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Right tools, techniques can help gardeners avoid aches and pains
I got a wake-up call last weekend -- an ache in my elbow and shooting pains and numbness in my hand. I think it's from holding my mouse at a funny angle. The good news is I use my mouse with my right hand, but I'm left-handed. However, this little episode made me think twice about how I'll work in the garden this spring.
A few years ago, Mary Valier, an occupational therapist from St. John Hospital in Detroit, gave me some good tips on ways to avoid muscle strain and back pain when gardening. I think they're worth reviewing.
Take frequent breaks. For example, if you're planting, every 15 or 20 minutes stop, put down your trowel. Straighten your palms and stretch and wiggle your fingers. A quick massage of your palms and you're ready to go back to work.
Take careful note of your wrist position when working. To reduce strain, keep your wrist straight. Avoid working with the wrist bent in a forward or backward position. When planting flowers, hold the trowel in your fist like you would hold a dagger. To dig the hole, plunge the trowel straight down into the soil, then pull the soil toward you to form the hole and (drop)in the plant. If you're planting lots of plants, dig several holes at a time and then (drop)in the plants. It's faster and puts less strain on the wrist.
If you've had problems with your wrist in the past when pruning, consider using a small lopper instead of hand pruners. Felco 13 pruners have extra-long handles that can be used like loppers, but the pointed blades allow you to get into tight places. Order from A.M. Leonard (800) 543-8955: www.amleo.com (No. 13FEL, $47.24)
Vary tasks in order to give muscle groups a rest. Raking, digging, pruning and weeding use different muscle groups, so switching jobs every 15 or 20 minutes will get the jobs done in the same amount of time but help to prevent overexertion and muscle strain.
Use a garden cart or wagon to transport heavy loads. Unless you pumped iron over the winter, toting 40 pound bags of potting soil is courting disaster, especially if you have back problems. When I have to move bags of soil or big rocks, I push my two-wheeled garden cart up next to the item, tip the leading edge to the ground and roll the object into the cart. I do the same to unload. Instead of carrying one heavy pail full of dirt, divide the load into two pails to lighten the load and distribute the weight evenly.
Choose tools for comfort. Tools that are smaller in scale or made of aluminum or space-age plastics are lighter in weight. If a hand tool feels awkward when you hold it, regardless of the quality, get rid of it. Keeping pruners and loppers in tip-top shape by oiling and sharpening makes cutting easier and helps reduce muscle stress.
Trowels and cultivators with larger diameter handles are easier to grip, especially for those who suffer from arthritis. You can enlarge the diameter of a handle by wrapping it with a thin sheet of foam. If you're finicky about looks, use tennis racket tape to hold the foam in place. If not, duct tape works. When choosing shovel and rakes, remember the longer the handle, the less the stress on the back. Sharpening the edge of hoes and shovels will also increase their efficiency and lessen the strain. Put the bevel in the backside of the blade. Steve Forgy of Union Tools advises that a leaf rake with tines that form a straight edge rather than an arc are more efficient at moving leaves.