How to Enjoy Your Garden and Keep Healthy

I co-wrote this article for the May 2014 edition of Vantage Point Magazine with Anna Maynard from the Godalming Chiropractic Health Centre.

Gardening: How to Have Fun and Prevent Injuries!

Anna Maynard from the Chiropractic Health Centre and Beth Otway from Godalming in Bloom have joined forces to help you enjoy gardening safely and avoid injury while working outdoors.

Gardening is a fascinating hobby; as well as stimulating your mind and senses it is wonderful exercise for your body. Gardeners often find that they end up doing more work than they intended as it is such a rewarding activity; the idea of having the lawn mown before it rains or being able to enjoy a scented vase of sweet peas later in the summer if you sow the seeds now can really spur us gardeners on! Gardening is an ideal exercise for everyone, from the super-fit who may enjoy a spot of double digging, to someone looking to undertake moderate exercise by scarifying a lawn or dividing the plants in their herbaceous border, to the elderly and disabled looking for lighter exercise who could sow seeds in containers or raised beds, or prune a trained fruit tree. With the right equipment, frequent breaks and rests you can accomplish your maximum gardening ability without damaging yourself or your garden.

It’s wonderful to share the joy of gardening and to garden with a friend or family member, helping a disabled or elderly person in the garden can bring a very special friendship and shared joy. As well as spending time together in the fresh air you also both benefit from the exercise gardening provides as well as the positivity of sowing seeds or growing vegetables, fruits, herbs or flowers. Gardeners always have so much to look forward to, whether it’s seeing a new variety of dahlia flowering, eating the first home-grown tomatoes of the season or knowing you’ll enjoy a delicious apple later in the year.

Gardening involves movements and actions that are very different to those we carry out as we go about our daily lives. Gardeners may find themselves bending, stooping, lifting, twisting, mowing and digging, sometimes for prolonged periods through their keenness to garden or finish the task in hand. This can place a strain on the muscles and joints of the spine and extremities causing them to become inflamed and tender, this can occur several days after gardening. With thought and preparation you can avoid causing injury and enjoy gardening with no ill effects.

Dress appropriately; gardening in tight or restrictive clothing won’t just feel awkward, it will actually strain the muscles and joints. Don’t rush out and buy tools on a whim; it’s better to take your time, research and choose the best tool for you. Even if a spade is reduced in the sale, if it’s too heavy for you to use it will be a waste of money. If you’d like to give a gift of gardening tools, take the lucky recipient with you to choose. Selecting the right sized tool for you can enable you to carry out tasks that were previously impossible. There are many specially designed and adapted tools to make gardening easier: secateurs with rotating handles to maximise the force and strength you have, gripping aids, long reach tools (ideal if you garden sitting down or can’t bend easily), spring assisted forks and spades for digging over the soil, lightweight cultivators and tillers to break up the soil and low trolleys allow for easy moving of pots and containers, as well as self-watering pots with a reservoir beneath the compost. Tool belts or aprons keep useful small tools like secateurs to hand.

When planning your garden consider creating a work area with a table or workbench, reducing the need for bending when sowing seeds and enabling you to store heavy items like compost in one place, so you won’t need to keep moving them. Raised beds are a great investment; plan the width so you can access all areas of the bed from each side. You could consider adding a handrail to the side of your raised bed to help you move or balance, or incorporate recesses into the design so you can work at the bed sitting down, facing forward to avoid twisting, with space for your legs to fit comfortably underneath. Another option would be a large raised container; some containers are crib shaped which allow for easier manoeuvrability around them.

If your hands are arthritic you may find it beneficial to wear good quality waterproof, warm gardening gloves. Some gloves have irregular ridges and an uneven texture which will improve your grip.

Before launching into a prolonged episode of gardening, do some lighter tasks in order to prepare the muscles for the work they are about to do. If you only planned to clear some weeds, go for a short walk first to warm up the muscles.

Rotate through tasks so you don’t spend all day in one particular posture. Change activity every 20-30 minutes and take regular breaks. Don’t garden to the point of exhaustion. Try to stop with enough energy to warm down (or potter about) with some tidying up. That way when you finally get to stop and admire your handiwork your joints won’t seize up!

The simplest and most effective way to protect the spine whilst bending and lifting is to learn to brace the abdomen so while you are bent, stooped or lifting, your spine is supported by its own protective brace. The closer our core or centre is to the task in hand the less strain is put on the joints.

Keep yourself well aligned. Wherever possible keep shoulders and hips lined up (think of a fencer as he prepares to fight). A lunging position is useful when you need to bend, lunge forward and rest a knee on a knee pad, keeping the other leg bent at 90 degrees (Anna calls this the proposal position – down on one knee!). Once in this position one can reach down or forwards whilst keeping the spine in a protected neutral position. It’s also easier to get up from this position.

Here are some gardening jobs you could be doing now:

It’s the ideal time to plant up hanging baskets and containers. Avoid straining your back or body by positioning your containers or hanging baskets in the area you want to display them before you start to plant them up. Consider working at a table or workbench to keep the container at a safer height. Larger containers will require less frequent watering than smaller ones.

Apply a lawn feed if you haven’t already done so.  Remove perennial weeds with a daisy grubber or knife. If you have a hover mower use a forwards and backwards motion, avoid the temptation to swing the mower from side to side.

Water newly planted trees or shrubs regularly if the weather is dry.  Give your plants a really good soaking to encourage the roots to grow deeply into the soil. When you lift a heavy bag of compost or carry a watering can keep the arms bent and close to the body, so that you control the weight you are carrying and put less strain through arms, shoulders and spine. Remember to brace the abdomen whilst carrying a heavy load.

Some plants, like these Sempervivums, are very drought tolerant and don’t require additional watering. Raising containers up, makes them easier to tend.

Gardening top tips

  • Prepare: be properly equipped and attired
  • Select tools that are the right size, height and weight for you
  • Look for tools with rubber grips
  • Plan your session
  • Warm up
  • Think about your posture
  • Use kneepads or a kneeler. Kneelers with handles that double up as a stool are available.
  • Brace abdomen when bending, stooping or lifting.
  • Carry close to the body (smaller lighter loads are preferable)
  • Take regular breaks
  • Warm down
  • Rest and enjoy.

Many thanks to our wonderful models who featured in this article that was first published in the May 2014 edition of VantagePoint Magazine, thank you Nicola Cozens and www.renatodefazio.co.uk.

Other articles that may interest you…………..

For tips and advice on Gardening on a Budget, please click here.

For details of beautiful, historic and important gardens offering friend or membership offers in Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex, please click here.

For ideas of wonderful places to see carpets of bluebells, please click here.

This article and was published in May, for gardening advice on what you could do in your garden or at your allotment from mid-April to mid-May please click here.

For gardening advice for mid-May till mid-June please click here.

For gardening advice for mid-June to mid-July please click here.

To read an article about bottle gardens and terrariums I wrote for Vantage Point Magazine, please click here.

For information on how to protect your plants from damage from slugs and snails, please click here.

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