Healthy Gardening

Few things in life bring as much joy as time spent in the garden. Perhaps it’s the basic nurturing aspect of the activity – the coaxing along of another life form – that feeds our own spirit. Inhaling the wonderful fragrances and taking in the vast palette of colours and textures of the plant material are pleasures in and of themselves.

Make no mistake, however. The joys of gardening don’t come without a price. It takes toil to work the soil. Studies show that mowing the lawn and planting trees takes the same amount of energy as a round of golf. Laying sod is equal to playing baseball, while raking the lawn or planting seeds burns as many calories as bicycling 16 kph (10 mph).

As with any other physical activity, overly enthusiastic gardeners may be susceptible to injury. All that kneeling and bending, stretching, pushing and pulling can cause problems with wrists, hands, knees, backs and necks. As a result, it is best to approach gardening as you would any other physical activity. Here are some suggestions to keep you healthy:

• Start with a warm-up. Do some gentle stretches. The Canadian Physiotherapy Association website ( has some great suggestions to get you started. Be sure to stretch from time to time while you are gardening and, more importantly, after you’ve finished. This will help reduce any strain on your muscles.

• Begin with light and easy activities. Hold off on the more strenuous activity until you are warmed up.

• Include a variety of activities each time you work in the garden to avoid putting too much strain on one muscle group. If you have heavy tasks to accomplish, intersperse them with lighter activities.

• Reduce strain – use tools that work for you. Every body is different. Choose tools that are right for the job, and the right length, weight and diameter for your body.

• Pace yourself when performing tasks that require bending, stooping or kneeling. Vary your position for comfort. Give your knees a break by kneeling on a soft pad.

• Take regular rest breaks, and drink plenty of water to rehydrate, especially during the summer months.

• Dress for the weather. Wear comfortable shoes with good support. Put on a hat and sunscreen on sunny days.

While these suggestions will help everyone enjoy their time in the garden, seniors and those with physical limitations may require special assistance in order to get the most out of their gardening experience.

For example, raised beds are a great way to reduce the amount of bending required to maintain a garden. Add a ledge to the top of the box so people can sit while they work, or when they are simply out enjoying the garden. Build the bed to 60 cm (24 in.) for someone seated in a chair next to the bed, or to 75 cm (30 in.) or higher for the standing gardener who has difficulty bending. Hanging baskets and large planters are other options to help improve accessibility to gardening activities.

Also, be sure to check out the new ergonomic tools hitting the market. Many are a boon to gardeners with special needs, such as the arthritic gardener (e.g., the “water wand” may be easier for some to use than a conventional hose nozzle).

SOURCES Canadian Physiotherapy Association; Health Canada; Go for Green (click on Gardening for Life); Accessible Gardening: Tips and techniques for seniors and the disabled By Joann Woy (Stackpole Books, 1997, ISBN 0-81-172652-5)

Gardening with Arthritis

For nearly four million Canadians, gardening can be a real pain. More than weeds may be hampering their efforts, as these individuals suffer from arthritic pain. With a little planning, however, they can create a garden that suits their personal needs.

Gardens that are designed to reduce joint strain certainly help. Raised beds are a good start, but make sure the centre of the bed can be easily reached without stretching. And add a resting place nearby where gardeners can find respite from the sun.

Placing the garden bed near a water source will eliminate the need to lug around heavy hoses and watering cans. Tool storage should also be positioned close by.

Vertical gardening is another idea to reduce bending to a minimum. Many vegetables such as peas and beans love to climb, but trailing plants such as cucumber and small squash can also be trained to grow up a trellis.

The Arthritis Society has many other healthful ideas for those living with arthritis. Check out their website at for more information.

Janet Collins is a freelance writer and avid organic gardener based in Gibsons.