When you’re gardening, a few commonsense precautions can mean the difference between enjoyment and injury. Gardening can be tough on skin, muscles, and joints, but if you follow good practices and procure the right tools and equipment
, you’ll be able to garden safely now and for years to come.
Stretching: The first thing to remember is that gardening is exercise, just like running or aerobics. To prevent muscle strain, it helps to do a few simple stretching exercises after your gardening session. (You don’t need to “warm up” with stretches before you start gardening, though.)
If you already incorporate stretches into your exercise routine, simply do them after gardening, too. If stretching isn’t part of your routine, ask for a demonstration at your local gym, health center, or YMCA.
Good gardening posture: Think about it—a lot of gardening activities almost require you to stand on your head! Weeding and planting are two examples of gardening tasks that you do with your hands and face close to the ground. If you do these activities standing up and bent double, you can put a tremendous strain on your back. And unless you come from a culture that habitually relaxes by squatting on heels instead of sitting in a chair, squatting down will feel uncomfortable, and put undue stress on your knees.
Instead, bring yourself closer to ground level in a comfortable manner. The best choice is kneeling and it’s helpful to cushion your knees with a waterproof kneeling pad or individual kneepads. Kneepads, which strap on over your jeans, are less cushioned than a kneeling pad but offer the advantage of mobility—they move with you as you work your way down the bed or row. Some kneelers are designed with side supports, so you can use them with the cushion on the ground as a kneeling pad, or flip the whole device with the other end up to convert it to a handy garden seat.
If you have knee troubles or reduced mobility, there are three other options:
A convertible kneeler—just use the seat at all times.
A sturdy plastic bucket with a handle and a padded lid. You can carry seed packets and supplies in the bucket, then sit on it while you do your gardening chores.
A mobile gardening “chair,” or “tractor scoot,” which is basically a tractor seat on wheels. The seat is broad and comfy, and you can scoot along the row or bed as you work.
Tools: Choose tools that work for you. Using a poorly designed tool can make gardening twice the work it should be. And if you have carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, or limited strength, choosing the right tools is essential. Ergonomic tools have been designed for comfort and ease of use. These tools do their job with much less effort on your part.
Whether you choose an ergonomic tool or a standard design, make sure you “try” before you buy. Practice making the motions you’d normally do with the tool while you’re still in the store. If it’s a trowel, a pair of pruners, or a hand fork, make sure the grip is comfortable. If it’s a long-handled tool, think about whether it’s too short or long for you to use easily. Check the weight and balance. Better to look a little silly in the store than risk blisters or worse in the garden!
One last thing about tools, and that’s basic tool safety. A sharp tool like a pair of pruners can actually be dangerous if the blades are dull, since you have to exert tremendous pressure to get them to work, and the dull blades can slip under the force, cutting you instead of the branch you’re pruning. Of course, they can also be dangerous when they’re sharp! Keep sharp tools out of the reach of children at all times. And remember that any tool is a hazard if you leave it out in the garden where someone can trip on it, or worse, step on the blade and hit themselves on the head with the handle. Always put your tools away after you’ve finished with them. As for power tools like chainsaws, use them responsibly if you want to stay out of the emergency room.
Thorns. Brambles. Stickers. Sharp sticks and stones. Sunburn. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac. Ticks. Gardeners face a whole range of minor but miserable hazards, but fortunately, it’s easy to avoid injury and discomfort if you take a few simple precautions.
First, wear protective clothing. Jeans or other long pants, sturdy shoes or boots, a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat to protect your head, face, and neck from UV damage are basic gardening wear. If it’s hot out, choose a lightweight shirt and a straw or cotton hat with good ventilation. Remember that even a hat won’t provide complete protection, so use sunscreen and don’t forget your UV-blocking sunglasses.
Gloves are the gardener’s ally, protecting hands from cuts, scrapes, and rash-inducing plants like poison ivy. Choose specially coated “rose gloves” or “thorn-proof gloves” if you know you’ll be working around plants with thorns or spines.
Those long pants and sleeves are a good defense against both poison ivy and the like, and ticks. But you still need to take a commonsense approach: Check both your clothing and your skin for ticks when you come in after a gardening session, and wash your hands with a poison-ivy oil remover such as Tecnu before you rub your eyes or touch bare skin.
Preventing heatstroke and dehydration: Overheating is a danger whenever you exercise 264in hot, humid weather, and hot weather makes dehydration an issue as well. Using good sense is the best prevention for both hazards. Take a chilled bottle of water to the garden with you, and remember to pause and drink frequently. You can also hold the cold bottle against your neck and forehead to cool off fast, or pour some of the chilled water onto a bandanna and tie it around your neck.
When it’s hot out, do your gardening early in the day and in the evening, when the temperatures start to drop. Avoid the peak heat hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wear a hat to keep the sun off your head, and make yourself take breaks.
First aid: Carrying a few sizes and shapes of adhesive bandages and some analgesic/antiseptic swabs or pads in your pocket is always a smart idea. After all, gardening is a contact sport! With just these items on hand, you can immediately clean and bind up minor cuts, punctures, and scrapes.
What about bites and stings? Unless you happen on a nest of yellow jackets or ants, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be bitten or stung by an insect or spider. Ant bites are aggravating, but unless you live in areas with fire ants (in which case you already know to watch out for nests), they’re more of an aggravation than anything else.
A bee or wasp sting hurts. Pull or scrape out the stinger if it’s a bee sting, and whether it’s a bee or wasp sting, put a paste of baking soda and water on the site of the sting.
If you’re seriously allergic to bee and/or wasp stings, take every precaution and always carry a bee sting kit, which usually contains an antihistamine pill and an adrenaline or epinephrine injection to counter the allergic reaction. Talk to your doctor and make sure you know how to use the kit before you end up in a situation where you need it.