In the Garden:
New England
July, 2005
Regional Report

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Using a 4-wheeled cart is easier on your back than a wheelbarrow because you don't have to steady it.

Techniques for Easier Gardening

Gardening is great exercise and the pleasure of tending plants outdoors is valuable mood medicine as well. But let's face it, all that digging, shoveling, hoeing, weeding, and lugging bags of amendments and hoses and sprayers and watering cans takes its toll. I know the warning signs when my back is about to say "enough" and it's time to take a break and stretch. But this spring it took 3 visits to the chiropractor to ease my neck discomfort, all from a frenzied afternoon of hoeing weeds. I figure we all could stand to be reminded that there are some techniques we can use to reduce the chance of injuring ourselves doing what we love.

Sensible Garden Planning
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 the width of planting beds 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).

Smart Digging and Lifting
Your spine is weaker if it's twisted, so face the back of 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. And alternate the foot that you use to push down on the top of the shovel blade.

If you must 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. Also, you'll get more aerobic benefit and less back strain.

Buying soil amendments in extra-large bags may mean savings in your pocket but not for your 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.) 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.

Friendly Tools
With 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 or bent heads allow you to work without as much bending.

When using hand tools, 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 and doesn't inhibit finger movement.

Well-designed, ergonomic tools can make a difference. (Ergonomics is the applied science that deals with how our bodies interact with tools and tasks.) Wider tool 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. Wrap your thumb around the tool handle to avoid the strain of positioning it along the handle. Some trowels and other hand tools are available with pistol-grip handles set at right angles to the tool head. This design allows the wrist to remain in a neutral position for less strain.

Look for pruners with padded handles, ratcheting mechanisms, even smaller sizes for smaller hands. Some pruners have handles that swivel, which reduces blistering and hand fatigue.

You can even make your old tools more comfortable by sliding bicycle grips over the handles or wrapping them with duct tape. Whatever you use, take frequent breaks and shake out your hands.

Whenever possible, sit down while working instead of bending over. Those seats on wheels are not just for the older set. When you kneel, use a cushioned knee pad -- even strap-on pads if you really want to embarrass your kids.

In the sometimes overzealous quest for a more beautiful garden, some extra tending might best be spent on the gardeners themselves!


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