Part 2: How to Garden Despite Aches and Pains - Tools of the Trade
As with any project, to be safe and efficient the correct tool should be used for the job. Tools should always be kept clean and in good repair. When buying a new garden tool you need to consider cost and construction, balance, weight, grip and adaptability to your own body. Poorly constructed tools waste money in the long run because they either break or one does not use them. That being said, many good tools can be overpriced. Shop around.
A poor quality tool
In general, choose solidly built but light weight equipment. When held in your hand you should not struggle to keep it in a useful position – it should be “balanced” according to your own strength and size.
Long handled tools eliminate the need to bend forward. Even tools that are typically considered “hand” tools such as trowels, weeders and claw rakes can be purchased with long handles.
A long handled 3 pronged rake.
Shovels, spades, and forks become more efficient with a “D” or “T” handle to push or pull on.
A “T” handle.
A good grip can decrease the risk of injury immensely. It has been demonstrated that one’s grip is strongest at the diameter at which a loose circle is made with the thumb touching the middle finger. Smaller hands require small diameters. To adapt a narrow tool to a large hand, simply wrap a handle with tennis racquet grip or cloth tape. This will reduce the effort it takes to use the tool. Albeit more expensive, ratchet pruners and scissors utilize the position of maximum grip strength to best minimize grip effort.
The position of the hand relative to the tool is also important. Offset or curved handles are angled so that the wrist does not have to bend awkwardly when using the tool. Again, there is no one size fits all solution to position and you should try different brands and styles to find the one that fits you best. A short list of brands is included in the resources section of this article.
Protective equipment such as thumb orthoses, lumbar support belts, wrist straps, knee braces and elbow bands protect specific body parts and work as a reminder of good body mechanics. A Physical or Occupational Therapist can assist you if you think such equipment will protect you. Knee pads or a kneeling stool with handles protect the knee joint and facilitate transitioning to and from ground level. Work gloves can decrease the risk of cuts and scrapes that can become easily infected from garden soil.
This movable garden stool can be alternatively used as a kneeler with push up bars.
Of course it is of no benefit to have good tools if they are not available when you need them. Small tools can be kept dry and ready in a mailbox poster in a corner, in a multi-pocketed apron, or in a tote. Larger tools can be carried from the tool shed to the garden together in an old golf car or child’s wagon.
Good for tool storage.
The most important tool of all is the gardener! The garden will only get sufficient care if the gardener likewise takes good of him/herself. Do a gentle warm up as you would before any physical activity. A Physical or Occupational Therapist can provide specific stretches as well as give you some tips regarding how to lift, move loads and protect your particular “weak link”.
Personal safety is key. Keep pathways clear of obstacles and in good repair. Use tools as they are intended. Wear appropriate clothing and always protect yourself from the sun. Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Rest and change position frequently while breaking up tasks and loads.
Pacing is one of the most difficult things to learn. If you rest five minutes instead of pushing to complete a task, it might take you longer but when you finish you might have energy for another task. Conversely, if you do not rest, you will finish earlier but be more tired…and perhaps your back will remind you all night long of your poor decision. It is up to you.
Sources and Resources:
The books, companies and organizations below, as well as many unlisted here, can provide ideas, sources of equipment and techniques to enable anyone who has the desire to garden to do so! No particular company, resource or tool is recommended more highly than another.
- Adil, Janeen R., Accessible Gardening for People with Physical Disabilities: A Guide to Methods, Tools and Plants, Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 1994
- American Horticulture Therapy Association, www.ahta.org
- Arthritis Foundation, www.arthritis.org
- Baras, Tyler, DIY Hydroponic Gardens: How to Design and Build an Inexpensive System, Minneapolis, MN: The Quartus Group, 2018
- Bartholomew, Mel, All New Square Foot Gardening, 3rd Edition, Minneapolis, MN: The Quartus Group, 2018.
- Chicago Botanical Gardens, www.chicago-botanic.org
- Coleman, Elliot, The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools, and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, 30th Anniversary Edition, White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018.
- Dowding, Charles, Organic Gardening the Natural, No-Dig Way, N.P.: Green Books. 2018. Fiskar https://www.fiskars.com/en-us/gardening-and-yard-care/products
- Gardener’s Supply Company www.gardeners.com
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds, https://www.johnnyseeds.com/
- New York Botanical Garden, www.nybg.org
- Radius Tools https://radiusgarden.com/
- Warnock, Caleb. No-Till Gardening: The No-Till Method for Richer Soil, Healthier Crops and Fewer Weeds, N.P.: Familius LLC, 2015.
- Yeomans, Kathleen, The Able Gardener: Overcoming Barriers of Age and Physical Limitations, Pownal, VT: Storey Communications 1992
Kristin S. Peters, MSPT, CHT is a Physical Therapist and Certified Hand Therapist who loves to see the joy in someone’s eyes when they realize they can keep on gardening!