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New PBS show ‘GardenFit’ helps gardeners head off aches and pains

“GardenFit” visits 13 gardens across the country, including saffron farm Peace & Plenty Farm in Lake County, to show gardeners how to ease aches and pains.|

More information

American Society for Surgeries of the Hand guide to preventing hand injuries while gardening: assh.org/handcare/safety/gardening

GardenFit: PBS.org/show/gardenfit

Peace & Plenty Farm: Peaceplentyfarm.com, @peaceandplentyfarmer

After retiring from a career in marketing and public relations, Madeline Hooper was happily devoting up to five hours a day to one of her favorite hobbies — gardening. But the repetitive, labor-intensive work took its toll on her body, resulting in chronic neck and back pain.

When she shared her woes with a fellow gardener and friend over dinner one night, he recommended she see a fitness trainer who had helped him overcome shoulder pain by teaching him healthier ways to move.

So began a relationship between Hooper, a former trustee of Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and Jeff Hughes, a personal trainer for some 35 years who has worked with athletes, actors and CEOs. Within six weeks, Hughes got Hooper out of pain.

“I stopped having pain and I still don’t have pain,” she said. “I still can garden five hours, but I’m stronger now.”

Hooper was so grateful for what she learned she wanted to share her revelations with others. So she collaborated with Hughes on a new TV show called “GardenFit,” which aims to help people take care of their own bodies while also taking care of their gardens. The 13-week series began airing and streaming on PBS this week.

The show took Hooper and Hughes, who both live in upstate New York, all over the country. They met with gardeners ages 30 to 92 who had a diverse range of gardens and the physical problems that come with tending to your own landscape. Among their stops was the Peace & Plenty Farm in Kelseyville, where Melinda Price and her husband Simon Avery maintain the largest saffron farm in North America.

After reading about the farm in Martha Stewart Living magazine and noting the meticulous care that goes into harvesting every flower before the sun comes up, Hooper approached the couple about appearing on the show.

Each stigma of the flower has to be gently plucked by hand. Although growing the flower is fairly simple, the harvest of its delicate threads requires a strong back, good motor skills and endless patience.

“We think Melinda and Simon are special people,” Hooper said. “They changed their lives to start this amazing farm, which, by the way, they did not use any machinery to till. Talk about learning to use your body correctly. They were the poster children for that.”

Harvest is a pain in the back

Each episode of “GardenFit” focuses on a different garden and gardener who has their own set of issues. Avery and Price are both very tall. She is 6 feet tall and her husband is an inch or 2 taller. Both are in their mid-50s, an age when our bodies start to show wear and tear. While both love their work, the one thing they dread about harvest season is the lower back pain that comes from the constant bending for five intensive weeks each fall.

“We pick the flowers for about six hours straight, and we’re doing it in the middle of the night,” Price said. “We start at 2 and 3 a.m. It's really cold. Your muscles are not fluid at that moment. And because we’re on such a tight schedule, we’re not good about stretching before we go out.

“And it’s not just the saffron harvest,” she added. “We also have our four-season market garden, so we’re constantly bending to harvest. Gardening just requires a lot of doubling over.”

In each episode, Hughes and Hooper typically walk through the garden, often gathering tips from the featured gardener to share with viewers. Meanwhile Hughes, who has a degree in physical education and has owned fitness businesses in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, observes the gardener or gardeners, susses out their particular physical challenges in gardening and, later in the program, sits down with them to develop less stressful or damaging ways to move. He also may prescribe complementary exercises. The GardenFit team returns four weeks later to see how the new regimen is working.

“We come up with a habit I can help them change, and they’ll feel better that the aches and pains will be gone,” Hughes said. “We have to sit down and at the end of the sit-down, they have to shake my hand and say they have to promise they’re going to do this for four weeks. Fortunately, 70 million people are going to see that promise. If they all kept it, that’s good.”

Price said in addition to a lot of deep bending, she spends time on her knees reaching in unnatural ways that twist her body. Hughes showed the couple how to bend properly.

“He helped us use different muscles, to lever our torso up and down using our gluteus maximus muscles (in the buttocks) instead of our lower back muscles, which is such common sense,” Price said. “It was such an easy fix, which is the genius thing about Jeff’s work. It’s a super easy thing to do in our everyday work. It doesn’t take a lot of thought once you get in the habit of it, or special equipment.”

Hughes did request that Avery, who was having problems with his wrists and arm strength, exercise with a Thera-Band, a stretchy resistance band that Price said helped open his chest muscles.

Price said they have been faithfully practicing their new movements and it has made a noticeable difference in their pain levels.

“We think about it all the time. Our bodies scream all the time,” Price said. “We’re in our 50s and our bodies are going to start complaining more and more, so we have to start taking more preventative steps.”

That was the advice Hughes gave to a 30-year-old San Diego man who has a 4,000-square-foot food garden where he strives to grow all the food he wants to eat.

“He was a pretty fit guy and had solved a lot of these issues,” Hughes said. “He had some issues with his hips and legs and already figured out the tricks. The main fix I gave him was to understand that one day, in the next five to 10 years, he’s going to have to up his program. So I asked him when we came back in four weeks to project himself into a 35 or a 40-year-old and think about what he would like to add to his regimen as he starts getting more wear and tear on his body.”

Other gardens, other problems

The show premiered March 21 with a visit to Renny Reynolds’s 30-acre Hortulus Farm in Wrightstown, Pennsylvania, where Hughes offered pain relief with lifting and pruning adjustments.

They also visited Peggy Walsh, an indomitable 95-year-old gardener in Peapack, New Jersey, who greeted them with a cup of coffee while standing on a rock pathway in her bare feet. Surprisingly, she had few physical problems, but Hughes helped her with a weak foot by prescribing a little dance.

“It was fun to see how well it trained her hip, her knees and her foot to flex when they were supposed to,” Hughes said.

On each visit there is time to enjoy the garden and frequently, at the end, share in a feast with some of the goodness culled from it. Such was the case at Peace & Plenty Farm, where the show’s hosts were treated to a beautiful harvest dinner. The episode begins streaming on PBS.org on April 25.

Hooper said she considers gardening fitness a tool, as important as a rake or a hoe or anything else a gardener might use in pursuit of his or her favorite pastime.

“Gardeners are generous people, always passing along tips, plants and ideas. I want to pass on ‘GardenFit,’” she said. “After gardening for decades and then working with Jeff, I’m convinced it is the most valuable garden tool that gardeners can use, because it will keep them gardening their whole lives and staying healthy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

More information

American Society for Surgeries of the Hand guide to preventing hand injuries while gardening: assh.org/handcare/safety/gardening

GardenFit: PBS.org/show/gardenfit

Peace & Plenty Farm: Peaceplentyfarm.com, @peaceandplentyfarmer

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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