Shape up for spring gardening

Is there anything more uplifting than that first spring day in the garden? A chance, after seemingly endless days held hostage by winter’s bite, to muck about in the mud.

And it’s tremendously tempting to dash outside and get to work the moment the soil thaws. I did just that last spring, spending that first glorious day hauling out weeds, pruning shrubs, and moving plants in the sloping bed behind our house.

Not a smart idea. For the next few days I couldn’t move without my muscles reminding me I’d tried to cram a whole spring’s worth of work into one day. My hamstrings and back did eventually recover, but not before my chiropractor had a few sessions with my poor body.

Chiropractor Ann Mussett of the Lower Village Health Care Group in mid town Toronto believes that while gardening is good exercise, it’s easy to overdo it. To prevent the possibility of serious damage, Mussett suggests the following steps:

  • Do warm up and cool down stretches.
  • Adopt proper techniques for lifting and digging to avoid back strain use your legs, spare your back.
  • Move the feet instead of over reaching.
  • Vary activities, take breaks, and change position frequently.

Also, using ergonomically designed tools and above ground methods of gardening, such as window boxes, can help reduce stress on muscles and joints. Lower back strain is by far the most common injury amongst gardeners. Prepare for all that bending, reaching, lifting, and stooping by doing some serious stretching to loosen up winter stiff muscles and joints.

Dr. Terry Bernstein, director of My Chiropractor & Well/Care Associates in Markham, Ont., says back problems often arise after that first trip to the garden centre. Loading 20 or 40 kg bags of soil, fertilizer or peat moss into the car trunk must never be taken as an opportunity to demonstrate your kinship to Arnold Schwarzenegger; instead, let those younger, more flexible garden centre assistants do their job. And get some help when you arrive home as well.

Once in the garden, dividing a load up into manageable sizes may mean more trips, but it’s better to take a little longer than to lie in bed for four weeks. Hold the load close to your body and again, let your legs do most of the work.

When digging or shovelling soil, move your feet instead of swivelling from the waist. And don’t stay in the same position or repeat the same motion for too long. Straighten up carefully and do a few reverse stretches of your spine every few minutes.

Most importantly, set reasonable goals for tasks that can be accomplished within an hour or two, and gradually lengthen your sessions as your endurance and flexibility improves.

Tools of the trade
Lightweight tools designed to prevent back strain and minimize hand and shoulder fatigue are becoming increasingly popular and available. Garant Canada has launched a new line of ergonomically designed tools, available at retailers such as Canadian Tire. Lee Valley Tools also carry a line of ergonomic items worth checking out. However, a word of caution. I’m positive that a tool frequently advertised on TV as being “back friendly” really would be useless in the heavy clay of my garden so check the tool’s suitability to your soil as well as to your muscles. Another way to avoid back strain is to garden on your backside! There are some nifty wagons available for sitting and working that also hold tools. You can also find buckets with seat tops and tool holders attached, but, as far as I’m concerned, one of my most useful gardening accessories is a beat up plastic kitchen stool that doubles as a hand tool carrier.

Obviously, raised beds and planters reduce bending and stooping. Consider growing vining plants like squash or cucumber on a fence instead of on the ground, and experiment with a few vegetables and herbs in containers.

Dr. Bernstein believes that following this advice should reduce the flood of people with neck, back, and joint complaints that inundate his office every spring.