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No Pain, You Gain

Gardening is great, but it can be a pain if you don’t do it right.

These tips can help you reap the rewards without the aches and pains.

By Maria Martin
There’s nothing more soothing than getting outside to tend a garden. The cheerful birdsong, the sweet scents, the blooms and the soil all add up to bliss. But if you strain your back or scorch your skin while communing with Mother Nature, that bliss quickly gives way to pain.

Gardening is exercise, and like other forms of physical activity, it’s only good for us if we use the proper tools and techniques. We asked three local pros for their advice on how to avoid injury when working in the garden.


The following tips are from Mikl Brawner, owner of Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder; Hannah Upham, assistant manager of Sturtz & Copeland Florist, Greenhouses and Fine Stationery in Boulder; and Dr. David Greene, associate professor of occupational therapy at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

1. The first step, Brawner says, is to realize gardening often involves heavy lifting. All our pros say you should be sure you’re fit enough to tackle heavy activities like rototilling and shoveling. Enlist a professional’s help if you’re not up to heavy lifting. “It’s better to prevent problems than it is to correct them once things have gone too far and joints and tendons become inflamed,” Brawner says.

2. Lightweight tools—even fabric wheelbarrows—can save backs and joints, Upham says. “And chairs are great,” she says. “Pull a chair up next to your container plants and you’ll save yourself from having to bend over or crouch on the ground.”

3. Check your tools before heading out to the garden. “Sharp tools cut faster and with less effort, and that helps protect your joints,” Brawner says. “I was an arborist for 35 years and it was hard physical work, so I had to learn to not overdo things.” He suggests gardeners start the day with stretches and strengthening exercises like yoga or Pilates. “People who sit at a desk all day benefit from those, too.”

4. Don’t skimp on tools. Brawner says he sees people make a very common mistake: They buy a $25 tool instead of springing for the $75 version. “That $50 savings is nothing when it comes to saving your wrists,” he says. “For example, really good tools are designed to put pressure on the arm rather than the wrist.” Good tools also stay sharp longer, and when they do dull, it takes less effort to sharpen higher-quality steel.

5. Find the perfect “hand feel” in a tool,  Greene says, adding that tool handles are becoming more user-friendly. “A handle that doesn’t fit your hand means you’re using too much force that’s not equally distributed.” Rubberized and gel handles might feel softer to the hand, but if they make the handle too bulky, that could be a problem for someone with small hands.

6. Use the proper tool. If you’re trying to cut through a thick branch, use loppers, not a clipper, which is designed to handle small twigs, Brawner and Greene advise. Use a saw instead of a lopper for branches that are 1½ inches or thicker in width. The trick to using a tool is to hold it correctly. “When holding a tool, you don’t want your wrist to be flexed [with the palm toward your body],” Greene says. “The wrist extended about 30 to 45 degrees [with the palm away from the body] is perfect, or a straight wrist [with the hand in line with the forearm] is fine. It’s hard to measure [30 degrees wrist extension], but it’s almost always what your hand looks like when it’s at rest.”

7. When shoveling, take small “bites” of soil, Brawner suggests, and don’t use your back muscles åto lift. Greene has a golden rule åwhen shoveling: Keep your back vertical, which means bending at the knees, not the back. “Everything that pulls you forward means that to balance, you have to contract your back muscles hard,” Greene says. “If you take a shovelful of dirt and hold it close, then hold that same shovelful 3 feet away, it will feel as if it weighs much more.”

8. If you’re reaching and contorting to get the tools you need, you’re doing damage, Greene says. Keep a bucket of tools close by or put them on a tool belt. Store tools on a pegboard or a bench so you don’t have to bend over to access them.

9. A good glove prevents blisters and scratches. “A lot of garden gloves get torn up easily,” Brawner says. “Go with goatskin if you really need to feel what you’re doing. For really heavy stuff, look for leather gloves.”

10. While raised beds might seem like a good “fix” for someone who has a hard time crouching down because of bad knees, there’s a trick to working in such beds. “If you’re sitting on the edge, then stretching way out to dig, you’re doing damage,” Greene says. “It’s far better if you can walk into the garden and crouch down on a stool to do the work, or easily reach every plant from the edges of your raised beds. Don’t make beds that are too wide to reach across.”

Follow these tips and your gardening time will be more pleasant come spring.

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