Preparing the Gardener for the Garden

The light breeze, blue sky and plenty of sunshine are inspiration to tackle any job outdoors. Get ready, set, and go! The gardening season is soon upon us in full swing and the urge to be outside in the garden is strong. Heed a warning for over-exuberant gardeners who like to jump in with both feet (and arms and hands). Before starting your work – prepare the gardener for the garden. The consequences of over-exertion can be quite painful and result in a dimming of the gardening spirit. An entire medical encyclopedia could be filled with the consequences of gardening. They include: blisters, strains, sprains, sore muscles, sun burn, back injuries, allergies, cuts and scrapes, rashes, hearing loss, eye damage, and broken bones. Most of these can be avoided with a few precautions.

An inspirational garden near Philadelphia.Get ready for the physical exertions of gardening by doing some warm-up activities. This is particularly important for gardeners who have spent the winter watching Rosemary & Thyme episodes on DVD. The mind may be stimulated but the body probably needs attention to be in top form.

One of the first activities in the garden this spring is pruning. This could be pruning the roses, summer blooming shrubs, clematis, or low-growing evergreens. Pruning requires considerable gripping strength to sever large branches. To strengthen hand muscles for future pruning jobs, try crushing pop cans with your bare hands (watch for sharp edges), squeezing a tennis or stress release ball, or squeezing exercise grips. All of these exercises require force to be applied to a resisting object. This will strengthen your pruning hand muscles.

Some pruning jobs require the use of tools to be held over your head. This position puts strain on the neck and shoulder as well as the arm muscles. To build up strength for this task try washing windows that extend over your head. A hearty series of waves will also work.

Trimming hedges is another form of pruning. This task requires a different set of muscles than hand pruning or over-the-head pruning. Hedge trimming requires gardeners to hold heavy hand or electric shears for long periods of time. The shears must be moved with skilled accuracy or the hedge will be filled with unwanted dips or bows. To build up strength and trimming skills, hold a heavy book with arms outstretched and move it up and down from waist to head height. An alternate exercise is to wash windows with a squeegee. Keep the squeegee at arms length to clean the window. If hand shears are the only tool used for hedge trimming – build up arm muscles by clapping vigorously.

An Amsterdam CourtyardThe task of pushing a heavy wheelbarrow puts considerable strain on neck and shoulder muscles. These muscles are bearing a large downward force. To reduce this downward force, try to balance most of the weight over the wheel. This will also make the wheelbarrow easier to push. Gardeners can prepare for this strain by carrying equal weights of heavy grocery bags in each hand. As an alternate exercise, gardeners can carry two paint cans, water containers, bags of milk, etc. The key is to get an equal weight for each hand and have the force straight down.

The lawn will soon be growing very vigorously and will require frequent mowing. Pushing a lawn mower through thick turf can be a strenuous workout. Two sets of muscles bear most of the work. They are the ones in the shoulders and legs. To strengthen these muscles try some push-ups against a wall and a brisk walk around the block. When mowing, wear padded bicycle gloves to protect your palms from vibrations and blisters.

Weeding is a tough activity that could result in aching legs and back. Removing weeds by hand requires considerable squatting. This need to keep a low profile is often painful over time. The best advice is to avoid this position if possible. Use a long-handled hoe to remove the weeds and a fan rake to pick up the plant remnants. If hand weeding is unavoidable, invest in a kneeling stool to take pressure off your legs. Most kneeling stools can be used as a seat or a kneeling bench depending on their orientation. Long-handled hand tools will allow for a greater working area from the kneeling bench.

An Austin, Texas gardenDigging with a shovel or spade is one of the most strenuous tasks in the garden. This activity has an impact on the back, legs, arms, shoulders and hands. The most important advice for gardeners is to take it easy. Dig for a short period of time and then change to a less strenuous activity. Return to digging when you feel rested. Take increasingly larger loads as stamina is being built up. Do not over-exert yourself or injury may occur.

Lifting heavy objects is one of the most frequent causes of injuries to gardeners. Lifting affects the back, neck, abdominal and leg muscles. Common-sense advice says to lift with your legs and not your back. Unfortunately, this requires concentration (and re-training) for most people to accomplish a safe lift. Most people find that it is much easier to lift using your back than with your legs. Practice lifting a small object from the floor and place it on a table. Consciously tell yourself to use your legs while lifting. The next exercise is to keep your back straight and to hold the object close to your body. Do not twist when picking up the object. Use positive self-talk to adopt safe lifting techniques every time you lift.

Tender hands need protection during the beginning of the gardening season. The more that hands are used to handle rough materials, the faster they will build up callused areas. These calluses are protection from minor skin damage. Until the calluses (or thickened skin) are present, hands are susceptible to painful blisters, cuts or scrapes. Wear leather or cotton gloves to protect soft hands until they are toughened. Rose pruning and leaf raking are particularly damaging to unprotected hands.

An Amsterdam window boxWear gloves and long sleeves when working with roses, compost, sphagnum moss, soil and hay. These living and decaying plants are the host to a fungus that could cause an infection called Sporotrichosis. The fungus usually enters through a small cut or scratch on the hand. After several weeks (from 1-12) a small red bump forms at the wound site. This enlarges into an open sore. If untreated, the symptoms may come and go for years or travel to other more serious areas of the body and cause death. The cure rate is high for individuals that have good immune systems. Gardeners, nursery workers, florists, timber workers, and farmers are at the highest risks of contracting this disease. It is somewhat rare, but it can be misdiagnosed. As gardeners we should be aware of this disease and the possibility of infection.

A well-prepared gardener will tackle the upcoming gardening season with ease and enthusiasm with a little preparation beforehand. See you in the garden!

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