Tips for Gardening with Chronic Pain (or to Prevent Pain Altogether)

The budding trees, blooming flowers and warm weather are sure signs that it’s time to get back outside. However, this season also brings stories from Symmetry’s patients about how their efforts at gardening are resulting in pain.  This spring season in particular is tricky, because we’ve all been WAY more sedentary than usual during the recent winter storm event as well as through the ongoing pandemic.   This makes us collectively more susceptible to pain and injury when resuming vigorous physical activity.  So as you start getting out in your yard, you might consider checking out this article.  It is an adaptation of a blog written by an editor named Shannon Cowan at eartheasy – a website that offers information and products that support sustainable living strategies.  Shannon was diagnosed a number of years ago with Rheumatoid Arthritis (a painful inflammatory joint condition), but has found multiple ways to make gardening feasible despite the challenges of periodic joint pain flare-ups.  Read on for 10 of her tips for making gardening easier and more enjoyable.

  1. Elevate your work spaces when possible. – The number one recommendation from any gardener who deals with pain on a regular basis is to use raised garden beds. Lifting your workspace at least 18 inches, or potentially to waist height from the ground will save your back and minimize much of the stretching involved in tending your patch. It will bring soil within reach for easy planting, weeding, and harvesting. It will also make checking your plantings quick and easy.  Other suggestions are to keep planting beds away from fences to that they can be accessed from all sides for easier reaching, and to use trellises or arches to encourage plants to grow upward where they can be easily reached.

2. Use light weight, multi-purpose hand tools, as well as a good hoe. – Hand tools work best if you like to garden while sitting. They can help reduce the effort needed to pull out weeds, and make removing the toughest of visitors, such as dandelions, easier. Using a multi-use hand tool is a good idea, to avoid the need to carry around multiple tools at a time.  Long handled tools like a good hoe prevent bending and stooping. Adding a telescoping extension can also help you make the most of this tool.  In this author’s experience, it’s difficult to state how much effort a really good hoe can save you. Frequent passes with a hoe can prevent weeds from sprouting and taking hold, saving time and energy down the road. To find the right one, experiment with different models and sizes.  Consider a “Stirrup Hoe”, a “Dutch Hoe”, or a “Collinear Hoe.”

3. Avoid squeeze-style watering devices. – Squeezing is often one of the most difficult movements to make when you have inflammation in the hands. Unfortunately, the ‘squeeze-grip’ model is the most common watering nozzle available at most garden centers.  Instead, consider a one-touch watering tool with thumb control valve.  Or if you have a larger garden with lengthy rows, consider soaker hoses or have someone install drip or in-ground irrigation that you can set using an automatic water timer. That way you don’t have to be present to turn it on every day.

4. Change positions frequently. –  While you might think your body will tell you when you’ve had enough, that’s not always the case. It’s easy to lose track in the garden and do too much. Some gardeners find that using a timer set for 30 minutes ensures they take mandatory rest breaks. When the timer goes off, take the opportunity to stretch and stand straight for a time – perhaps also having a drink of water and/or walking around in the yard a bit before resetting the timer for another 30 minutes. Changing position or alternating between standing and sitting can help prevent one part of your body from taking the brunt of the day’s efforts.

5. Employ a stool or wheel seat, or kneel on something soft. – Prolonged weeding or planting often means a sore back and neck. A wheeled garden chair or a convertible kneeling stool makes a great perch for weeding raised beds or picking berries.  If you prefer to kneel, consider a spongy kneeling pad that’s portable and light. A dollar-store paddle board (meant for swimming) provides a low-cost kneeling cushion. Strap-on knee pads are another great idea, because they can be worn and as such don’t have to be carried around.

6. Use a wagon. – In a large yard or garden, there’s always something that needs moving. Bags of mulch or seed starter mix, fertilizer, loads of manure, etc.  Also realize that sometimes pulling is easier on the back and arms than pushing.  If you can, splurge on the wagon with a ‘dump’ option to save yourself the exertion of lifting a wheelbarrow.

7. Grow resilient crops. – If pain often limits how often you can get into the garden, consider crops that can take a beating from wind, weeds, and weather.  Grow things that will survive without coddling and frequent tending. This includes grapes, berries, rhubarb, sunchokes, kale, horseradish (in pots, because it spreads), and dwarf fruit trees.

8. Consider composting aids. – Compost piles are an essential part of any garden, but turning that pile every few weeks can be too much for many people. To reduce effort and still get the nutrients you want from composting, consider using a compost tumbler. Choose a smaller model and one with a handle that does most of the work of turning the compost for you. A counter-top composter can also take the physical work out of composting.  These compact food waste grinders are perfect for house plants and garden beds.

9. Make work social.  Many hands make for lighter work. – Sharing your garden space with others can increase your enjoyment and lessen the workload. For those jobs that are too big for you to manage, consider hiring a local teen or neighbor. Double digging a new bed, installing raised beds or irrigation, and even routine weeding are all excellent jobs to outsource. You might also consider joining a community garden where people work together to raise a harvest.

10. Take a bath to aid recovery. – Soaking in a hot bath is good for soothing stiff muscles and calming the mind after a hard day’s work.  You might consider adding Epsom salts or some aromatherapy oils to the bath to enhance the experience.  Don’t worry if your muscles are mildly sore for a day or so after doing hard work.  But if you do not recover readily, seek further evaluation of your aches and pains so that they do not accumulate into longer-term problems.

At the end of the article, this author provides what might be the most important tip of all.  She says “Don’t give up.  Living with chronic pain is never easy. Everyone has their good days and those that present challenges.  But gardening has benefits beyond keeping you active and providing a harvest.  It is food for the soul as well as the body.”  Most gardeners would likely agree that she is right!

If you would like to dive into more information about any of the gardening strategies discussed here, click on any of the links in the full blog post published here for expanded information about everything from how to build a raised bed to how to choose a proper hand tool.  Or browse around the rest of the eartheasy website for tons more articles, guides, and product information.

If you are struggling with your spring gardening this year, please reach out for assistance.  Your physical therapist can help you to manage or resolve your symptoms so that you can get your garden in order. 

We hope that your garden produces a bountiful and beautiful Spring!