Adams from La Trobe University, researchers drew data from in-depth interviews with 10 experienced gardeners, aged 60 to 83.

Results showed gardeners adapted to new conditions, and they became more involved in environmental issues at the community level.

The findings appeared online in the December 2014 issue of The International Journal of Aging and Human Development.


Three themes, central to understanding older people's everyday experience in the garden, emerged from the study. They are engagement, connection and a sense of well-being.

Researchers found that each older adult was inspired by their garden in different ways.

Vanessa said her plants became almost like children: "All the new plants are like babies and you watch for the first new sprig on it or the first new flower . . . I think it's just fantastic – I just love it."

Several of the participants organized their day around the garden, finding endless opportunities for hands-on environmental learning.

As Phillip explained:

The plants . . . that might have done alright as seedlings or small plants once they got bigger they didn't cope at all. So they were pulled out and replaced with something that I assumed or thought would be better.

Gardens also provided opportunities for social interaction and conversation. Participants shared plants with neighbours and friends. Some were members of local gardening clubs such as the Native Plant Group.

How did drought change older people's engagement with the garden?

The researchers found prolonged drought conditions took a toll on older gardeners. For example, water restrictions meant they had to cart buckets of saved water from indoor use, outside. Some purchased water tanks.

As June explained:

I still liked the garden, but it was just a job – like it was a real worry to keep everything going all the time and I had my tanks then which everyone that didn't have tanks or anything struggled.


Several older people had fallen in love with the garden as children working alongside their parents. "I was given my own little garden patch," one woman said. "It was an area that I had I could choose what I wanted to put in."

For some, even today, certain smells, sights or plants evoked strong memories of gardens from when they were younger, or of family and friends associated with those gardens. For instance, the birdbath in one woman's garden came from her mother's garden. Every year, Carolyn placed the first daffodil and the first tulip from her garden on her mother's grave.

As well, participants said their connection to the garden helped them cope with disappointment and feelings of sadness.


For these older gardeners, wholeness involved a sense of well-being. They perceived gardens as having meaning beyond themselves. And they linked this sense of meaning to the spiritual nature of gardening, in which all living things are connected and form part of a cyclic process.

Many described the garden as therapeutic, providing a means of relaxation, peace and a sense of balance.

Impact of a changing climate

The study concluded that older people's capacity to maintain a garden through a period of prolonged drought was severely hampered, reducing their sense of well-being.

That said, these gardeners showed remarkable resilience, and acceptance of change. As Oliver put it, "I just walk around and I just look at my garden and think how beautiful it is."