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Avoiding Injuries in the Garden

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Gardening
Lauren Mitchell/Flickr

Even though we might think tending our gardens is a leisure activity, raising flowers, fruits and vegetables does require a certain amount of work. It’s a bit surprising (maybe even distressing for a lot of us) when we discover that we’ve become a tad less flexible over the years. Between arthritis, cardiovascular problems and old injuries, none of us quite so supple as we had been.  The last thing we want in the garden is to hurt ourselves. Making sure that we’re working in the safest way we can isn’t difficult or intrusive, as long as we think about it, but how often do we just forget about taking care of ourselves? Probably too often.

There are so many different kinds of motions a gardener does in an ordinary day. Think about bending, digging, hauling, kneeling, mixing, planting, pruning, and pulling. The list just goes on. Any one of these’d be a chore if the end product – a wonderful garden – weren’t the goal. Any one of them could also be unpleasant if it hurt. We can do a few things to help to avoid that. 

Before getting started, do some gentle stretching exercises that’ll warm up your muscles. Gentle stretches are significantly less strenuous than the ones you do in the gym, but they’re usually enough to get you prepared for your gardening workout.

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It might not seem that carrying a bag of soil or fertilizer would be so terribly difficult, but those bags can be heavy. Is it really necessary to buy them in 50-pound weights? Sure, purchasing in bulk is usually less expensive. On the other hand, it’d be a false economy if it damaged our tender joints. Besides, 20 pounds of fertilizer goes a long way. Whenever it’s necessary to carry something heavy, remember - your legs are stronger than your back. Use those big muscles in the thighs when you need to lift anything weighty. Don’t bend at the waist; bend your knees instead.

When you’re carrying something bulky or heavy, be sure to hold it as close to your body as you can.

When you need to move tools, plants, or containers, you might consider using a cart rather than a wheelbarrow. Four wheels are more stable, and that makes it less likely you’d get hurt. Garden carts aren’t cheap, unfortunately, so take a look in the garage. Is there an old red wagon, the kind kids get, sitting in a corner, forgotten? Put that toy to work!

Gardening does require a lot of repetitive motions. If possible, every 20 minutes or so, alternate the tasks that take the same repeated actions with other tasks that use a different set of muscles.

At times, the simplest actions can cause the biggest problems. Take watering, for instance. Yes, irrigation systems are installed in most yards, still, there are occasions when a plant needs to be hand-watered, like when it’s just been planted.

Water isn’t light; it weighs 8.8 pounds per gallon. When a two-gallon watering can is full, that’s more than 17½ pounds plus the weight of the can itself. A smaller container might be a lot more manageable.

How about your hose; is it so heavy-duty that it’s unwieldy? Lighter ones are available. They’d be impractical for a professional landscaper, but for a home gardener they’re fine.

It’s possible to adapt the tools you already have & make them easier to use. Padding their handles makes them thicker - less likely to cause cramping in your hands.  You can spray a rubberized coat on them to make them less slippery. Online, or even at some home stores, you can find ergonomic adaptors as well as gardening tools.

This isn’t a one size fits all situation. Try out any tool or adaptor before you buy it; something’s ergonomic only it works for you.

Finally, asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness or old age; it shows that we’re in tune with our bodies and smart enough to know our limitations.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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