By Barbara Finley
UCCE El Dorado County Master Gardener
The hands ache, the knees creak, the poor aching back — but look at that beautiful garden! The roses are blooming and oh, so many bees around the lavender … and, yes, there is a butterfly! Plums ripen, pears and apples coming along, but the grass … well, maybe that needs a little work. Everything is looking good, but how’s your body doing?
Gardening can be very rewarding, but it can also take a toll on our bodies if we are not careful. Dr. Nusbaum of Back Clinics of Canada reports that four out of five Canadians will seek out medical attention for back pain. So, it’s important in gardening to protect our backs, as well as wrists, hands and knees — not just to keep gardening, but to enjoy it.
How, then, can we go about this? Avoid overexertion. Pace yourself, and ask for help when you need it. Hydrate, especially on these warm summer days. Have you considered stretching before beginning your gardening? A few simple exercises can be very helpful to limber up the joints: try thigh stretching, hamstring and low back stretches and a few side stretches.
The way we move as we work is important. For instance, bend your knees and keep your back straight when picking something up. When lifting any weighty objects, keep your back straight and keep the weight close as you stand up. Avoid twisting when carrying something, and pivot instead. When kneeling, use knee pads to help with comfort of your knees as well as to reduce strain on your back. Avoid sitting directly on the ground to pull those dreaded weeds. Sitting on a low stool and bending over will reduce the strain; when you are ready to stand up, put both palms on the seat and push yourself up.
Proper tools are essential for the gardener. Newer models of tools are more ergonomically designed to benefit the joints. Consider a comfortable handle length for a rake or garden spade. Use a wheelbarrow to carry heavy bags of soil or mulch or use, as I do, a child’s wagon. Fill bags only half full of garden waste to keep them lighter and more manageable, and then wheel them. Cushioned handles make the grip of hand tools more functional, as well as comfortable. Using electrical tape wrapped around bubble wrap or foam padding is a great do-it-yourself, light-weight tool adaptation. Keeping tools appropriately sharpened is a huge help.
Alternatives to make gardening easier and more comfortable for the body include the use of raised beds, window boxes and gardening pots; these can also be decorative additions to your home landscape.
Gardening can cause stress and strain on our bodies. Gardening is an essential activity for those of us with a love of flowers, fresh fruit and vegetables, and attractive yet functional yards. The goal is to protect our bodies and allow ourselves to continue pleasurable gardening. Try some of these ideas to help you keep moving comfortably and prolong your enjoyment of working in the garden.
Master Gardeners are available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling (530) 621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at our office, 311 Fair Lane in Placerville. Master Gardeners are also available to answer garden questions at local farmers markets. For more information about our public education classes and activities, go to our Master Gardener website at ucanr.edu/sites/EDC_Master_Gardeners. Sign up to receive our online notices and e-newsletter at ucanr.edu/mgenews. You can also find us on Facebook.