News and Tribune

May 3, 2013

STAWAR: The garden of weedin’

Local columnist

This is not a good time of the year to plan any kind of event in Southern Indiana, since a lot of folks are much too busy with their gardening to do much of anything else. 

At our house, actual gardening is limited to filling up a few flower pots around the yard and some window boxes in front of the house. When you buy a home, you think window boxes are just a nice amenity, but you quickly realize that what you have really done is bought yourself one more job each year. You have to plant them, since an empty window box is a public indictment of your lack of ambition. 

Looking around our yard, it’s obvious that we have richly benefited from generations of women who tended our property in the past. Over the years, they’ve planted a host of perennials that don’t require attention from us. Irises, peonies, daffodils, forsythia, snowballs, lilies of the valley, amaryllis and poppies are all there. 

Sure, most of the surviving irises are now white, since we’ve never dug them up and divided them or planted new ones. Nevertheless they’re rather elegant in their ghostly way. I hear that the white irises are the most hardy and eventually supplant the other colors if you don’t tend to them 

The various moles, voles and other critters in the yard are always chomping on the underground bulbs. They also move them around so much that you never know what’s going to pop up anywhere. The man who cuts our grass is sort of appalled by all the molehills , but we’ve grown accustomed to them. They get pretty muddy in the rain and can be a slipping hazard, as my wife Diane recently learned the hard way. 

Diane and I spend most of our time in the yard picking up dead branches and tree limbs. This is the first house we’ve lived in that has a lot of trees and feels much wind. I always thought trees were relatively permanent and stable and had no idea how mobile they can be. We are still picking up from the September hurricane of 2008, when a tree crushed our car. 

Two weeks ago, we took a time out from clearing twigs and branches to go to the spring plant sale at the Prosser Career Education Center. When we were checking out, the man at the counter distinctly told us not to plant the annuals we bought until after May 1. Of course, we ignored his advice and went right home and planted them anyway. Since then, we’ve had to cover them up at least twice due to frost warnings. They all survived, but the begonias have taken a beating. 

 We may not have good gardening habits but we are in good company. According to a survey by the marketing firm Scarborough last May, nearly half of all American homeowners gardened within the past year — that’s more than 164 million people. These gardeners are about 10 percent more likely to be baby boomers like us. 

Other than putting a few strawberry plants in a large flower pot that produced a grand total of four berries in the last eight years, we haven’t tried to plant a garden here in Indiana. Back in Florida, I tried growing vegetables once, just to show the kids what it was like. The carrots were stringy and deformed and the lettuce was far too bitter to eat. 

It reminded me of when my father tried to grow corn back in Illinois. He was pretty good at roses and tomatoes and I have documented his futile attempts at fruit trees. One section of our backyard served as a floral terminal ward, where the germaniums we gave my mother every year on Mother’s Day were transplanted until they quietly passed away.

 One spring, my father was suddenly inspired to grow fresh corn on the cob — corn as high as an elephant’s eye. Like Garrison Keillor’s father, he wanted to eat fresh corn that had been taken directly from the field and immediately dumped in boiling water. 

He managed to nurse a few stalks along and keep them alive until fall. They even produced several ears of corn. Unfortunately, the kernels were the hardest, break-your-teeth variety anyone has ever seen. His amused friends said that he must had grown “horse corn” by mistake. Evidently, that is a variety of field corn that hoofed animals can easily munch, but isn’t intended for human consumption. 

 Linda Wasmer Andrews, a writer who specialized in mental health issues and blogs for Psychology Today, says gardening can improve the beauty of your surroundings or put a bounty of vegetables on your plate. But it’s also excellent therapy for your stressed-out mind. Andrews suggests that there are four main ways that gardening can increase one’s mental well-being: 1. It reduces stress relief; 2. It encourages better nutrition; 3. It provides exercise and; 4. it stimulates creativity . 

A 2011 study at Wageningen University in the Netherlands compared the beneficial effects of gardening to recreational reading. The researchers found that unlike reading, gardening led to a significant reduction of the stress hormone cortisol and also provided a positive boost to the subjects’ mood. 

According to Andrews, research also show that gardeners tend to eat healthier diets — rich in vegetables and fruits that provide antioxidants and other important nutrients. According to the American Council on Exercise, gardening burns up an average of 300 calories per hour. Vigorous gardening activities such as hoeing or weeding can also provide aerobic benefits and help build muscle. Finally, Andrews says that landscaping and gardening can be a creative endeavor that allows you to express your unique identity. 

Of course, there is the other side of the coin. In an article aptly titled “Home Groan”, British writer and self-described ill-tempered gardener Anne Wareham says that despite tending a four-acre garden, she actually hates gardening, which she likens to “outside housework.” She writes, “It is repetitious, repetitive and mind-blowingly boring ... .” 

Wareham goes on to say that while she hates the process, she loves the outcome — gardens. Unfortunately, she has no other way to get one, other than by gardening. 

Also if you Google the terms “gardening” and “backache” together you get approximately 131,000 hits. According to Dr. David Wang, a specialist in rehabilitative medicine in McLean, Va., “When it comes to gardening and back pain, your body may need a few weeks after the long winter to become accustomed again to the physical stresses of gardening, such as squatting, twisting, lifting and digging.” 

Wisconsin Chiropractor James Bykowski says that although gardening may not involve tremendous surges of force or shock situations like many sports, nevertheless, “Many health disorders are the result of awkward posture positions, use of muscles not conditioned for the activity, and overindulgence.” 

Wang, Bykowski, blogger Kathy Blake and other experts offer the following advice: 1. Start slowly and remember to warm up; 2. Lift with your legs, not your back; 3. Always use the proper gardening tools. Long-handled tools can especially be helpful in avoid unnecessary bending; 4. Take frequent breaks and remember to change positions often; 5. Cool down by walking or stretching or maybe soaking in a warm bath; 6. Always wear loose clothes that don’t restrict your movements, including comfortable shoes that offer support; and 7. Always listen to your body and don’t overdo it. 

As for me, I’m afraid I have to accept the fact that yard work just isn’t my forte. The only way I’m likely to have a green thumb is a fungal infection — providing I still have thumbs after using my treacherous chain saw.


— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring, the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at