On a warm, sunny spring morning, you bound out of the house, eager to get busy digging, planting, weeding, and taking all the other steps to getting your garden started for the season. All day you keep at it, standing, stooping, leaning, kneeling, and crouching. The next morning, every muscle aches and you need time to recover before you can even think about gardening again. Even worse if, like so many of us, you aren’t as young and limber as you used to be.
Does this mean you should give up the pleasures of homegrown tomatoes and fresh-picked bouquets? Not if you set up your garden to avoid the strain, use smart tools designed to lighten the work, and take time to prepare your body. We asked gardeners from the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Gardens to give their input on how they face challenging obstacles yet still are able to plant and tend their plots. Apply their insights to your efforts, and take the ache out of gardening.
Okay, these may seem pretty obvious to you, if you stop to think about them. The problem is, most of us don’t practice them until after we’re in desperate need of massage therapy just to stand upright.
Set attainable goals. We’ve all been in this position: On the one weekend you have completely free, you plan to turn the soil and plant all of your spring garden before sundown on Sunday. No matter how you feel by Saturday afternoon. Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, set modest goals for each portion of the day and assess your progress and how you feel every couple of hours.
Pace yourself. Remember that story about the tortoise and the hare? You will work longer and stronger if you go at a task steadily than if you push to finish a big project.
Take breaks. Every hour, give yourself 5 minutes to stretch, sit down, and drink to replenish the fluids lost from your exertion. You’ll more than compensate for those idle 5 minutes with increased productivity during the other 55 minutes of the hour. Place chairs in the shade around your garden so you are reminded to relax in them.
Beware of bending and reaching. Physical therapists, chiropractors, and other experts in the field will tell you that you are most vulnerable to injury when you are bending at the waist and reaching. You’re also more prone to losing your balance and falling in this position. If you must bend, do so with your knees rather than your back. And position yourself close enough to your task so that you are not reaching. Even pulling weeds puts more strain on your lower back than you realize.
Ask for help. This may be the toughest advice to take when you are determined to make it through your list of chores. But if you have a heavy or awkwardly balanced object to move, get assistance from a friend or neighbor. Whether you are lifting something alone or with help, hold it at your side or close to your body in front to avoid back strain.
Back, knees, neck, hands. All of us are likely to feel sore in these areas after a busy day in the garden. But many gardeners are limited by chronic pain (even arthritis) and must avoid putting any strain on their sore spot. If you fall into this category, the ideas on the following pages will help you avoid or at least reduce joint pain.
Raise your garden. We almost always recommend growing in raised beds—typically 4 to 8 inches above the ground. But if you can’t bend or kneel for any length of time, follow the example of the Buehler Enabling Garden, which has beds that are 2 to 3 feet high. Vertical wall gardens or tabletop gardens are a smart option for gardeners who can only work sitting down.
Or plant in pots. Vegetables, flowers, even fruit trees grow well in containers, which you can place where they are comfortable for you to reach. Use pots that are at least 24 inches across, says Buehler Garden director Gene Rothert, to prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. Place the pots on caddies with casters so they’re easy to move. Hang baskets from tree limbs, fence posts, and similar stands, and you have your garden just about at eye level.
Cushion your knees. Use a foam-padded knecler (two make an even better cushion) or knee pads to prevent knee and backaches when planting seedlings, weeding, cultivating in tight spots, or picking low-growing crops. We’ve worn out quite a few kneelers here at OG, and we recommend the kind that flips over to become a seat and has handlebars that help you stand up after you’ve been on your knees for a while.
Work with long-handled tools. Whether you’re weeding, cultivating, or watering, you stay more upright and can even work sitting down when you do these tasks with tools that have 3- to 4-foot-long handles. But you don’t have to buy a shedful of special new tools. A long-handled barbecue fork, for instance, works well for cultivating, suggests Nancy Chambers of New York’s Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Rely on a ratchet. If pain in your hands and fingers makes gardening uncomfortable, use chopsticks to easily open holes for seeds and transplants. For all kinds of pruning jobs, get lightweight ratchet tools (see “Handy Helpers,” below), which increase pressure on branches and limbs with no more effort from you.
Switch often. Avoid repetitive-motion injuries by dividing up each task into sections that allow you to switch activities and posture often, advises Teresia Hazcn, Registered Horticultural Therapist and coordinator of the Legacy Therapeutic Gardens in Oregon. For instance, weed one raised bed, then stand up and water it before weeding the next bed.
Listen to your body. Professional athletes get paid to play with pain. But you garden because it’s fun (remind yourself of that next time you are struggling to pull an especially resistant weed). When you are hurting, your body is sending you a message to back off. Pay attention, and you can count on completing your to-do list this season, and for years to come.
Horticulture as therapy. No favorite activity should be curtailed by the barrier of a physical limitation, especially gardening. The benefits to the mind, body, and spirit are unmatched. Smell, sight, touch, taste, sound—they all come into play in the garden.
Gardening is a strenuous activity, so your body needs to loosen up before you start working it. Take a brisk walk to get your heart pumping and muscles ready to perform. Or try this routine developed for Organic Gardening by Barbara Benagh, a Boston yoga instructor. Ideally, Benagh says, start these exercises at least a month before the gardening season begins to strengthen your back and other potential sore spots and improve your balance.
Reclining leg stretch. Lie on your back with straight legs. Raise one leg 90 degrees from the floor and hold your foot with a strap or your hands. Keep your knee bent if you are unable to raise the leg 90 degrees. Breathe steadily and hold for one minute before releasing. Repeat the exercise with your other leg.
Back strengthener. Lie face down with your knees bent and arms at your sides. Breathe in as you raise your head and chest; breathe out while raising your arms and legs as high as possible. Hold for three breaths before releasing. Repeat twice more.
Upper-back tension melter. Standing, join your hands behind your back. Stretch your arms back and up behind you. Breathe in and hinge forward from your hips. Keep your hands clasped and stretch your armsoverhead. Hold one minute.
Neck and spine stretch. Grip something solid (like the knobs of a door) and step back a couple of feet. Slowly hinge backward from your hips until you feel yourself hanging. Adjust your feet to maximize the stretch in your back and shoulders. Hold one minute.
These tools are designed to help gardeners overcome physical limitations.
Difficulty bending and reaching
- The Versatile Rain Wand from Yardiac extends your reach up to 30 inches.
- The Dual-Flo Multi-Function Nozzle from Choice Products delivers the perfect water stream for every job.
- Long S hooks from Garden Artisans make it easier to care for hanging baskets.
- Long Reach Pruners from GrowTech let you handle pruning tasks from a distance.
- The E-Z Reacher and the Easy Gripper from Walt Nicke Co. are two tools that help you retrieve items and pick up garden debris without bending.
Limited wrist and hand strength
- PowerGear pruners, loppers, and hedge shears from Fiskars (endorsed by the Arthritis Foundation) and ratchet-cut pruners from Walt Nicke Co. and Florian multiply your strength up to seven times.
- Radius NRG (Natural Radius Grip) hand tools from Gardenscape Tools. ARS Hand Pruners from GrowTech, PETA Easi-Grip tools from Gardening with ease, and Good Grips hand tools from OXO all have innovative handle designs that minimize stress.
- The Good Grips Kneeling Mat from OXO folds for compact storage.
- The Knee ‘n Back Pad from Walt Nicke Co. offers extra-thick padding and an antislip surface.
- The Winged Weeder from Creative Enterprises let you cultivate without bending over.
- The Garden Kneeler & Seat from Step2 and the Easy Kneeler and Seat from Walt Nicke Co. have sturdy handles that let you stand up without straining your back. Both double as a resting bench.