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


Oh, My Aching...
Back, knees, neck, hands. All of us are likely to feel sore in these areas after a busy day in the garden. But many gardeners are limited by chronic pain (even arthritis) and must avoid putting any strain on their sore spot. If you fall into this category, the ideas on the following pages will help you avoid or at least reduce joint pain.

Raise your garden. We almost always recommend growing in raised beds—typically 4 to 8 inches above the ground. But if you can't bend or kneel for any length of time, follow the example of the Buehler Enabling Garden, which has beds that are 2 to 3 feet high. Vertical wall gardens or tabletop gardens are a smart option for gardeners who can only work sitting down.

Or plant in pots. Vegetables, flowers, even fruit trees grow well in containers, which you can place where they are comfortable for you to reach. Use pots that are at least 24 inches across, says Buehler Garden director Gene Rothert, to prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. Place the pots on caddies with casters so they're easy to move. Hang baskets from tree limbs, fence posts, and similar stands, and you have your garden just about at eye level.

Cushion your knees. Use a foam-padded knecler (two make an even better cushion) or knee pads to prevent knee and backaches when planting seedlings, weeding, cultivating in tight spots, or picking low-growing crops. We've worn out quite a few kneelers here at OG, and we recommend the kind that flips over to become a seat and has handlebars that help you stand up after you've been on your knees for a while.

Work with long-handled tools. Whether you're weeding, cultivating, or watering, you stay more upright and can even work sitting down when you do these tasks with tools that have 3- to 4-foot-long handles. But you don't have to buy a shedful of special new tools. A long-handled barbecue fork, for instance, works well for cultivating, suggests Nancy Chambers of New York's Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.

Rely on a ratchet. If pain in your hands and fingers makes gardening uncomfortable, use chopsticks to easily open holes for seeds and transplants. For all kinds of pruning jobs, get lightweight ratchet tools (see "Handy Helpers," below), which increase pressure on branches and limbs with no more effort from you.

Switch often. Avoid repetitive-motion injuries by dividing up each task into sections that allow you to switch activities and posture often, advises Teresia Hazcn, Registered Horticultural Therapist and coordinator of the Legacy Therapeutic Gardens in Oregon. For instance, weed one raised bed, then stand up and water it before weeding the next bed.

Listen to your body. Professional athletes get paid to play with pain. But you garden because it's fun (remind yourself of that next time you are struggling to pull an especially resistant weed). When you are hurting, your body is sending you a message to back off. Pay attention, and you can count on completing your to-do list this season, and for years to come.

Horticulture as therapy. No favorite activity should be curtailed by the barrier of a physical limitation, especially gardening. The benefits to the mind, body, and spirit are unmatched. Smell, sight, touch, taste, sound—they all come into play in the garden.