Gardening is widely regarded as a moderate to strenuous form of exercise. All that bending, lifting, digging and hauling burns calories and builds muscle.
But it can also strain backs and leave even the fittest among us aching the next day. And when we’re less fit, or have arthritis, a limited range of motion or other mobility problems, the once-pleasurable pastime can seem impossible.
But there’s no need to throw in the trowel.
Before heading out for a weeding or planting session, I wrap heating pads around my neck and lower back, which are my personal Achilles heels. Five minutes is usually all it takes to loosen my muscles. Sometimes, I apply disposable, stick-on pads like those made by ThermaCare to whatever happens to hurt at the moment and wear them while I work. A few minutes of pre-gardening gentle stretching helps, too.
A little forethought can go a long way toward saving your strength and energy. For instance, collecting all the tools you anticipate needing before you begin your work will cut down on unnecessary trips to and from the shed. While you’re in there, be sure to store the heaviest items on waist-height shelves for the easiest and safest retrieval.
Sometimes, simple postural adjustments like remembering to bend at the knees when lifting bags of mulch or standing with your feet shoulder-width apart to maintain good balance are all you need. But if bending has become too difficult, or if you garden while seated, grow plants in waist- or chair-height raised beds or vertically in towers, wall-affixed planting units or trellises.
Using a wheelbarrow instead of carrying heavy supplies sounds like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overestimated my ability and paid dearly for it later. When carrying by hand, hug heavy objects like filled containers to your chest, keeping your back as straight as possible. Better yet, set pots in place while they’re empty, then fill them.
My flower garden contains mostly perennials, because I prefer them and also because they don’t need replanting every year as annuals do. That cuts my work — and bending — a great deal. Plus, perennials, which return year after year, typically cost more at the outset but, over time, are more cost-effective than buying new annuals every spring.
Scoot around the yard on a rolling garden seat, or use a padded kneeler to cushion the earth. Many adaptive tools available these days can make raking, hoeing or tending to other chores easier, too. If you haven’t shopped around in a while, you might be surprised by the ergonomic options available.
Corona, Fiskars and other leading brands make tools with extendable-reach handles that eliminate bending and facilitate gardening in a wheelchair. Rotoshovel, a battery-powered, “hand-held automatic shovel” that won a 2022 AmericanHort Retailer’s Choice award, makes easy work of digging small holes for plants and bulbs.
And if you have hand pain or difficulty holding onto things, many tools now come with easy-grip handles. Foam grips and wraps also are sold separately to accommodate a wide range of older tools you might already own.
Most importantly, pace yourself. Limit gardening sessions to between 60 and 90 minutes. Remember, home wasn’t built in a day.
Jessica Damiano writes regular gardening columns for The Associated Press. She publishes the award-winning Weekly Dirt Newsletter.