For most people, the first few days of garden work leads to sore muscles. Nothing serious since it is only temporary. From then on, gardening becomes mostly pain-free. But for some others, everything we lift, every time we bend, causes pain, sometimes severe pain. For these unfortunates, gardening becomes a true test of will.

What, then, are the choices? Quit gardening? Hire someone to do the work? In most cases, neither of these options are necessary. By modifying our habits and techniques, we can get our work done without aggravating our condition. As one suffering from chronic, severe back pain, I can testify that there is more than one way to tackle a garden job.

The first thing to do before going out for an hour or two’s work in the garden is to do some stretching exercises. Flex those muscles before doing anything that might strain them. The type and quantity of stretches you do are pretty much a personal matter, although a good chiropractor or family doctor can give helpful advice here. Only after you feel that your back and other muscles are good and loose, should you begin outdoor work.

Depending upon what you need to do, gardeners with back problems can take a cue from trout fishermen. Just as a fisherman “reads” the water, that is, views the conditions and assesses where trout may lie, the gardener must consider the best and least stressful way of accomplishing a task.

Here’s an example. I recently needed to pot up many dozens of flowering plants. To do this, I arranged my workstation to the best advantage. Sitting in a folding chair, with a portable table set up in front of me, a wheelbarrow filled with potting mix at my side and various-sized plant pots as well as clumps of plants ready to be divided and potted already on the table, I was ready to begin. I was able to divide, separate, and pot all these plants without any painful bending.

Tool Use

When I was young, I would hoe my rows with a vengeance. Bending over and putting my back into the job, I would hack and chop. Now, with age and increasing back pain, I let the hoe do the work. Instead of bending, I stand as straight as possible and extend the hoe out and let the weight of it, what little there is, dig into the loose soil. Then I gently pull it back. This accomplishes the same effect as the more strenuous method.

Using a hoe and rake, the author managed to level this bed with no painful banding

Also, if you need for the hoe to go deeper, get a trowel-shaped hoe, the kind with a long point on the end. Or you might invest in a scuffle hoe, a more complex blade that digs and mixes the soil as you pull it back. None of these require an over-amount of exertion. It may take a wee bit longer by choosing the gentler method, but your back will thank you for it.

Next, I cannot think of a more diabolical device for bad backs than the common “weed whacker.” Swinging one of these contraptions from side-to-side quickly instills discomfort in the hips and mid-back. I long ago stopped using a traditional weed whacker and began using a push-along type, the kind you can use while standing erect, as with a lawnmower.

Finally, a wheelbarrow can become a dangerous tool if overloaded. I once used one of the two-wheeled, construction-type wheelbarrows and though I could move lots of dirt or wood with it, my hip joints paid the price.

This small wheelbarrow is designed for people with back trouble

The answer? I bought a smaller, one-wheeled wheelbarrow. I chose a good-quality, metal one, thinking that it should last for years. Even if filled to the brim, this little barrow does not cause back pain.

So before going out to do yard or garden work, think about these things. Do it right and your back shouldn’t hurt when you are done.



Tom Seymour, of Frankfort, is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist, and book author.

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