Tips and Tools to help you Garden with chronic conditions
By Karin Magnuson, Master Gardener
It can be a challenge to find ways to keep moving and to keep gardening when faced with physical limitations like arthritis, back pain, shoulder and knee problems, and many other chronic conditions. Let’s face it – physical limitations and chronic pain are discouraging and demotivating.
On the other hand, gardening provides many health and well-being benefits. Working in a garden is good physical exercise that can help fight heart disease, relieve arthritis stiffness, reduce weight, lower blood pressure, and elevate mood. Gardening can even be excellent strength training – just fill a gallon sprinkler can and you have an 8 lb. weight! Of course, gardening provides fresh fruits, veggies, and the beauty of flowers and shrubs in our landscapes. Even the act of garden planning and being around plants improves concentration, memory, and attention span.
Whatever your limitations may be, it's important to discuss your activity plans with your physician or physical therapist so you can explore safe options together. Once you have the go-ahead, warm up with some gentle stretches and movements. You can improve your comfort level by using proper posture, engaging your core muscles, and following safe lifting and carrying practices. Remember to take frequent breaks and drink plenty of water.
There are a lot of things you can do to make working in the garden more pleasant, satisfying, and safer. It’s useful to raise your gardening surfaces by planting in raised beds including options like beds raised on legs of various heights. You might even decide that it’s time to let a large garden plot go to focus your efforts on container plantings that are easier to reach and maintain. It helps that more and more vegetables, fruits and ornamentals are being hybridized to do well in containers.
Carrying your tools in a tote with a handle or using a light-weight garden cart makes it easier to transport equipment from one part of the garden to another. Try having basic tools stored nearby to limit how far you must go to access them. For example, keep sets of frequently used tools in both the front and back yards. Simple steps like this can reduce barriers to enjoying the process of working in your garden.
Look for tools that are joint-friendly to make watering, digging, weeding and cultivating easier on your wrists, hands, shoulders and back.
Lightweight hoses and extendable watering wands can make watering less daunting. Of course, setting up irrigation on timers saves time in the long-run and keeps you from having to drag hoses around. Tools with shorter handles can reduce strain from bending and may even be used while sitting. Stools that are light-weight, stable and are height-adjustable do a lot to reduce strain and increase the amount of time you can work in the garden. Some excellent stools are marketed specifically for gardening while other options include seating built onto the edges of raised beds or even using a shower stool repurposed for garden use. Shower stools are sturdy, lightweight, adjustable, have wide feet, are waterproof and sometimes can even be found inexpensively at second-hand stores.
Here are some additional tips from the Endless Gardening program at the University of Arkansas.
- Respect Pain. If you feel severe pain, STOP gardening and rest. Consult your healthcare provider if the pain continues.
- Switch Tasks Often. Staying in one position too long can cause stiffness.
- Stretch often and alternate bending or stooping jobs with standing or reaching jobs.
- Avoid Repetitive Tasks. Just like staying in one position too long, repetitive tasks can cause stiffness, inflammation, and joint pain. Take periodic breaks.
The key to working in your garden with physical limitations is to find ways to adapt what you do to make your work safer and easier. For more adaptive gardening ideas, check out the excellent research-based resource links below. Keep moving, keep growing, and keep reinventing yourself and your garden. In the wise words of the 18th century garden designer William Kent, “Garden as though you will live forever." The rewards are well worth the effort!