More Gain Less Strain

Before overdoing it this year, learn how to prepare your beds—and your body—for pain-free gardening and maximum enjoyment.

By Zazel Loven

Photography by Christa Neu


On a warm, sunny spring morning, you bound out of the house, eager to get busy digging, planting, weeding, and taking all the other steps to getting your garden started for the season. All day you keep at it, standing, stooping, leaning, kneeling, and crouching. The next morning, every muscle aches and you need time to recover before you can even think about gardening again. Even worse if, like so many of us, you aren't as young and limber as you used to be. Does this mean you should give up the pleasures of homegrown tomatoes and fresh-picked bouquets? Not if you set up your garden to avoid the strain, use smart tools designed to lighten the work, and take time to prepare your body. We asked gardeners from the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Gardens to give their input on how they face challenging obstacles yet still are able to plant and tend their plots. Apply their insights to your efforts, and take the ache out of gardening.

Simple Rules
Okay, these may seem pretty obvious to you, if you stop to think about them. The problem is, most of us don't practice them until after we're in desperate need of massage therapy just to stand upright.

Set attainable goals. We've all been in this position: On the one weekend you have completely free, you plan to turn the soil and plant all of your spring garden before sundown on Sunday. No matter how you feel by Saturday afternoon. Don't fall into this trap. Instead, set modest goals for each portion of the day and assess your progress and how you feel every couple of hours.

Pace yourself. Remember that story about the tortoise and the hare? You will work longer and stronger if you go at a task steadily than if you push to finish a big project.

Take breaks. Every hour, give yourself 5 minutes to stretch, sit down, and drink to replenish the fluids lost from your exertion. You'll more than compensate for those idle 5 minutes with increased productivity during the other 55 minutes of the hour. Place chairs in the shade around your garden so you are reminded to relax in them.

Beware of bending and reaching. Physical therapists, chiropractors, and other experts in the field will tell you that you are most vulnerable to injury when you are bending at the waist and reaching. You're also more prone to losing your balance and falling in this position. If you must bend, do so with your knees rather than your back. And position yourself close enough to your task so that you are not reaching. Even pulling weeds puts more strain on your lower back than you realize.


Ask for help. This may be the toughest advice to take when you are determined to make it through your list of chores. But if you have a heavy or awkwardly balanced object to move, get assistance from a friend or neighbor. Whether you are lifting something alone or with help, hold it at your side or close to your body in front to avoid back strain.