The Arthritic Gardener

For those of us with arthritic joints, gardening can be a challenge; however, it can be made enjoyable. Gardening helps maintain joint flexibility and improves your quality of life. Here are some tips, techniques, and tools that can help keep an arthritic gardener active and happy in the garden.

Work only during the time of day you feel your best. If you are stiff in the cool of the morning, conduct garden tasks during the warmer afternoons. Before starting, warm up your muscles and flex your joints with some gentle stretching exercises. Ask your doctor or physical therapist to recommend some warm-up and stretching exercises. I usually start each day with about 20 minutes of Tai Chi since it puts very little stress on my joints and increases my flexibility.

Since I take arthritis medication, I usually protect my skin with sunscreen and wear a hat to make me less susceptible to sunburn. I always wear gloves not only to protect hands but also to cushion the joints in my hands, elbows, and shoulders.

“Less is more” is my best advice for gardening with arthritis. Pace yourself. I look forward to my hourly breaks. I frequently need “sit-down” breaks to take the load off my joints. I have a bench strategically located near a water feature that is soothing for the mind and old joints.

Switch the tasks and positions every 30 minutes or so. I like to sit a spell on one of my many outdoor benches or chairs that are scattered throughout my garden. Weed a little, water a little, plant a little, walk a little, and, if possible, chat or visit with your neighbor. The key is to garden more frequently in smaller blocks of time. And if it hurts, stop! That’s your body telling you it has had enough.

Watch out for twisting motions that can stress muscles and joints. If you need to plant or weed at ground level, use a stool or kneeling bench. Good posture and careful movements make a big difference in how long and how comfortably you can garden.

Let your larger, stronger joints and muscles do the work. The back may seem strong, but do not lift by bending over stiff-legged and using the back. Always lift by bending at the knees. Use the palms of your hands instead of your fingers to lift and carry flats of plants. If possible, carry the flats on your forearms.

If at all possible, build an outside storage shed for tools and supplies. Locate it close to your garden to reduce the number of trips to get that tool. Weed after it rains so you can pull the nasty buggers out with less stress on the body. If at all possible, get yourself a garden buddy to share tasks that are difficult or stressful.

Use the right tool for the task and keep all tools clean and sharp. Try to find tool handles with wide grips. You can build up existing handles with foam pipe insulation

that can be found in hardware stores. Use awheelbarrow or cart to haul tools and supplies around the garden. Consider some of the new  ergonomic tools designed to reduce stress. Long or extendable handles limit bending or stooping. The right tools can make gardening less stressful and more enjoyable.

Keep your water sources close so you don’t need to lug hoses and watering cans around the yard. I have laid several soaker hose throughout my garden. They all emanate from a central location so hooking up the water hose to each is an easy task. I also cover the soaker hoses with mulch to conserve moisture and reduce the number of times I need to water the garden. You can also install a drip irrigation system.

Think outside the box to make gardening with arthritis less challenging. Look for low-maintenance plants to place in hard-to-reach areas of the garden. Raised container gardens reduce bending and are limited only by your imagination. Tomatoes, strawberries, herbs, perennials, grasses and long-blooming annuals do well in raised containers. The raised beds drain well; the soil warms up quicker, and usually results in earlier crops. It also allows the use of special soil mixtures and lets you work at a convenient height. The latter takes the stress off your joints. Walter Reeves constructed a raised container garden using a series of old bathtubs for his arthritic mother. If you can afford it, terraced banks also act as raised beds for gardening.

Vertical gardening is another option. Grow plants on or over fences, walls, trellises, or arbors. This makes for easy access to vegetables and flowers. It sure cuts down on the amount of bending that must be done.

By planning ahead and making some simple changes, you can still enjoy gardening. Don’t let arthritis make you miss out on the beauty and satisfaction of being outdoors in your garden.

(Ed. Note: After writing this article, the 2009 Fall Edition of The Georgia Scoop arrived at my home. UGA’s AgrAbility program and the Arthritis Foundation are offering workshops for arthritic gardeners in Athens on August 5, Tifton on November 5, and Macon on December 9. To register, visit or call 706-542-0304 (877-524-6264 toll free). The cost is $15.)

A Dream Come True – My Own Greenhouse

A few years ago, I was on a cruise in the Western Caribbean with a wonderful group of friends to celebrate my 50th birthday! It was a MEMORABLE trip to say the least. We promised (like we always do) to get together afterwards and keep up our momentum. My friend, Mark, who was on the cruise, was already an over-committed builder at the time, but I convinced him to help me with my dream project…to have my own greenhouse!

Around that time, I was at a fellow Master Gardener’s house and saw some ideas for greenhouses in a magazine she had. In the environmental mind of being cost effective and trying to recycle/reuse, I rediscovered some old windows with wooden frames that had been replaced on my
home; this was the catalyst to start the project. They became the framework of my greenhouse dream. Then I searched flea markets and I found 2 very old doors to be used at each entrance. Another junkyard yielded the old sink and washboard I use for watering & cleaning up. All I needed now was a roof to complete the structure. Mark suggested that we do not use the windowpanes on the roof because they would break if a tree branch fell on them, so we used Plexiglas as the roofing material.

The greenhouse construction began in June and was completed in September of that year, just in time to begin over wintering the plants in my yard.

One big factor to consider is your sun exposure …mine has a southern exposure & that is important in the winter months.

The greenhouse is kept warm in the winter with a small heater-fan that has an adjustable thermostat. I purchased it at Lowe’s for about $40.00 and it has done the job well for 5 years now. Many times in our Southern winters, I take all the plants outside in the daytime & let them just soak up the sun & move them back inside when it gets very cool again outdoors. That also gives me a chance to spray them for any insects, fertilize & water well.

The greenhouse is not big…its 15’ x 9’ with an additional adjoining room as a tool shed that’s about 15’ x 3’. There are shelves on the side walls so I can put the plants on as well as extra pots and supplies underneath. I’ve also installed some plant hooks in the ceiling to hang ferns and the like.

I’ve put a portable CD player/radio in the greenhouse…to keep things lively and the music keeps the plants and me happy!!

The plants that you can grow, propagate, over-winter, and seed are only limited by your imagination (and space). Now be aware, your friends will ask you to overwinter their plants too, so be sure to save some space each year!! ☺

On the outside of the greenhouse, I had gutters installed on one side (opposite the Plexiglas roof side) and have 2 rain barrels situated below to collect the water. This helps to supply water for the vegetable garden all season.

Bottom line, the greenhouse has been a center for growth (for me and the plants), experimentation, and a musical interlude as well as a shelter for the plants in the winter months when nothing else is growing outside.

It is my dream comes true.

A Bit of Dirt – Fall 2009

The full pdf copy of this edition is available here.

Editor’s Cuff Notes – by Dan Willis.
The tradition of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving comes from both myth and legend. Few people realize that the Pilgrims never celebrated Thanksgiving in 1621 or any year thereafter. President George Washington made it a one-time Thanksgiving holiday.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November (which could  occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to Christmas for businesses). President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939 and Congress approved that day in 1941.

The Pilgrims’ first mythological Thanksgiving Day occurred in early October. The date of Thanksgiving, set by President Lincoln, seems to correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which supposedly occurred on November 21, 1620 according to the Gregorian calendar (It was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar).

Edward Winslow’s letter dated December 12, 1621 gave the first account of the 1621 Thanksgiving. The complete letter was first published in 1622.

William Bradford in his History Of Plymouth Plantation wrote the second description about twenty years after the fact. Bradford’s History was
rediscovered in 1854 after having been taken by British looters during the Revolutionary War. Its discovery prompted a greater American interest in the history of the Pilgrims. It is also in this account that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition is founded.

The primary sources above only list a few items that were on the Thanksgiving “menu”, namely five deer, a large number of turkeys and waterfowl, cod, and bass; plus the harvest, which consisted of wheat, corn, barley, and perhaps a few peas.

To that list can be added a few additional things that are known to have been native to the area and eaten by the Pilgrims; clams, mussels, lobsters, eels, ground nuts, acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, squash, and beans. Wild fruits and berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, grapes, and gooseberries, were probably also served.

Pilgrim house-gardens may have included a number of English vegetables and herbs, perhaps things like onions, leeks, sorrel, yarrow, lettuce, carrots, radishes, currants, liverwort, watercress, and other herbs.

It is unlikely much in the way of supplies brought on the Mayflower survived, such as cheese, oil, butter, salt pork, sugar, spices, lemons, beer, or
bacon. It appears the Pilgrims may have had some chickens with them, so they likely had access to a limited number of eggs. No mention of pigs is
found in any account of the first year. Goats or cattle didn’t arrive until 1623.

The old “Popcorn Myth” would have us believe the Indians introduced the Pilgrims to popcorn at this Thanksgiving: but the Indian corn they grew was does not pop well. The Indians sometimes ground it and mixed it with strawberries for a cake-like desert. Potatoes and sweet potatoes had not yet been introduced to New England.

Other articles in this issue:
A Dream Come True – My Own Greenhouse – By Sue Shaw
The Arthritic Gardener – By Dan Willis