Old gardeners never really retire

Gardening can be done on a large or small scale. It all still counts. Submitted photo

Two years ago, my husband and I made the big decision: we moved from our home on a 3/4-acre lot with trees and a dozen big flower beds to a small senior apartment on the second floor of a large retirement complex with only one, far-from-spacious, balcony. Together Roger and I are Master Gardeners. We loved growing new plants, often just to learn about them. We jokingly called our property, never a showplace, “Rittmer’s Experimental Farm.” We wondered if we could kick our habit of playing in the dirt in our new home.

I knew I would be OK. As a former town girl, I preferred the easy way of gardening. I mostly helped with planning and record keeping, and I would point to a place in the yard and say, “Dig here, Roger, plant this,” then enjoy the fruits of his labor. I did wonder how my former-farmer husband would manage. His aching back and knees told him he wouldn’t miss the heavy hose hauling, weeding, pruning, and fertilizing that a vegetable garden and multiple flowerbeds had required, but still…

Well, it has worked out. One answer has been the two 4-foot planters Roger designed and built to sit safely on the brick wall of our balcony. From spring to late fall, I can still say “Dig here,” because the Rittmers now have a mini, experimental garden that flourishes. Because our balcony overlooks the entrance to our building, everyone who enters enjoys seeing the fruits of Roger’s age-appropriate labor. Additionally, it’s been rewarding for him to build several similar planters for other residents, and three large raised-bed gardens for wheelchair patients in the nursing section of our facility.

We had not anticipated that our large retirement complex would have more than a hundred indoor plants in the common spaces requiring care by many volunteers. There are scheffleras of every variety, a spectacular avocado tree, huge Christmas Cactuses in several halls, and peace lilies by the dozen. And that’s only the short list. Residents also keep plants in their apartments, like philodendron, and African violets. Roger quickly gained a reputation as the resident plant doctor, a diagnostician and surgeon who actually makes house calls. He identifies problems, offers solutions, and sometimes gives courage to the faint of heart for pruning or pulling the plug on plants beyond resuscitation.

When Roger, himself, becomes sunshine deprived, he picks up his pruner and trowel to help the grounds-keeping staff in the flower beds of our well tended grounds – all with the luxury of quitting when his body (or his wife) tell him he’s had enough.

As for me, this spring I will help organize a garden walk for our residents and for the public to view our grounds and our many indoor plants. I act as secretary for my plant doctor, answering his phone and occasionally answering plant questions myself. I struggle to keep the scope of our plant experimentation in proportion to our small apartment. This Christmas I threatened to put a star atop one green “stick” that he assures me will one day be an avocado tree just like the giant one overlooking our dining hall. And just where would we put that if he succeeds?

In retrospect, we realize we are fortunate. By accident, we chose a place to live offering chances to continue our relationship with growing things. If you love plants, I urge that when you make your big decision, deliberately consider asking about how you can continue your own love affair with the natural world in your new home.

Jan Rittmer and her husband are long-time Clinton County Master Gardeners, who two years ago moved to Ridgecrest Village in Davenport.

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