WHAT’S YOUR most important gardening tool? A new public television series reminds us that it’s not a trowel or pruner or spade, but our body, which can also be stressed by gardening if we don’t know how to look after it. “Taking care of your body while taking care of your garden, that’s our mission,” the creators of the GardenFit program say.
Today’s guests are the creators of the new GardenFit series on public television, a sort of reality show meets season-long garden tour that takes us on visits to distinctive private gardens around the country. We visit not just the places, but meet the gardeners behind them and learn what ails them, so to speak—what they could do better to care for themselves, and to stay, as the title of the series says, garden fit.
The prescription for that is provided by co-host Jeff Hughes, a fitness trainer who incorporates a cognitive slant into conventional training practices, who teamed with Madeline Hooper, a former public relations executive and passionate gardener, to create the program.
Read along as you listen to the March 21, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
staying fit while gardening
Margaret: Welcome, Madeline and Jeff. So smart timing for you guys to release a public television program when we’re all about to run outside and overdo it after winter hibernation. I’m already thinking about the sort of vivid memory of what climbing the stairs after those first mad outdoor days of overdoing it feel like in spring [laughter].
So tell me a little bit. Either one of you wants to start? Madeline, do you want to tell? Did this begin actually with you seeking training help from Jeff? Is that how you met? How did you guys meet? Tell me.
Madeline: That’s exactly how we met. Margaret, as you know, I was, I was gardening four to five hours every day, and started to get used to the aches and pains. But really my neck and shoulder got to the point where I thought there must be some way I can relieve myself of that. It was silly, and I wanted to garden even more. And a garden friend of mine, who I was complaining to, suggested that I go see this trainer who he had seen two years previous to this discussion, because his wife had given him three chances to work with Jeff—it was sort of a gift certificate.
Jeff really helped him fix his shoulder. And I thought, “Oh my God, I think this is what I was looking for.”
And of course it was. I mean, Jeff really became the inspiration for this show, because once we got together and he started to train me, within a month I really had so much less stress on my body and aches and pains. And really within a few months, everything went away, and has never come back. So my big thing was, we should share this with every person we know that gardens, because it’s silly to go on assuming that you should be in pain from gardening. There’s no reason to be.
Margaret: Right. And so, and so you garden not far from me in the Hudson Valley of New York and your place has been open for tours for the Garden Conservancy for years, and you’re involved with various botanical gardens and so forth. So you used your garden connections then to find the gardens that you two would visit. Is that the idea?
Madeline: Yes. I mean, I really called so many friends. A couple of the gardeners we visited, of course, I knew quite well and had seen their gardens, and knew about how they took care of their gardens themselves.
So one criteria was obviously to find people who really are passionate about gardening and do it themselves. And two, that we wanted to really share a big variety of gardens. So you know, everything from desert gardens to lush English gardens, a lot of specialty farms, and places all over the country—because obviously everybody has different conditions that they garden in. And we thought that would be really of interest to people to see the solutions and the ideas and the inspiration that came from everybody’s local environment.
Margaret: Right. So Jeff, I’ve watched a couple of episodes, and the format is you guys drive to the garden, and it seems like Madeline tells you a little bit about what you’re going to see. He’s laughing already.
Jeff: [Laughter.] I love the car ride in the show. We had such a good time coming up with the ideas for those car rides and the Mary Poppins bag. It’s just fun.
Margaret: Right? She has a bag of tricks of stuff to tell you about each garden that you’re about to visit. You’re driving along, and then when you get to the garden, I notice that there’s a tour. It starts out with the garden tour. The gardener gives you all a tour. But I noticed, Jeff, that as much as watching the landscape, you’re watching the gardener [laughter].
Jeff: Yeah. You saw that, huh?
Margaret: Yeah. You have the eagle eye out there.
Jeff: Yeah. It’s a really wonderful way that GardenFit presents that because while you’re getting that same tour watching the show, and you get to see their environment, what they work in, the tools they work with, and kind of get their philosophies and stuff. I get to observe all that.
So when it comes time for me to sit down with them, I’ve got a pretty good idea as a fitness trainer of how they carry their body, what they’re doing as tasks, and kind of what their philosophy is. It allows me to get into their head a little bit and understand. You know, the biggest trick I’ve learned over 35 years of doing this is if I can give somebody something they’ll do, they’ll do it.
Jeff: And if you give somebody something that will fix them that they won’t do, it’s not a very good fix, because they’re just not going to do it. So you have to understand how to get them to accept it. And that’s really the key to my training, is to give them an adaptable lifestyle fix that their body will accept.
Margaret: Is that the cognitive sort of slant on it?
Jeff: Yeah, pretty much. You know, I try to explain to them—I over-explain things. I’m probably doing it right now [laughter]. But I try to get people to understand the fix. I don’t just tell them to do something. We kind of have that sit down, like I was saying, from all the observations and I don’t tell them anything. I sit down with them and I ask them, “What’s your aches and pains?” And they’ll tell me, whether it’s their back, their neck, their wrist, their ankle, their knee or whatever.
And then I’ll chime in and say, “Yeah, I saw you doing that. That’s probably causing it.”
And they’re like, “Yeah, I know, but I’ve got to get that done.” I’m like, “O.K., well, you can still get that done, but here’s a different way to approach that.”
And when I show them that, now they’re part of the fix and they will accept it because they’re like, “Oh, well that makes sense. So I’ll give that a try.” And you saw the show. I make them shake my hand, and we make a promise that we’re going to try this for four weeks.
And like Madeline said earlier, she came back in after about a month of working with me and her aches and pains were for the most part gone. It takes about four weeks for the body to create that habit, or for you to stop causing it.
And it’ll go away in about four weeks. And a lot of my fixes are not, you know, I’m not a doctor. I’m not doing surgery on people. I’m just examining the cause of the problem, and we stop causing it [laughter].
Margaret: Right. So, I want to get into some sort of common issues and things that you’ve observed and so forth in a minute. But so, Madeline, what happens is, as Jeff just alluded to, you guys go back. It takes about four weeks, and four weeks later you’ve gone back to these gardens. So you’ve visited them a couple of times in the process of doing the show.
And you also, I think though, explore… Again, so this is kind of a garden tour and reality show and who knows what all put together. You kind of explore like the philosophy of each garden and the connection each gardener has to nature. And so tell us a little bit. I mean, just tell us about a couple or few briefly of the people you visited. You know what I mean? Just a little of te range.
Madeline: Absolutely. Yeah. I think the thing like you just alluded to, Margaret, is that everybody that we visited is really concerned about sustainability and making habitats for everything that lives in their garden. And they make it sound easy and natural. And so hopefully, people watching the show will really understand that you can work for nature and with nature and not against it in any way.
But one gentleman that we visited near Miami, Raymond Jungles, he really creates jungles where there was nothing. And his big thing is he saves trees, which is so impressive, large trees that have been blown over by hurricanes or whatever. And Raymond has these tree finders, literally almost all over the world.
And he put a garden in around his office building in a city that looked like a jungle, and we had visited it two years after he put it in. So he puts in gigantic trees, and that was very impressive to see somebody really creating such an integrated habitat so quickly.
We also visited Jim Martinez in Texas, in Marfa, Texas, and Jim is a real specialist on native plants. And so there was such an education to see how he selected plants that he purposely put together. So one plant would supply the leaves for a cocoon or the beginning of a caterpillar’s life, that then would have to get pollen once it was a butterfly from a neighboring plant. So it was really quite interesting to see the relationship that they paid attention to about each garden.
Margaret: Right. Now tell us, your mic was a little interrupted there when you introduced the Marfa, Texas person. Jim, what’s his last name?
Madeline: Jim Martinez.
Margaret: O.K. So there’s a real range of gardens. And I think you even went to some farm-ish, as opposed to private gardens, sort of farm-ish places?
Madeline: Yes. So all the gardens were private gardens because we thought the show, it would be fun to give people access to these amazing gardeners and their homes. But we went to a saffron farm that was particularly interesting, because Jeff and I got a chance to actually harvest the crocus flower-
Madeline: … in the middle of the night. They taught us how to remove the stigma. So really they got the absolute best part of the saffron, and it was just a fascinating experience and really fun for us.
Jeff: It was 32 degrees at three in the morning [laughter]. It was dark, and we were headlamps.
Margaret: And all really good for your body. Right [laughter]?
Madeline: Well, actually it was good for our body because, once they got us moving and harvesting, we were really warm.
Jeff: Just a little shout out to our production company. They managed to shoot that in the dark and make it look great. So
Margaret: That’s amazing.
Jeff: So it’s a really cool-looking episode, too.
Margaret: That’s amazing. Well, I want to spend some time talking about some of the things that you observe in people, and you ask them to talk to you about what’s happening with them and so forth.
But I mean, someone gave me a knee pad, one of those squishy knee pads, a year or two ago. And the funny thing is, I’d never had one in 35 or 40 years of gardening, and I realized that I don’t kneel. I crouch. It’s funny how everybody has their own thing that they do, right?
And of course a lot of gardening is bending over and it’s very one-handed, a lot of it, or very one-sided. And so I was wondering kind of what are some of the most common things that many of us as gardeners, that you see? [Laughter.] Uh-oh, he’s laughing.
Jeff: You just mentioned two, Margaret, that I’m just going to hit right back into your court with.
Jeff: Now I have nothing again knee pads. I think knee pads are great. The problem with the knee pad is you use it thinking that everything’s fine. If I just use the knee pad, I can just go down there and jam my knee into the ground and it won’t hurt [laughter]. And there’s a joint inside there that that knee pad is not covering.
So use knee pads, but remember that the knee is a gentle joint, and don’t forget that just because you don’t feel something on the outside doesn’t mean something’s going on on the inside. And there was something else you just said, gosh, what was it?
Madeline: The alternating sides.
Jeff: Oh yeah.
Margaret: Yeah. The one-sidedness, you know, it was like, “Whoa.”
Jeff: Well, that’s actually one of the great fixes I gave this lady Elaine, in Virginia. Between the habit of golfing and playing tennis and then gardening. She’s right-handed. She kept twisting to the left, and grabbing things with her right hand. And when she rakes, she rakes right-handed. When she shovels, she shovels right-handed. She plays golf and tennis.
And her back hurt, and she has some nerve issues down her leg, and she was just spending the entirety of her life, twisting to the left. And I just suggested… I gave her a few stretches to do to the right. But I suggested take four weeks, and you don’t have to go play tennis and golf differently, but you can certainly pick your golf ball up with your left hand. You can certainly start trying to reach over with your left hand and twist your body to the right to weed and to grab things. And then just before things get out of hand, start practicing raking in the other direction.
And in four weeks, it balanced out her spine. It balanced out the muscles in her body. In other words, if you keep twisting one way and you never twist the other way, you’re, you’re overusing one direction, and just simply balancing that out.
So to what you had just said earlier, just teach yourself early on to do a few things with the non-dominant side, non-dominant hand. It just balances things out. Really, at the end of the day, when you’re all done and you go lay down to go to bed, you wake up in the morning, your body feels it. It settles and it settles in a more balanced way. You don’t wake up as stiff.
Margaret: The other thing that I have to say to myself a lot—and maybe a decade or more ago, I said it to myself loudly enough to maybe listen to myself for once [laughter], which was that, “Margaret, you cannot go out there and rake for two hours or dig for two hours or do anything for two or two hours.”
Jeff: Oh, it’s like you’re looking at my list. This is cool.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. See I have ESP. I forgot to tell you that [laughter].
Jeff: Yeah, you are psychic.
So yeah, there is this guy right up here in Massachusetts, Matt. He has a topiary garden. He goes out at sunrise with his shears and he starts cleaning up the edges, and he doesn’t come back in until the sun goes down. And he wondered why things hurt.
And one of the two major fixes I gave for him was I said, “You do have other things you do out here, right?” He, “Yeah, yeah. I have this that I have to do. I go with the ladder sometimes, then I’m bent over on my feet.” I was like, “O.K. So limit your time on what you’re doing and just kind of switch off.”
So if you have three things that you need to get to, do one for 45 minutes. Stop. Lay that tool to down, go to another task, do that for 45 minutes. Stop. Lay that tool down, go to another one for 45 minutes, and then go back to the first one.
So a couple things are going to happen. Number 1, you’re not repetitively using the same muscles to a point where they’re exhausted and you end up incorporating the wrong muscles, you start contorting your body because you get tired. And Number 2, you’re actually going to be more efficient because if you keep doing something, when those muscles are tired, you’re not getting a lot done. It’s easier to give them a rest. And it actually is giving them a rest to go use other muscles to do a different task.
They used to call it the county fair. Go on a ride for a while, then go on another, and go on another one, and then come back.
Margaret: Oh, the county fair. O.K.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good way of saying it. So to just bounce back for a second, before we get some more prescriptive help. Madeline, you’re a gardener. You’re a plantaholic, probably like I am [laughter]. And so out and about in all these places, how many gardens altogether did you guys, or gardens and farms and so forth, did you go to? How many?
Madeline: We actually saw 14. And for one person we went to the East Coast and West Coast garden for one episode. So that was fun.
Margaret: Wow. And so were you like scribbling a list of plants you wanted, or ideas you wanted? Were there were a couple of things briefly that just horticulturally were your takeaways? And the way that Jeff is looking at the gardeners and their behavior, were you like, “Ooh, Ooh, that’s a great idea.”
Madeline: There were a couple things that I really love because I do like putting in plants and I try to put in small plants. And one of the gardeners we visited in Colorado, she takes the plastic pots that plants come in, the little cheapo pots that you start seedlings in and stuff.
She puts a rock in it, and she puts it next to the plant that she has just planted. So when she goes around to garden, she knows exactly which plant she should water and mother until it sort of really gets a good hold. I thought that was really a cute idea and it didn’t obstruct the beautiful view of her garden.
The other thing was, not only was I listing plants, but I was so impressed with how they use native plants, and the relationship of plants. So two things: How important plant selection is, and I learned how important it is to find nurseries and sources that are really propagating plants themselves, rather than taking plants out of the wild and destroying our natural habitat. So how you source plants becomes really critical.
And I also felt that the relationship about when you put in plants, how are they going to look in three years and then how are they going to look in 30 years [laughter]? So this element of time. So I did get that memo again, Margaret, I don’t know if I always listened to it. Don’t over-crowd.
Madeline: But again, these people were so clever. They really showed us in a good way how to be thoughtful about that and mindful about what you plant, and how close you plant them. So that those are big takeaways. You know, you learn a lot from visiting gardens, any garden.
Jeff: We really did learn a lot from this. Just to tag onto what Madeline was just saying, I was impressed. I haven’t spent a lot of time around gardeners, so I was really impressed that they were really open about mistakes they had made and lessons they had learned also. We kept some of that in the show, which was very helpful.
Madeline: Yeah. They’re charming. They were all great.
Yeah. So I want to get back to a few more sort of “help, help!” intervention steps.
Margaret: You can tell I’m anticipating going outside and cleaning up this two point something acre mess outside. So a lot of us spend a lot of time in the garden, and actually in a lot of activities like cooking in the kitchen, or sitting at the computer, kind of hunching over. [Laughter.] Kind of bending over. A lot of forward motion of that head. Right?
Jeff: You ought to be in Vegas. That’s on my list.
Margaret: Yeah. So, what about that? I mean, that is just sort of a really an epidemic situation for this computer-focused world. And again, so what do you think about that, Jeff?
Jeff: I’ve got this. So I need you to just be with me right now. Everybody listening here with me, right now, I want you to just kind of relax. Whether you’re standing or sitting, recognize where your shoulder blades are and just kind of relax those shoulder blades, slide them down your back into your back pockets of your jeans.
And feel how your body is. Your posture just balanced out a little bit. Now your head is on top of your shoulders and your shoulders are on top of your waist, and your chest is kind of out and your shoulder blades are kind of down. And that’s perfect posture. You know, if there’s such a thing as perfect posture, but it’s really good posture.
If you go at any task, trying to hold onto that posture and not give it up, not hunch, just hold onto that posture. And the way to get there is to take your shoulder blades, not your shoulders, but your shoulder blades, and take them down to your back pockets. You will be using your body properly. The minute you start to not do that, you will be incorporating the wrong joint and the wrong muscle for that task that you’re doing. And you might get away with it, but it will hurt later.
So one of the best things you can is try to maintain good upper-body posture while you’re doing most tasks. And if you can’t do that, you’re probably too tired, or it’s too heavy.
Jeff: And you should just, like I said, maybe go switch off; go do something else. You’ll notice that earlier fix I gave you, you can start off with this great posture doing it. And once you start slumping and getting tired doing it, you’re not being efficient and you’re making your body hurt. Switch, go do something different.
Margaret: Right. Right.
Jeff: And then another good fix is one of the best ones that kind of goes with that, because that’s the upper body. To keep your lower back and your hip and your knees a bit more safe, anytime you’re going to bend over, which is pretty much at any given moment in a garden, because the weeds are down there, you know?
Spread your feet.
Jeff: When you bend, when you crouch down to get something, you don’t want your knee to go past your toenails. So if you spread your feet and then you bend your knees, you stick your butt out and your knees bend, your knees aren’t hanging way over your feet anymore. And it’s just much easier on your knee joint. It’s designed to bend and carry weight, but not to be strung out over your foot.
So open your feet wide, drop down. I call it an armchair. You can just drop right down into a squat kind of, where your arms are resting on your thighs. And from that point, picture a football player that’s putting his arm down on the ground to play football. Just put your hand down, and one arm is holding your body weight on your leg. The other one is picking the weed. And if there’s a weed on the other side, switch arms.
So just spreading your feet takes a lot of stress off your back and your knees.
Margaret: And about how wide would you say, compared to like your hips or whatever?
Jeff: A little wider than your hips.
Margaret: A little wider than your hips. O.K.
Jeff: Think of your hips dropping down between your feet, and they need to be able to fit inside your feet. So certainly at bare minimum, just a little wider than your hips.
Margaret: O.K. Oh, that’s a good one, I think. I think that’s a good one for all of us as we get started. Because, boy oh boy, doing the cleanup besides all that one-sided raking and so forth, there’s a lot, a lot, a lot of getting down on the ground kind of stuff. So that’s a really good one.
Jeff: You can always just test this. Put your feet next to each other and bend your knee and stoop over. And then spread your feet really quick, bend your knee and stoop over. And your body will tell you, “Oh, we like that one better.” And you’ll remember it just because your body remembers it.
Margaret: Oh boy. Madeline, I want you to tell us where can we watch the show? I know it’s the PBS network of stations, it’s not sort of one-size-fits-all or one-schedule-fits-all. So where do we watch the show?
Madeline: Well, starting Monday, March 21st, it’ll be streaming on pbs.org/gardenfit. So anybody can watch a new episode every weeks. So that’s our launch date. And some, like you mentioned, stations across the country, public broadcasting stations, will start carrying it. And over, I guess, the next two months, most of the stations around the country will begin fitting our 13 episodes into their schedule. So it’s best to go stream it if you can.
Margaret: Both of you, congratulations. I know this is your first such wild and crazy production. But Jeff Hughes and Madeline Hooper, thank you. I’m looking forward to seeing more episodes of GardenFit and to being more conscious as I begin, and I hope listeners will feel the same way as they begin the active season again to be more conscious. So thank you so much, and thanks for making the time.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 21, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify