Gardeners are optimists. They always believe that next time, the seeds will germinate better, and the flowers will be showier, the vegetables tastier, the soil richer, the bugs fewer. What that really means, of course, is more digging, shoveling, and hoeing; more lugging soil amendments, watering cans, hoses, and sprayers; more weeding and pruning; and, at the end of the day, more aching, even strained, muscles. Rarely letting aches and pains dilute their enthusiasm, gardeners often consider discomfort to be a necessary price to pay for the best results. But is it?
Awareness is growing that gardening can take a greater physical toll than necessary. Especially revealing was the January 1995 issue of The Physician and Sportsmedicine magazine, which included gardeners on its list of 10 occupations with high rates of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful, sometimes disabling, inflammation near the base of the hand.
Fortunately, there are solutions, and they occur in three main categories: garden planning and layout, lifting, and ergonomic tools. Mostly, these solutions adapt the work or tool to the individual rather than vice versa. Likewise, keep in mind that gardening is a form of exercise. That's why taking an extra 10 minutes to warm up muscles before heading into the garden, and lifting with your legs, not your back, can help prevent injury. So can changing position and tasks frequently-don't spend hours pruning or digging.
You can incorporate some back-friendly principles into your garden design. Raised beds and trellises are easier to maintain than in-ground beds. If garden paths are wide enough, all the heavy stuff can be hauled by a four-wheeled cart or on a dolly instead of by you. Limit bed depth to no more than twice the distance you can reach without straining. To reduce water hauling, set up a rain barrel or hose near the garden-remember that water weighs more than 8 pounds per gallon. And if you are truly a planner at heart, your efforts to install an automated drip or soaker hose watering system will be rewarded with less liniment (and more hammock time).
When you're ready to plunge your shovel into the soil, remember that your spine is weaker if it's twisted, so face your shovel as you work, and avoid digging in such a way that your back could be jerked to one side.
Even the way you use your shovel makes a difference to your back. Keep the blade vertical as you insert it into the soil for better leverage when you pull back on the handle.
If you have to lift, reduce the load. According to Jim Potvin, an occupational biomechanist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, there's a trade-off between repetition and force. Most of us are better off lifting a shovel more times with less soil than fewer times with a heavy load each time. As well, you'll get more aerobic benefit and less back strain. (Potvin cautions, however, that neither high repetitions nor heavy force is safe for anyone who doesn't get regular physical exercise.)
Buying soil amendments in extra-large bags may mean savings in the pocket but not for the back. Even lifting 25 pounds can cause injury, especially if you hold the bag low or far out in front. Choose bags with handles if possible, and lift with bent knees and straight back. Set heavy objects that you'll need to lift again on a table instead of the ground. Use a garden cart or dolly to move heavy bags and containers around. (A wheelbarrow requires more effort to steady the load over three wheels.) Next best -- but only for a short distance -- is to drag a heavy bag by facing it with bent knees and straight back and pulling it while straightening your legs.
Bonnie Appleton, associate professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech, suffered bouts of carpal tunnel syndrome from her favorite gardening activity-pruning. Appleton's injury and subsequent research propelled her into the role of an expert on gardening-related repetitive stress injuries.
Her advice -- "When you work, keep your wrist as close as possible to its neutral position, the position it's in when you're not using your hand." If your wrist is bent in any other direction, you have less strength and are more prone to injury. A wrist support in the form of a splint, brace, or glove prevents your wrist from bending without inhibiting finger movement. Wider handles (1 1/2 inches in diameter) reduce hand strain for most people. Similarly, cushiony, textured grips require less effort to hold, and reduce or eliminate blisters. Appleton also recommends wrapping your thumb around the tool handle to avoid the strain of positioning it along the handle. "Vary your hand motions," she adds, "take frequent rests, and stop at the first sign of pain."
According to Appleton, well-designed tools help. Ergonomics, the applied science that deals with how humans interact with tools and tasks, has spurred new tool development. "Once we learned the best position for a tool-task combination, we knew how to change the shape of the tool to keep the wrist in a neutral position," says Jim Potvin.
Indeed, an expanding array of ergonomically designed gardening tools is available. For example, Peta Fist-Grip tools have pistol-grip handles set at right angles to the tool head. This unique design allows the wrist to remain neutral. Additional supports that attach to the forearm relieve even more pressure on the wrist. Most of these Peta tools weigh less than 8 ounces, even with stainless steel heads and shafts.
In the ultralightweight category are Fiskars "Softouch" hand tools and pruners with slip-resistant, wider-diameter handles. Two of Felco's pruners are equipped with handles that swivel against your fingers to reduce blistering and fatigue. Ratcheting pruners from Florian and Corona require less hand strength-but more movement-per cut.
When it comes to long-handled tools, the longer the handle, the better (when you're standing). The less you bend, the less chance of back strain or injury. Long-handled tools with bent handles, such as the Snake Rake and Back-Saver rake, or bent heads, such as the swan- or goose-neck hoes, allow you to work without bending.
Peta makes pistol-grip handles that can be attached to your own rakes, hoes, and hand tools to make them more comfortable for hands and backs. Other add-on handles are available from Denman & Co., which, incidentally, will customize any tool by adding almost any tool head to the handle most comfortable for you. You can also improve the grip on any tool handle with Komfort Grips, spongy tubes that slip onto the end of the handle; or My Grip, which will mold to your hand when heated.
Whenever possible, sit down while working. Scoot-n-Do provides a padded seat on wheels. Easy Kneeler has a seat on one side, padded kneeling support on the other. If you must kneel, you can also find cushioning in strap-on knee pads and pants with padded knees.
All this talk about comfort may cause some gardeners to scoff, but Appleton believes "the health of people who garden is as important as the health of the plants they nurture." This year, in the sometimes frenzied quest for a more pleasing garden, perhaps some of the extra tending is best spent on the gardeners themselves.
The American Physical Therapy Association recommends these stretches to prepare for the lifts, bends, and pulls common to working in the garden.
Upper Body Twist. Stand with hands on hips. Slowly turn upper body as far as possible to the left for a count of 5. Turn to the right for a count of 5. Repeat 10 times.
Upper Body Stretch. Stand with back straight and arms at your sides. Stretch arms straight out in front of you and hold for a count of 5. Return arms to sides. Repeat 10 times. Now, stretch arms back until shoulder blades touch. Hold for a count of 5. Return arms to sides. Repeat 10 times.
Kathy Bond Borie is a horticulturist and editor for the National Gardening Association.
Photography by John Goodman
Article published on June 23, 2008.