Gardening Articles: Care :: Tools & Equipment

Gardening Safely and Sensibly

by Kathy Bond Borie


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.

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 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).

Smart Digging and Lifting

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.

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