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 (plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/category/poisonous-plants/). A couple of leaflets from the University of Vermont may be helpful too (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/pubs/oh20.htm), one just on perennials (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/pubs/oh63harm.html).
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 (www.cdc.gov/lyme/).
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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