Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Get your body ready to garden

Posted By: Carol O'Meara, Boulder County Extension

As an aging gardener, I find there is a disconnect between my mind and body. They argue, usually about spring chickens and how I’m not one anymore. It always ends badly for my body; this past winter was spent half-dragging my leg behind me after a day of garden cleanup went bad.

The doctors have gotten used to me showing up hunched over and begging for a cure; my physical therapist is suggesting I visit someone who can provide therapy of a different sort. All of them, lately, have been breaking the news that I’m not as spry as I used to be and need to become thoughtful about how to go about gardening.

The first step is mental preparation, taking a walk around the garden to warm up and get the blood flowing. Too often I step out and immediately grab tools, plants, or bags of mulch and plunge in on the chores. “So much to do, so little time,” is a mantra that must give way to patience and making a list of what needs to be done before doing it.

Next is the monumental task of reigning in my mind by approaching a chore and pausing to think about what the body will be doing in order to accomplish it. Too often, our minds zoom ahead to other things, leaving the body unprepared for the weight of a container filled with wet soil, the instability of a loaded wheelbarrow, or the strain of holding arms aloft to prune a shrub.

Limiting tasks to 20 or 30 minutes at a time, then change to a different chore, is a means to breaking up the stress from repetitive motion. If the first task isn’t completed, return to it after 20 to 30 minutes of alternate activity.

My injury was caused by repetitive pulling of vines and corn stalks from the ground, something that could have been avoided by using those tools gathering dust in my shed. A spading fork in softened soil keeps the torso upright while plants are levered from the ground with a rocking motion.

Soften the soil with water a day before weeding or digging out plants instead of yanking them by hand. Gloves with rubberized fingers help grip, lessening the pressure needed to pull.

Pick pruners that curve to fit the hand, have rubberized handles for grip, and bumps for fingers to hold against. Usually they’re designed to fit either hand, and learning to prune left or right handed, like Edward Scissorhands, means the chore can be shared between the two.

Pruners with a spring to help them open are ideal, provided the spring is not so strong that they fly out of the hand when relaxing your grip. My pruners are a little large, as it turns out, since in their open position they are wider than my hand span. But the handles are a great size, large and well balanced. Smaller handles are less comfortable, less stable, and trick us into squeezing harder. Part of hand comfort is mental and people inadvertently grip harder if the tool looks unsteady.

Keep pruners very sharp, and only use them on green and growing wood. Dead wood takes on petrified wood-like hardness, and hands hate pruning a too-hard branch. Change to loppers to take care of those.

Stretching before and after gardening helps ease soreness, adding in a third set of gentle stretches for hips, back, and legs after the first activity has warmed them up. For arms, hold the arm out and gently pull down on the hand (palm up) with other hand.


  1. I am dreading the task awaiting me in the next week or so...ornamental grass clean-up. While my investment in a reciprocating saw has made it easier, I feel muscles that haven't been used in months screaming in agony the next day. Feel the burn!

  2. I had my first blister and raw soles of my feet (I gardened in my chacos when my feet are used to cushy socks) after last weekend. This year we are building raised beds for veggies just so that part of the garden will be less bending. I'm appreciating hearing this from someone my age as I AM a spring chicken - if only in my head.

  3. I too am dreading the spring cleanup process. Although, I feel like I have really accomplished something when it gets done. I can sooo identify with the mind thinks I can do more than my body will comfortable allow at my age and I am in pretty good shape. Still, if I over do it, which I usually do, I have to take a day or a few days off to recouperate before I can expect to get back at it without pain.