A fit looking woman in her 80’s recently walked into our office and requested an appointment as soon as possible. “I just moved a yard of dirt from the front of my house to the the back yard. I used a wheel barrel . . . after I was done, I noticed my back, shoulders and neck are very sore. I still have another yard of dirt that needs to be moved to the back yard.” I was able to schedule an appointment for her early the next morning. By the time of her appointment, she had made arrangements to have the remaining yard of dirt moved by a teenage neighbor.
What is it about our “inner gardener” that makes us lose our senses and overdo lifting, bending, pulling, digging, raking – and all other activities that transform a patch of land into something that delights us? Is it the months of looking at snow, then brown earth? Is it the promise of new life and growth? Are we artists whose medium happens to be plants? Whatever the allure, I’m also afflicted.
Over time, I’ve learned some ways to temper the drive to continue gardening when it would be sensible to give the body a rest. Here are some ideas that help me avoid aches and pains from gardening. I have learned each of them “the hard way.”
When you walk into a garden center, the first things you typically see are the beautiful faces of rows and rows of colorful annuals. It is easy to imagine how nice they might look in your various garden spaces. Consider the fact that you will be the one bending over to plant them. Also consider the fact that for next year and the years following that you are likely to be doing this over and over again.
When you plant perennials, they come back every year without you having to bend over to place them in the ground. You might add a few perennials to your mix of plants each year so you have less yearly planting to do over time. Some people are good at making a plan that takes into account colors, textures, heights, expected blooming times and other characteristics of the garden plants they choose for their gardens. I don’t have that expertise, so I periodically hire a landscaper who can draw up a garden plan and plant what is needed to help make my yearly gardening tasks easier for me. It also gives me a garden that has a variety of flowers that bloom at various times – and that makes me happy.
The only annuals I purchase now are those I want for my flowerboxes and herb garden. This fulfills my desire to plant something and see immediate results without getting overly sore and tired. It also leaves more time for weeding, trimming, edging, etc.
One of the most disciplined gardeners I know has a rather large and magnificent potted garden. He allows himself 45 minutes a day to spend in his garden. That 45 minutes includes everything he needs to do, including getting his tools out and putting them away. Everything gets done in that amount of time. I’m not sure I could be – or would want to be that regimented, but this approach might be helpful to someone else.
Maybe a better idea for most people is: know your limits. Let me repeat: know your limits. Actually, you probably know your limits. The secret is respecting those limits. When you are working and notice you back (substitute neck, shoulder, knee, elbow, etc.) is hurting – or even wondering if it is going to hurt – is an indication it is time to put tools away – no matter how “half-done” you are with your work. The same goes for feeling tired when you are busy creating your garden. This is the most fundamental meanings of “listening to your body.” You literally stop gardening when you notice you are getting tired or sore. Ignore the tendency to “do a few more things.” Don’t over-ride your physical indicators that let you know you are done for the day.
Early one spring day after a particularly brutal Midwest winter, I decided to make what I call a transition garden that leads from my yard into my woods. Between the grass and the woods, I laid steps that head toward the woods, but disappear before the beginning of the woods (kind of like the baseball players who disappeared as they walked into the cornfield in the movie “Field of Dreams”). Plants included in the transition garden are pachysandra, bluebells, ferns, hostas, trillium and ivy.
To create this, I needed to remove a significant amount of grass. I was working smart because I promised myself I would stop the minute I felt any discomfort in my lower back. I should have used a shovel and hoe – big tools, but as I mentioned, it was early spring. I wanted to smell the fresh dirt and have the physical satisfaction of using hand tools and pulling out the grass by hand.
I kept checking in to see if my back was okay. I took plenty of breaks. After 4 hours, my task was complete. I didn’t have a bit of back pain or stiffness. However, because I pulled most of that grass with my right hand, I developed tendonitis in my forearm. As you may know, tendonitis is painful and does not go away easily or quickly – and when you use your hands a lot in your work like a massage therapist does, this is not a good idea.
I did not work entirely smart on that project (which, by the way, looks awesome). My goal was to avoid back pain, but I should not have completed a prolonged repetitive motion activity (i.e., pulling grass by hand) in one day that realistically should have taken 3 or 4 days to complete.
Thanks to this experience, I can now add one more point to the “Work Smart” suggestions above: Even if it doesn’t hurt to do it at the time, don’t perform long periods of prolonged repetitive motion activities. They can be parsed out over a number of days versus one intense time period. It is not as efficient, but it can spare a lot of pain due to a stupid injury you created yourself.
Gardens are a great source of pleasure. Take your time. Plan smart. Work smart. Stop smart. Although your garden will develop at a slower pace, your physical comfort will add to your enjoyment of your creation.
Should you need some help with your gardening muscles, please give us a call for a massage that will be tailored to focus on relaxation and addressing your soreness and stiffness. Our telephone number is 219-879-5722.