How do you feel after a long day in the garden or on the farm? You may be proud of the work you’ve done or maybe you’re excited about the new shoots you can see growing in the ground. But are you also a little sore and sore? Do you have a torticollis in the neck and tightness in the shoulders? A crooked back, creaky knees, tight hamstrings…it comes with gardening territory.
Madeline Hooper knows your planting pain. She herself felt it too. The longtime public relations executive turned to gardening after retirement, and she spent years growing her own garden in upstate New York, spending hours outdoors. But as happy as she felt rummaging through the dust, her body was paying the price. So a friend recommended that she find a personal trainer. The next day, she called Jeff Hughes, a longtime fitness trainer for celebrity clients. “Once I started working with Jeff, he got a chance to really understand what I was doing,” says Hooper. “And within a month, the stress, the aches, the pains, everything was gone, because I was moving my body better.”
Hughes’ fitness philosophy is all about creating routines and following some basic guidelines. Clients have often told him he should write a book, but he jokes that “my thing is so much common sense that a book would be a brochure”. When asked about a universal tip that can help most backyard gardeners, his go-to advice was: Pay attention to your posture. Keep your ears aligned with your shoulders, your shoulders aligned with your hips, and your hips aligned with your knees. Aim for this as a neutral position, and you’ll avoid a lot of trouble. Small but mighty.
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Yet, common sense or not, the stretches and “corrections” Hughes prescribed Hooper were so effective that they sparked an idea. How could they help other people with similar problems? Although Hooper is new to the world of television, Hughes has already spent time in front of the camera, playing small roles in shows such as days of our lives and All my children. Taking this garden-based advice on the small screen seemed like a natural fit for the pair. Of the, GardenFit was born.
Now streaming on PBS.org, the show involves Hughes and Hooper going to a different garden or farm in each episode. They travel the country to meet farmers and gardeners who are just as passionate about the outdoors. Viewers tour the different areas of the garden and guests talk about what they grow and why. Growers talk about their physical health issues as well as how their gardens contribute to their mental well-being. It’s a balancing act.
There are Farm Peace and Abundance in northern California, led by Melinda Price and Simon Avery. The couple went from a city lifestyle to becoming the largest producer of saffron in North America. But harvesting over half a million saffron flowers per season is no small feat. Saffron crocuses grow quite low to the ground, while Price and Avery both stand over six feet tall. All that curvature and curvature was becoming a problem. “I needed to fix the way they bent and stood up, without hurting their backs,” says Hughes. “The first time he stood up Simon said ‘Oh!’ And he just got it.
There’s also Brooke Bridges from Soul Fire Farm in New York, a community farm committed to food sovereignty and incorporating traditional African techniques into the cultivation of crops. While managing the farm, roaming 80 acres of narrow rows, Bridges was also pregnant and trying to ease her foot and ankle pain. By adding some simple stretches and replacing her restrictive rain boots with more comfortable sneakers, Hughes was able to make a big change for the new mom.
Throughout the season, Hooper and Hughes also visit a Japanese-style Zen garden in Connecticut to help owner Bob Levine get rid of his knee pain during weeding and start practicing Tai Chi again. At 95, Peggy Walsh is the show’s oldest guest. She begins each morning with a barefoot walk in her vegetable garden. One of the biggest farms they visit, Ziibimijwang Farm in northern Michigan, sits on 300 acres of tribal land. Garden manager Rosebud Schneider delves into the history and meaning of her “three sisters” cultures (corn, beans, and squash), reconnecting with her ancestors by cultivating the land.
The fixes suggested by Hughes are often simple and quick. He designs them so they can be done anytime and anywhere, without the need for a gym or other equipment. But the goal is to enjoy your time outdoors, not to dread work because of how it makes you feel. “One of the reasons we’ve been to so many different gardens and seen people aged 30 to 95, of all different shapes and sizes, is that we wanted to inspire people that it’s that simple” , says Hooper. The couple chose guests who really enjoy gardening and who would benefit from understanding how to use their bodies better. “Their bodies might be their best gardening tool.”
After their first visits, Hooper and Hughes return to the farms four weeks later to see how their students have been doing. Either way, the farmers’ aches and pains are gone and their gardens are thriving. Hughes hopes people watching the show will recognize a problem or two they might be suffering from and work to fix it. Gardeners and farmers are already “used to doing something and being a little bit patient, nurturing it and watching it grow,” says Hughes. “Take four weeks and try to change a few things. I would love for everyone to start feeling better on the pitch.
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For Hooper, the joy of the show is to see how passionate the guest farmers and gardeners are about their plots and how connected they are to their land. The show is not just about physical fitness, it also incorporates the mental fitness aspect of being outdoors, tying it all together in a holistic sense of well-being. “The solitude and peace of working on a plant, pulling a tomato…it’s an exciting feeling that we’re contributing to the planet, even in our tiny little space,” says Hooper, who hopes people who look see that there are no rules when gardening, as long as it makes you happy.
“All the people we visited were pioneers,” she says. “They really created their environment.” Home viewers can also do this. Plant what you like and watch your posture. Everything else will work out.