Gardening is a popular pastime in the NEK, but doing it incorrectly can lead to back pain, joint aches, and muscle strains. Gardening can also be difficult for people with health conditions that limit movement (such as arthritis) or cause fatigue. But with a few easy strategies, gardening can be a pleasurable and safe activity for all.

Developed by occupational therapy practitioners, the following tips will help decrease the aches, pains, and strains that often occur during gardening. Occupational therapy practitioners take a holistic approach and develop strategies to help people do the things they want and need to do no matter their limitations, disability, disease, or condition. Don’t let physical limitations hinder your ability to create and care for a garden that you love.

If you want to: Consider these activity tips:
Plant and weed without pain. Start with a small garden that you can manage easily. The garden should be located near your house and water supply to reduce time spent hauling the hose or watering can. Self-coiling hoses are lightweight and easy to use. Use a kneeler seat, which is a combination kneeling platform and seat. Many kneeler seats fold for easy storage.
Avoid back pain from heavy lifting. Bags of mulch, soil, and fertilizer are heavy. Instead of lifting the whole bag, divide it into smaller loads, and use a two-wheeled garden cart to move materials, as it is more stable than a wheelbarrow. When lifting a bag, use your leg muscles (not your back). Ask for help or consider hiring someone to assist with heavier tasks.
Conserve energy to be able to garden longer. Sit while gardening to decrease stress on your back, knees, and hips. Take rest breaks every 15 minutes and stop work before you become overtired. Vary your tasks to avoid overstressing one part of the body. Change your position frequently to avoid becoming stiff. Tightly gripping or pinching a tool for a long time can lead to swelling in your hands and arms, and prolonged hunching or kneeling can cause back strain and knee pain. Resist the urge to focus on just one area of the garden at a time, and instead move around doing various tasks.
Protect your joints and avoid awkward positions while using pruners and other garden tools. Select garden tools that have padded and curved handles to protect the joints in your hands and fingers from excess pressure and strain. If you have a weak grip, use pruners and clippers that have ratcheting or spring-action self-opening features. Avoid twisting and reaching while planting or pruning.
Spend more time enjoying the fruits of your labor. Carefully consider how much maintenance your garden will need. When possible, use native plants. Plant groundcovers to keep weeds to a minimum. Once established, perennials require less work than planting annuals every year. Think about how large each plant will get, and the amount of pruning that will be required.

Reference: Healthy Gardening. AOTA. Retrieved from https://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Patients-Clients/Health-and-Wellness/Gardening.aspx

Submitted by: Katesel Strimbeck PT, MS is the Director of Rehabilitation Services at North Country Hospital. Katesel has been a practicing PT for 19 years. She is a member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).