After a day of gardening, do you crawl into bed with a heat pack, an ice pack or maybe even a six-pack? Do you have a special pillow for knee pain, one for neck aches and a pair of wrist splints for carpal tunnel pain? When you limp to the kitchen for a midnight snack of Aleve, do you have so many magnets strapped to your body in hope of pain relief that you stick to the refrigerator door?
Don't let anyone ever tell you that gardening isn't exercise. As many will attest, sometimes a fair amount of hurt accompanies participation in this "sport." Hauling, digging, raking, exhuming rocks or a tug of war with an obstinate taproot can invite an aching back, sore joints, strained muscles, even serious injury. All this is particularly challenging to anyone with preexisting conditions and becomes more apparent as we age.
Gardening is so therapeutic and rewarding, though, that people with seemingly insurmountable difficulties manage to keep their hands in the earth, regardless of the limitations. The keys to perseverance are in what mode of growing we undertake, how we move about the garden, what we wear and what tools we use.
One way to make gardening more manageable is to downsize. Restrict plants to a smaller area, confine growing to window boxes, troughs and other containers, or bring gardens within easier reach. You can use raised beds, table gardens, vertical wall gardens and hanging baskets that rely on pulley systems to raise and lower pots. These enable people with back problems, partial mobility or restricted vision, as well as wheelchair gardeners, to work with relative ease.
Once upon a time, Jack Shaffer, winner of many awards for his gardens, stewarded an acre in Potomac and gardened 40 mostly wooded acres in Rappahannock County. Now 89 and in a wheelchair, he tends a more modest 400 square feet at his new home outside of Buckeystown in Maryland's Frederick County.
"I can no longer do vegetable gardening in the back of the house," he says, "but in front I have a 30-by-12-foot mixed border. Hard to get into with my chair, but I grow tree peonies and mostly herbaceous perennials -- iris, day lilies, bulbs and so forth -- and manage fairly well. The soil has been amended so it's easy to dig. I use a long-handled trowel and have no problem planting. Hauling hose is difficult in a wheelchair, though." Mechanical watering systems are available and could help solve even that problem.
Elizabeth Farley, one-time teacher and assistant director of the Arboretum of the Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia and a respected gardener in that area, was not about to give up her love of plant nurturing after her recent move to a retirement community. Now she gardens in containers on a small terrace.
"My former quarter-acre garden in Bala Cynwyd had mostly small trees with multi-seasonal interest and flowering shrubs, many of which I'd propagated from seeds and cuttings from my days at Barnes. Also ferns, a number of which I grew from spores, native plants and a small kitchen garden for my herbs, which I used lavishly in my cooking," she says.
"The patio here is about 20 by 12 feet. I have a variety of containers, including small troughs with rock garden plants. I've tried to stage the containers to provide greater interest in this long, narrow space. In addition to my herbs, which do so well I'm able to take bouquets to friends here who, like me, still cook, I have some slow-growing conifers, small boxwoods, several tropicals and perennials with colorful foliage, and small ornamental grasses.
"When it comes time to care for the pots, I whip out a little folding stool which I bought at a camping supply store, making it easier for me to maneuver down the line as I groom the plants. I also have three of those wrought-iron shepherd crooks on which to hang flowering annuals," Farley says.
Many of us, regardless of age, have certain health or mobility "issues." If you suffer from arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, tennis elbow, high or low blood pressure, Lyme disease, or knee, hip, rotator cuff, back, foot, neck or hand problems, you qualify. To compensate for my personal amalgam of maladies, I seek tools that make cutting, digging, bending and stretching easier. I check tool supply houses, garden shops, hardware stores and catalogues for ergonomic tools and gadgets: pruners with ratchet mechanisms, with long-reach and/or rotating padded handles, swivel heads, sliding mechanisms or other innovations that are a boon for those with carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis sufferers or anyone with strength or agility issues. You'll find your own personal favorites.
Protect yourself with sunblock cream, insect repellent and clothing that shields your body from scrapes, thorns, poison ivy and other hazards while still allowing freedom of movement and comfort. Reject the instinct to recycle your run-down street shoes as garden wear. Overly flexible shoes and worn-down soles can alter your gait, causing back, hip and knee aches, twisted ankles, even broken bones. Sandals expose feet to danger, too. Opt for sturdy, thick-soled, supportive footwear.
To prevent cuts, poison ivy and ingrained grime, I prefer disposable latex surgical gloves from the drugstore for weeding, deadheading and executing tasks that require the greatest dexterity, for handling liquid and granular chemicals and for squishing grubs and slugs. For heavy duty and thorny gardening, PalmFlex makes a series of flexible gloves for gardeners, and Bionic gloves, recommended by the Arthritis Foundation, may be the creme de la creme for ultimate protection and mobility.
It also helps to keep hand tools in a bucket or tool belt so they're accessible. I use a four-wheeled wagon to cart large tools, sprayers, plants and mulch. It's easier to pull around than a wheelbarrow, even with one hand. Test before you buy to make sure the wagon is well-balanced and lightweight.
Containers made of plastic foam, resin, fiberglass and other lightweight materials are simpler to move around than terra cotta, stone or lead containers. Many of these replicate the look of natural materials rather well.
For large containers, I use less soil and fill the bottom with "eco-friendly mats made from 100 percent nonwoven post-consumer recycled plastic" packaged by a company called Better Than Rocks, instead of heavy pebbles or those pernicious foam peanuts. These mats add no weight and ensure good drainage, even in pots left out in heavy rain that might become waterlogged. They come in sheets, so you don't have to mess with pellets or small pieces.
Pace yourself. Rotate tasks to avoid repetitive motions that cause or exacerbate disorders. Don't do all your weeding, edging, planting or pruning in one day. Instead, alternate activities: standing, sitting, hauling, bending. Stay in the shade as much as possible. Drink lots of water. If you have blood pressure problems, don't weed while bending over or rise too quickly from a crouching position. I use an old chaise cushion to kneel or sprawl on, rather than those small rubber kneeling pads.
Stop for lunch and a nap when you feel the urge, especially during the hottest times of the day. I garden a lot in a prone position. That works well with the nap idea.