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 www.farmagain.com/register or call 706-542-0304 (877-524-6264 toll free). The cost is $15.)