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Growing plants in raised beds is one sure way to save on ga rdener’s backache. When we’ve raised the soil to a higher level for planting, maintenance and, of course, the harvest, there’s considerably less painful bending and awkward twisting. If the bed’s four feet wide or less, then stretching to reach its center won’t be as difficult, either.

But even with the help that a raised garden will definitely provide, there’s still the chance we might need a little additional assistance. Those of us who are a trifle less flexible than we were, say 10 or 20 years ago, we’ll probably be interested in finding tools that have an ergonomic design. Even if we’re not yet in our 60’s, 70’s or 80’s, there are health conditions that can make gardening difficult. Arthritis, for sure, but cardiovascular problems, even diabetes can interfere when we’re growing plants.  Whatever makes gardening easier is bound to be welcome.

“Ergonomics” is a term that’s become widely (and too often inaccurately) used.  At times it reminds me of the meaningless phrase “all natural”. I’m afraid that if it’s not used correctly, it might devolve into something without much more significance than that.

But ergonomics is most definitely a science. It examines how our physical posture can help us or hurt. It’s also the science that looks at how objects can be designed or arranged so people can use them easily and safely. If you’re considering a specific chair or a tool, whatever, the ergonomics of that object has to do with what part, or what quality of its design makes it better to use.

Injury deterrence is the bare minimum. At the very least, if an item’s been designed ergonomically, it should not only reduce accidents or injuries, it should enhance the performance of whoever’s using it. It should never cause discomfort or physical distress. Something might be designed properly, but it might still not be exactly right for a specific individual.

When a tool’s been designed ergonomically, and here I’m really talking about gardening tools, it’ll probably have a non-slip handle that’s padded. Its diameter will be around an inch and a half.

It’s easier on the joints if you don’t have to clench your hand into a fist to hold something. These all help to prevent blisters, too. No matter how young or old, fit or infirm you are, blister prevention is a very good thing.

Two of the guiding principles in ergonomics are “bend the tool, not the user” and “try to keep the joint in a neutral position”.

The first is pretty clear. For instance, when a tool has a long handle, the shaft should be bent so its upper part’s more horizontal than the lower part. A neutral position is one where the body’s aligned so there’s minimal stress on joints. It’s the opposite of an awkward position.

Spring action hand tools, like pruners or loppers, can be lifesavers, especially for people with arthritis or other joint problems. When it comes to reaching overhead, to prune a branch for instance, why not use an implement with a long handle? It’s not hard to find saws and pruners with handles that extend.  

Even tools that aren’t strictly speaking ergonomic can be used in a way that’ll minimize the risk of stress or injury. Take a wheelbarrow, for instance. Pushing a load of soil, mulch or compost is certainly easier than attempting to carry it. Since a large number of wheelbarrows have a single wheel, front and center, it’s critical to have all the weight evenly balanced. This might not be as easy as it sounds, and it’s possible to wrench a muscle simply trying to keep the contents stable. If there are two wheels though, balance is far easier to maintain, so there’s less risk of getting hurt.

If you’re going to be out in the garden, remember – this is not a place to hurt yourself. Try some gentle stretching before and after working outside. And since you’ll be outside, don’t forget your hat and sunscreen.

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