Ilene Sternberg is a multiple award-winning freelance garden writer. She is the author of Best Garden Plants for Pennsylvania and Perennials for Pennsylvania.

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Gardening When it Hurts
by Ilene Sternberg    

Arm yourself with ergonomic gadgets—pruners with ratchet mechanisms, with long-reach and rotating padded handles, swivel heads, sliding mechanisms or other innovations which are a boon for carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis sufferers or those with strength or agility issues. Fiskars Pruning Stiks® ( come in several sizes and are lightweight and simple to manipulate. Fiskars pruners and other tools are also virtually weightless yet sturdy, and their garden shears are indispensable for snipping all that is not woody. Photos courtesy of Fiskars

After a day of gardening, do you crawl into bed with a heat pack, an ice pack or maybe even a six-pack? Do you have special pillows for knee pain, neck pain and a pair of wrist splints for carpal tunnel pain? When you limp to the kitchen for a midnight snack of aspirin, are there so many magnets strapped to your body that you stick to the refrigerator door?

Don’t let anyone tell you that gardening isn’t exercise. Sometimes a fair amount of hurt accompanies participation in this “sport.” Hauling, digging, raking, exhuming rocks or a tug-o-war with an obstinate taproot can invite an aching back, sore joints, strained muscles, even serious injury. These are particularly challenging to anyone, regardless of age, who has health or mobility “issues.” If you suffer from arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, tennis elbow, high or low blood pressure, Lyme disease, or knee, hip, rotator cuff, back, foot, neck or hand problems, you qualify.

Gardening is so therapeutic and rewarding, though, that people with seemingly insurmountable difficulties manage to keep their hands in the earth, regardless of their limitations. The keys to perseverance are in what mode of growing we undertake, how we move about the garden, what we wear and what tools we use.

To compensate for your personal amalgam of maladies, try to:

• Downsize! Cultivate a smaller area. Confine growing to window boxes, troughs and other containers. Bring gardens within easier reach by using raised beds, table gardens, vertical wall gardens and hanging baskets with pulley systems
to hoist and lower pots. These enable people with back problems, partial mobility, or restricted vision, as well as wheelchair gardeners, to work with relative ease.

• Make cutting, digging, bending and stretching easier with ergonomic tools: pruners with ratchet mechanisms,
with long-reach and rotating padded handles, swivel heads, sliding mechanisms and such that minister to sufferers of carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis or anyone with strength or agility hardships.

• Use sunblock cream, insect repellent and clothing that protects from scrapes, thorns, poison ivy and other hazards while still allowing mobility. Wear sturdy, thick-soled, supportive footwear, not recycled run-down street shoes. Overly flexible shoes and worn-down soles can alter your gait, straining back, hips and knees, twisting ankles, even breaking bones. Sandals expose feet to hazards, too.

• Prevent cuts, poison ivy and ingrained grime with disposable latex surgical gloves for weeding, deadheading, tasks that require great dexterity, handling liquid and granular chemicals, or squishing grubs and slugs.

• Keep hand tools accessible in a bucket or tool belt. A well-balanced, lightweight four-wheeled wagon to cart large tools, sprayers, plants and mulch is easier to pull than a wheelbarrow, even with one hand.

• Plastic foam, resin, fiberglass and other lightweight containers are simpler to move than terra-cotta, stone or lead. Many of these replicate the look of natural materials rather well. (Forbid anyone to pet your pots and they’ll never know.)

• Pace yourself. Rotate tasks to avoid repetitive motions that cause or exacerbate disorders. Don’t do all weeding, edging, planting or pruning in one day. Alternate activities: standing, sitting, hauling, bending. Work in shade as much as possible. Drink lots of water. If you have blood pressure problems, don’t weed while bending over or rise too quickly from a crouching position. Kneel or sprawl on a chaise cushion, rather than small rubber kneepads. Stop for lunch and a nap when you feel the urge, especially when it’s hot. Try weeding in a prone position. That works well with the nap idea.



Tools to Try:

For large containers, use less soil and fill the bottom with “eco-friendly” mats made from 100 percent nonwoven post-consumer recycled plastic called Better Than Rocks™ (  These mats add no weight, enable better drainage, and pots left out in heavy rain won’t
become waterlogged.
Photo courtesy of Better Than Rocks

The D-Handle Super Shovel SV-DT35 made by Seymour Manufacturing, which has a 29-inch hardwood handle with a steel D-grip and serrated teeth on the business end, is available at True Value or Ace hardware stores and by mail order in a few catalogs, such as Gardener’s  Supply ( and Plow & Heart (
Photo courtesy of Seymour Manufacturing


Florian Tools ( sturdy ratchet hand pruners and heavy-duty long-handled loppers make trimming easy on you and your shrubs.
Photo courtesy of Florian Tools


Bionic gloves (, designed by a hand surgeon and recommended by
the Arthritis Foundation, might be the crème de la crème for ultimate protection
and mobility.
Photo Courtesy of Bionic Gloves


(Story from State-by-State Gardening July/August 2011.)


Posted: 10/05/11   RSS | Print


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