National Ornamental Grass Trials–Vermont 2015 results

Dr. Leonard Perry
Horticulture Professor, University of Vermont

This past winter was the best test winter yet for hardiness, plants experiencing some of the coldest soil temperatures in at least the last three decades (as long as I’ve been monitoring soil temperatures). In my northern Vermont trials site, we once again were zone 4a, with 4 days in Feb, -20F (air) or below, with   -27F (air) on Feb. 24. In colder years of the past, soil temperatures on average reached 28F, perhaps a few days to 25-26F in colder winters. In several recent winters, soil temperatures seldom dropped below 32F. This past winter, soils were 28F or below 21 days in January, and 16 in February. Of these, soils reached 25F or below 17 days in January and one day in February.   Of these latter, soils reached 22F or below 6 days in January, the coldest being 17F on Jan. 18.

It was a good test “spring” for plants too. As they were getting unhardened we had 6 days the last couple weeks of MARCH with air temperatures 10F or below, reaching 0F on Mar. 24! Four days the end of March we had SOIL temperatures 28F or below, with 22F (as in January, the lowest in over 25 years) on Mar. 23.

So it was amazing that as many grasses survived as did. Several switchgrass (Panicum) cultivars in which new plants had been replaced fall 2014 had several die. Of those living, overall results were similar to the previous year, only with slightly more growth (a bit higher and wider), and a bit better floral display on several cultivars. Most cultivars that had several plants were quite variable in growth, as in the past, among the plants. Most uniform among all plants of a cultivar were Dewey Blue and Prairie Sky. Overall best, s imilar to 2014, were Northwind, Prairie Sky, and Shenandoah. Also good this year overall was Rotstrahlbusch. one plant each were outstanding too of Rehbraun, Thundercloud, and Trailblazer (not officially in trials, and only one plant).

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium) cultivars survived much better. Best overall as in 2014 was Blue Heaven, but joining it among the best this year was Blaze and Standing Ovation (added in 2014, not officially part of the trials). All plants of each of these three cultivars not only survived, but were uniform among plants. Standing ovation at about 50cm high was half the height of the other two. Prairie Blues fared the worst, only one of the four plants surviving and rating only average.

Hopefully one final winter of hardiness data can be collected before these VT trials end spring 2016.  More grass trial site results, previous years, and photos can be found online (

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Winterize Your Garden

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Just as you make sure your car is ready for winter this time of year, so should you make sure your garden is ready.  Cleaning up the debris in your garden, removing dead foliage, and cutting back dead growth on perennials are some of the ways to ready your landscape for winter.

These are all measures that not only get your garden and flower beds ready for planting and new growth next spring, but they also prevent overwintering pests and diseases on rotting foliage.  Rake leaves from under fruit trees, especially ones that may have been diseased.  Be sure to throw out or burn any diseased foliage. Don’t put it into the compost pile.

Have you raked those fallen leaves yet? The grass is still green underneath and can use all the light possible to prepare for winter. Removing leaves also allows water and air to get to the living plants, preventing them from suffocating. For this reason, leaves, especially tough ones that pack down and rot slowly like oak leaves, do not make good mulch for perennials and should be raked off perennial beds.

Now is still the time to plant peony roots.  It’s too late to divide other perennials, but there’s still time to mulch shrubs, trees, and perennial beds with a loose organic material such as bark mulch or shredded leaves. Do it now, and you will have one less job to worry about in the spring. Mulches also help protect roots during winter from cold and fluctuating temperatures.

Don’t mulch too thickly–no more than a few inches–around woody trees and shrubs as the mulch makes a nice home for mice which chew bark. If packed around tree trunks too thick, mulch can smother the tree and cause it to die.

Speaking of mice, they as well as rabbits and other animals often chew bark of shrubs and trees during winter when they’re hungry and there is little food around.  You can spray repellents on stems of shrubs, and put tree guards around trunks of young trees.  Older trees are more resistant to their chewing. You can buy tree guards that easily slip around trunks at complete garden stores or online, or you can make them simply with short sections of hardware cloth wire mesh.  Just make sure they extend above the usual snow level.

If you have heavy deer pressure in your locale, make sure to spray any valuable shrubs or trees with repellents.  Taste and smell repellents can be purchased that will last for weeks before reapplication.  If there aren’t many deer, or there is alternative food, simply hanging human hair or bars of soap near shrubs may suffice.  If there are many deer or they’re hungry enough, only fencing may work. Unobtrusive black mesh can be purchased in heights from 5 to 8 feet.

Have you protected your evergreens from drying winter winds? In colder weather the roots of evergreens are frozen and unable to take up water. Winter winds may “desiccate” or dry them out, eventually causing them to die. This is why leaves turn brown–from lack of water.

Protect them by putting up a screen on the windy sides, usually the north and west. This can be as simple as erecting three wooden stakes and wrapping burlap around them.  But whatever you do, don’t cover the plants directly with plastic. It will heat up like a greenhouse on sunny days and cook your plants. Or, you can spray evergreens with an “antidessicant”, available from your local garden center. This provides a protective layer on the leaves that will wear off by spring.  Some years this may work or not, depending on specific conditions and climate that year.  Research results are mixed on whether or not antidessicants are effective.

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Fall Care of Roses

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Do you have some roses that you would like to have survive the upcoming winter, if at all possible, and particularly if new plantings?  Or, are you one of those who had roses going into last winter, only to have many die while those of your neighbor lived?  If either of these fits, you might consider mulching and mounding this fall.

A mulch will not only keep the soil warmer than unmulched soil, but also will prevent rapid fluctuations in soil temperatures which lead to soil heaving.  Snow is the best mulch but, as we know, can not always be counted on.  So other materials must be used.

A good mulch will settle lightly on the soil surface without excessive packing (this rules out most oak leaves), cause no harmful effects (such as from diseases or weed seeds), and be reasonably attractive and priced.  Mulches derived from plants also add organic matter to the soil.  Examples of good organic mulches are peat moss, weed-free straw (not hay, which is often weedy), cut evergreen branches, bark mulch, or wood chips.

Mulches should be piled at least a foot deep around plants, and not before mid-November, as roses need cool fall temperatures to develop some winter hardiness.  Mulch much later and you may have to contend with snow first, and valuable ground heat will have been lost.

Mounding also may be used to protect roses during winter, simply mounding loose soil or compost a foot or more high around the base of the plant.  Use loose sandy or loamy soil, as dense clay soil may cut off the oxygen supply to the roots, resulting in injured or dead plants. Mounding is preferable over mulches if you have mice that may live in organic material and chew on the rose stems over winter.

Climbing roses may be protected by removing the canes from their supports (keep this in mind in the spring when tying them up, for easy fall removal), then laying them on the ground.  Use a wire hoop or similar device to hold them in place.  Lay a piece of burlap over the canes to protect them during the spring uncovering operation, then mound soil or compost or organic matter over the canes.  Uncover the canes when they begin to grow in spring, checking them in early April or shortly after the snow melts.

Mulching or mounding protects roses in a couple of ways.  Roses vary greatly in their hardiness, depending on species and cultivars, with the more hardy not even needing protection.  You may find a list of some of these on our website of previous Vermont hardiness trials (

Most roses also are grafted onto a hardier wild rose “understock.”   Where they meet—the graft union– is the swollen area you can find at the base of many rose plants.  It is often tender and susceptible to winter injury, so needs protection.  Many recommend to even bury this graft union below the surface when planting, which also will help prevent undesirable sucker canes arising from the wild rose understock.

Before mulching or mounding roses in mid to late November, finish fall cleanup.  Remove all plant debris and diseased parts.  Pruning, although usually done in spring, may be done now to remove diseased or dead stems and to make the plant easier to mulch.  Even with protection, canes may have some dieback and need further pruning in the spring.

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Daffodils for All Gardens

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

I love spring-flowering bulbs and, of these, daffodils are my favorite.  Daffodils provide welcome and cheerful color after a long winter, require almost no care, are quite hardy, and are avoided by deer and most other mammals. Fall is the time to plant them for bloom next spring.

Daffodils can be grown in almost any garden, as long as it is not too wet.  Even there, they can be grown in better-drained raised beds, or forced overwinter in pots.  While they grow and bloom best in sun, they will tolerate part shade (4 to 6 hours of direct sun daily) from deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in winter).

Daffodils require some cold in order to bloom, but there are cultivars (cultivated varieties) requiring less cold for warmer climates.  Or gardeners in such climates can “pre-cool” the bulbs prior to planting.  Of course getting sufficient cold is not an issue in the north!

To “force” overwinter in pots, either in warmer climates or just to have some early spring blooms indoors, simply pot bulbs in the fall.  Place three large bulbs in a pot six inches wide, with the bulb tips level with, or just above, the rim of the pot.  Keep moist, but not wet, in the cool (around 40 degrees), such as in an old refrigerator or unheated garage.  Keep there for about 10 to 12 weeks.  Just don’t allow bulbs to freeze.  Remove from the cold after this period, water well as growth starts, and you should see leaves, then blooms in a few weeks.

When planting outdoors in the fall, as with most other spring-blooming bulbs, daffodils need about four to six weeks of warmer soil temperatures to establish roots.  This means the ideal time to plant is late September to mid-October in the north, a bit later in milder climates. If you miss this period though, it is still best to plant bulbs in the fall rather than try to hold them until spring.

Plant with the bulb base about six inches deep below the soil surface.  Daffodils lend themselves to informal plantings, and so individual holes randomly spaced.  These may be made easily with bulb planting tools– metal tubes on a handle.  Place either bulb fertilizer, or a source of phosphorus for root growth (rock phosphate is organic, superphosphate is not) in the holes prior to planting.  Just use a small amount in each hole, perhaps a half teaspoonful, and then some soil so the bulb isn’t resting right on the fertilizer.  Avoid bone meal as it will attract skunks and other mammals which will dig up your bulbs!

Daffodils are a huge group, with about a dozen different classifications, depending on height and type of flowers.  Flowers consist of outer petals (together called the “perianth”), and usually inner ones fused into a tube (called the “corona”).  If the corona is equal to or longer than the petals, it is called a “trumpet.”  If it is shorter, it is called a “cup.”

King Alfred was for years the standard yellow trumpet type.  Others you’ll find more commonly now are Dutch Master, Golden Harvest, and Unsurpassable.  These have the typical golden yellow flowers, compared to the all white flowers of Mount Hood, or the white petals and yellow trumpet of Las Vegas and Bravoure among others.

The cup daffodils are further divided into small and large cups.  If the cups are at least one third the length of the petals, they are large cup types.  In this group are Accent (white petals, pink cup), Fortissimo (yellow petals, red-orange cup), Ice Follies (white petals, lemon yellow cup), and Carlton (yellow petals, yellow cup) for example.  Small cup types include Barrett Browning (white petals, orange cup), Flower Record (white petals, yellow cup), and Ring of Fire (white petals, red cup).

Then there are the more exotic types such as the butterfly and double daffodils.  Butterfly types are those with the corona split and perhaps ruffled in appearance. Berlin has yellow petals, orange center.  Orangerie has white petals and orange center.  Rosado has white petals, peach center.  Sunnyside Up has white petals and light yellow center.

Double daffodils have double petals, double corona, or both. Golden Ducat (a version of King Alfred) is a gold example. Replete has white petals and orange center.  Ice King has white flowers and yellow center.  Manly is yellow throughout.

Daffodil is the correct common name according to the American Daffodil Society, with the name Narcissus referring to the scientific genus name.  Jonquil correctly refers to one species of daffodil.  Although most daffodils you’ll find are hybrids such as the examples above, there are individual species like the Jonquils that you may also consider.

One  popular species is the Poet’s daffodil — an heirloom species, having a very small yellow cup with red rim, and white petals. The Triandrus species has two or more hanging flowers per stem, with petals pointed backwards (reflexed) such as the white Thalia.  The fragrant flowers of Jonquilla daffodils don’t hang and are clustered, the petals aren’t reflexed, and leaves are cylindrical.  Jonquillas include the dwarf (5 to 6 inches high) Sun Dial or Sun Disc.

If plants have only one flower per stem, with reflexed petals, this is a Cyclamineus type.  They are often dwarf, such as the popular Jetfire with its yellow petals and red-orange corona, or the popular Tete-a-Tete with its golden yellow flowers, or Jack Snipe with white petals and contrasting yellow corona.  Geranium is a popular Tazetta hybrid, with several flowers per stem, each white with red-orange cup.

If you thought daffodils were simply those yellow spring flowers, hopefully now you see the variety among the hundreds of cultivars (cultivated varieties) available.  In fall you’ll find many for sale in garden stores and even some chain stores.  Sign up for catalogs prior to spring for ordering even more variety then, through them or online.

Keep in mind when buying bulbs that they are graded according to size, and priced accordingly.  If all you want is a mix to plant randomly in the landscape, or to “naturalize”, then cheaper bulbs will suffice.  If you want a better show with more and larger flowers, especially of new hybrids, you’ll want to pay more for the larger bulbs.  Consider planting daffodils an investment which will multiply with little, if any, further care for

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Planting a Butterfly Garden

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Butterflies are important pollinators of our food and flower crops.  To keep them coming, or if you just enjoy their beauty, provide them with the habitat they need.  Butterflies are attracted to landscapes that provide warmth, water, food, and shelter—preferably all near each other.

The first step in creating a butterfly garden is to choose the proper site for them, and preferably one where you can observe them. Butterflies are most active in warmth and bright sunlight, so pick a spot that gets plenty of sun.  The air temperature must be at least 40 to 60 degrees (F) for them to become active.  Place perches for their sunning in, or near, the garden where butterflies can land and spread their wings.  These include flat stones, wooden fence posts, and areas of mulch.

Water for butterflies should be provided in the form of a puddle, not birdbaths, ponds, or large water features. Containers could be a small trench in the soil lined with plastic, a plastic pail buried in the ground, or a dish.  Fill the container with sand.  Place a few rocks and twigs on the sand to provide landing sites within reach of the water.  Then fill the container with water to the level of the sand.

Provide the least hostile environments to butterflies—those least attractive to birds and other predators.  One way to keep birds away is with the use of inflatable snakes. Or you can place birdbaths and feeders a distance from the garden.  Sticky tape and flytraps will help catch preying insects, as you want to avoid the use of insecticides.

The same products that kill undesirable insects, including electric bug zappers, also kill butterflies and moths.  At some stage of their life cycle, all butterflies are susceptible to chemicals, even some of the least toxic ones such as biological Bt products.  Some of the feeding damage you’ll see on leaves is probably caused by caterpillars, which you need to tolerate in order to later have butterflies!  Usually such feeding is minor, and doesn’t pose a significant nor long term threat to your plants.

A wide variety of plants attract butterflies. Remember that you’ll need to provide food for the larvae, as well as the adult butterflies (mainly flower nectar).  Most species are fussy about where they lay their eggs, selecting plants from specific families that will provide appropriate food for hatching caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweeds.  Black swallowtail larvae eat leaves of dill, parsley, carrot, and fennel.  Painted lady caterpillars eat thistle leaves.  In general, caterpillars like weeds such as clover, thistle, and milkweed. If possible, leave a few weeds for them along the edge of the garden or in nearby areas.

Add some vegetables and herbs to encourage butterflies to lay eggs in the garden.  Caterpillar forage plants include parsley and ornamental cabbage, which are excellent edging plants for the flower garden.  Clover makes a good “living mulch path”.  Carrot and dill add fine-textured, attractive foliage to the flower garden.

In general, adult butterflies are attracted to red, orange, yellow, purple, and pink flowers.  Also they prefer flowers that are in clusters or flat-topped groupings, and which have short flower tubes.  Since they have evolved with flowering native plants, it is important to include these in your landscape. A good listing of native plants, by region or state, can be found from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (

To encourage butterflies to stay all summer long, select plants that flower at different times of the season to provide a continual supply of nectar. Since butterflies are near-sighted, plant  more than one of a particular flower to attract them.  Butterflies rely on smell more than sight in locating nectar plants, so scent increases the chance of a flower being visited by them.  (Their sense of smell is located in their clubbed antennae.)

Planting nectar sources in sites protected from wind  helps butterflies fly and forage in the garden with less effort.  You could plant windbreaks of trees and shrubs that would provide cover and perhaps even food.  Houses, garages, wood fences, and stone walls also serve as windbreaks.

Some butterfly species prefer, even require, overripe fruit to feed upon.  Plant some shrubs and trees that produce fruit, such as shadbush, crabapples, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and viburnum.  Just keep in mind that too many such fruit on the ground also may attract bees, hornets, and wasps.

Since species may overwinter in any of their four stages— egg, larva or caterpillar, chrysalis or pupa (which is the stage that metamorphoses), and the adult butterfly– a variety of winter cover is needed.   Butterflies overwintering in the adult stage may use the peeling bark on trees, perennial plants, and old logs or fences.  Old sheds, barns, or houses also provide overwintering sites.  Similar sites are used by overwintering pupae.  Butterfly hibernation boxes are seldom used by them, but more frequently by wasp colonies.

Butterflies overwintering as caterpillars or eggs use herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and trees.  Leave the leaf litter and dead plant parts of perennials in the garden until spring to provide cover for them from predators such as birds.

You can learn more about butterfly gardens, and how to officially certify yours, from the North American Butterfly Association (

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The Versatile Clematis Vine

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Are you looking for an easy perennial vine that can grow in various situations, has a range of flower colors in both singles and doubles, and that provides a long flowering show in spring or summer?  If so, then consider the versatile clematis.

Although there are many other common names for clematis, the most common is “virgin’s bower.”  Perhaps this was named for Queen Elizabeth I of England, the “virgin queen”, as during her reign is when a popular species was brought to England from Spain.  Yet some say this name was used before her time, and instead comes from the German legend that this vine sheltered Mary and Jesus during their flight to Egypt.  The word “bower” would fit this legend, as it comes from an old English word for dwelling, currently referring to a shady, leafy recess.  The word “clematis” is from the Greek word for a climbing vine.

Clematis is often called the “queen of the vines” as the flowers are so attractive, in singles or doubles, and from one to five or more inches across.  Some bloom early in the season, some later in summer.  In warmer climates, or with some, they may bloom again in fall. Flower colors range from deep purple to shades of blue, mauve, pink, red, yellow, cream, white, and bi-colors.  Generally they are flat, but a few are lantern-shaped.  What we call the flower petals are actually and botanically modified sepals called “tepals”.

Although there are many species and cultivars (cultivated varieties), literally hundreds, that vary in their growing needs, most that you commonly find are hardy in USDA zones 4 (an average low of -20 to -30 degrees F in winter) through 7, or even warmer.  Although some tolerate more shade (Jackmanii, Henryii, and Nelly Moser for instance), most need sites with at least six hours of full sun.

While their tops like part to full sun, a key to growing clematis well is keeping their roots cool.  Remember the old saying, “tops in the sun, feet in the shade.”  This can be done by planting in the shade of a small perennial or shrub (the vines will grow above it), or mulching.  Watering during hot spells cools the soil too.

Best soil for clematis is a well-drained loam, with a neutral to slightly acidic pH.  Water weekly during the first season, if there isn’t sufficient rain, and in subsequent years during droughts.  Fertilize plants after planting with a plant starter fertilizer, or liquid seaweed or fish emulsion.  In subsequent years, fertilize in spring with a granular organic fertilizer according to directions.  Also each spring, add a shovel-full or two of compost around plants.

Another key, that you often see in catalogs and references, to getting the most bloom from your clematis is proper pruning.  Many references list cultivars in three pruning groups or categories, depending on whether vines flower on stems from the previous season (group 1), both old and new stems (group 2), or just on current season’s growth (group 3).  This is important in the sense that if you prune group 1 for instance in spring before bloom, you’ll be cutting off this year’s blooms.

Without getting too confused as to what to prune when, just keep a couple points in mind.  Prune any dead wood off in spring, back to above new growth or emerging buds.  Since best flowering is on newer stems, for older plants remove any stems in spring that are 4 years old or more—those that are thick and woody.

If you need to reduce the size of the plant (they often get 10 feet or more high), or keep it more bushy and stimulate more flowers (such as group 2), prune in spring or early summer after bloom back to about one to two feet of growth.  For those that bloom later in the season (group 3), prune these back in early spring when you see new growth. Don’t worry about getting the pruning wrong or making a mistake, as clematis are forgiving and at most you might lose a season’s blooms.

Unless you are growing clematis as a groundcover (such as the ground clematis species), they are best grown on some sort of support.  As they attach themselves to supports by means of short leaf stems, supports shouldn’t be too wide—generally under a half inch.  Thin-wire ornamental trellises work, if tall enough.  Otherwise you can just use a fine-thread netting such as used for peas, wide-mesh fencing, twine, fishing line, or even twigs.  By using these you can grow clematis on sides of walls or around lamp posts, or let them ramble up through shrubs.

Since clematis may take a few years to reach maturity and full blooming potential, it’s best to start with plants from nurseries already a couple years old.  Choose ones in quart or preferably gallon pots.  Work plenty of compost into the soil prior to planting.  Then, be careful when planting as stems can be broken easily.  Make a wide planting hole, and plant slightly deeper (2 to 3 inches) than they were in the pot.   You can plant potted vines any time between spring and early fall.

If growing clematis in containers, unless you’re doing so in a mild climate, pots will need to be brought in over winter into a non-freezing location, such as cool garage.  Since containers should be large—at least 18 inches high and wide— you may consider casters on the bottom to move these large and heavy pots more easily.  Don’t use garden soil, but rather a potting mix, such as one containing a large percent of peat moss. Use more compact varieties for pots.

Planting several different varieties almost guarantees you a continuous sweep of color from spring to the first hard frost. You may find several species and quite a few hybrids bred from them, some being classics dating back to the 1800’s.  Early flowering (pruning category 1) include the single Nelly Moser (pale pink with carmine midstripe), ‘Duchess of Edinburgh’  (white with yellow stamens), or the double Belle of Woking (silvery mauve).

Popular ones flowering later in the season on current year’s growth (pruning category 3) are ‘Ernst Markham’ (red with gold stamens), Perle d’Azur (single pale blue with purple midstripes), ‘Hagley Hybrid’ (single pink), ‘Jackmanii’ (rich purple single), or ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ (single rose pink).

Then there are those that often bloom early and late, on both old and new growth (pruning category 2).  ‘Lincoln Star’ is an attractive bi-color with raspberry flowers edged white.  ‘Elsa Spath’ is a prolific bloomer, producing lots of lovely single blue-purple flowers. In this same group, blooming from mid-summer into fall with lantern-shaped yellow flowers is the Chinese species known as Golden Tiara.  It is followed by attractive silvery, fluffy seedheads. Another Chinese species that has lantern-shaped flowers, but lavender-blue, is the downy clematis.  It blooms in early spring, and often again in fall.

Keep the basics of growing clematis in mind—at least half day of sun, cool roots, well-drained soil, and proper support—and you should be rewarded with many years of blooms.

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Horticultural Health

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Do you do repetitive gardening chores? Strenuous garden tasks? Are you in the sun a lot? If so, you should be concerned with your “horticultural health.”  Being aware of potential health issues, how to avoid them, healthy habits to practice and proper tools to use, you should remain a healthy gardener for many years.

To avoid physical problems in general, make sure your body is conditioned prior to heavy activities, and that you have stretched.  Just as you shouldn’t work out at the gym without stretching first, neither should you garden without such.  You’ll find great exercises and tips on preparing your body for gardening in the book by Barbara Pearlman, Gardener’s Fitness:  Weeding Out the Aches and Pains.

Some of the more common “horticultural injuries” are back problems. To prevent these either don’t lift heavy objects or, if you have no choice, lift with your legs and not with your back.  Start slowly, don’t jerk, keep objects close to your body when lifting, and avoid twisting– turn your whole body instead, leading with your waist and not shoulders.  Knees should be directly above your toes when lifting, your shoulders above your knees.  Use a dolly, cart or wheelbarrow if possible, rather than carrying heavy objects. Or merely drag them on a tarp.

Perhaps the most common injuries are to fingers and toes.  Wearing gloves helps protect the former, just make sure they’re out of the way when using heavy or sharp tools.  Proper footwear not only protects feet from stone bruises, insect bites, slipping, or falling objects, but also from injuries to the soles of feet.  Work boots help to prevent the common and painful injury to soles– plantar fasciitis– such as from working on ladders or lots of digging.

Speaking of ladders, make sure they are sturdy and balanced properly on the ground.  Keep tools out of harm’s way, so you don’t inadvertently get a concussion from stepping on the end of a shovel or hoe and having it hit your head.  If working in trees, wear a hard hat.

The most common ailment while gardening is probably allergies– either skin rashes from touching certain plants or sinus allergies from wind-borne pollen. An allergy specialist can conduct tests to determine your allergies and recommend treatments or medications. Many over-the-counter allergy medications are available for you to try. Always follow directions on the package label and be aware of possible side effects. Start the medications at least a couple weeks prior to your allergy season so your body can get prepared.

Although poison ivy is the most well known plant that causes skin irritations, many other plants may as well, depending on the individual. One of the better websites for information related to plants poisonous to humans (many listings are for livestock) is from North Carolina State University (  A couple of leaflets from the University of Vermont may be helpful too (, one just on perennials (

Pesticides also may cause allergic reactions, especially if not used properly. Be sure to always use in accordance with label directions. Insect and spider bites are common and may cause allergic skin reactions, even swelling. There are many sprays and lotions available, including “organic” or naturally derived ones, to repel flying insects. With ticks increasing in most areas, and so the Lyme disease they may transmit, it is important to use such insect repellents and to dress appropriately.  Much more is available on Lyme disease and ticks from websites, such as from the Centers for Disease Control (

Depending on the year and the season, stress from cold (frostbite) or heat (stroke) may be a health concern for some people. Be sure to dress properly, and avoid working outside for long periods in extreme cold or heat. When in the sun, always use sunscreen lotion unless your skin is covered (as in winter). A sunscreen product with a rating of 30 is recommended to provide adequate protection. Sun hats and sunglasses help avoid future eye damage.  Keep a large bottle of water with you in the garden to avoid dehydration.

Do you mow grass? Trim weeds? Till Gardens? Operate a blower to clean sidewalks? Then noise may be a health concern as well for you. Use of earplugs or other ear protection headgear will help prevent hearing loss or injury.  These activities, plus mixing dry potting soils or spreading dry soil amendments, may stir up unhealthy particles.  To avoid breathing these, have a dust mask handy.  Use safety glasses to avoid eye damage when using power blowers or mowers, or working around stakes and sharp plant stems.

A problem receiving much attention in recent years, usually with activities such as computing rather than gardening, is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS). This is a type of repetitive motion or strain injury to the nervous system which may cause numb hands and fingers, tingling or “pins and needles,” cold fingers, wrist and finger pain, or reduced grasping strength. An important rule is to never work through pain.  Listen to your body.  If it aches, rest.

Some activities that contribute to this (and so should be avoided) are repetitive motions (like weeding), improper stretching prior to heavy labor, prolonged exertion, pounding or pushing with the hands, improper body positions, or low climatic temperatures. Certain hereditary factors also may make certain individuals more prone to CTS.  Alternate gardening activities frequently, perhaps every 20 or so repetitions, even if it is just raking from the other side, or taking a break from potting to water or move plants.

Whether you have CTS or want to avoid getting it, you may want to look for “ergonometric” tools the next time you go shopping. These are lightweight tools with larger, softer handles and shafts with handles attached at 90-degree angles. These tools often  have moveable parts so that the tool, and not your body, does the actual moving.

Small hand tools often have extension handles or arm cuffs to keep your wrist straight. Most tools are made so you can use either your right or left hand. Ergonometric power tools cause minimal noise and vibration.

If you’re tall, make sure handles are long enough to avoid back strain.  If you’re small or with small hands, make sure hand tools aren’t too large. For heavy jobs, get the right tools such as ratchet loppers or a sharp pruning saw for large branches.  Use knee pads or a kneeling cushion when working on the ground.  If your back is sore or you’re less agile, use a low seat or mobile garden cart to sit on while weeding.  If doing much potting or standing, consider a stool for periodic sitting.  If you need to stand for long periods, use a rubber, foam or gel mat.  These can be found in both kitchen and farm stores.

As important as all these are for your physical health, your mental health is important too.  Gardening should be fun, not a chore.  It is always a work in progress, so don’t focus on all you have to do—usually more than one person can possibly get done.  Focus on what you “did” get done, tackle small projects or amounts at a time, try to get a small project completed rather than getting sidetracked as is so easy.  Then stop to smell the flowers, taste the vegetables, and admire what you did get done.  This will lower your stress—a benefit of gardening, and a less stressed body is less subject to injuries.  Gardening is a great form of exercise yet, unlike other exercise, you’ll end up with something to show (or eat) for your efforts.

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