Safety in the garden

Gardening is such a healthy activity that you may not consider its potential hazards. Following a few safety checklists regarding observations and proper use of tools, power equipment, and chemicals can help you avoid hazards and accidents.

When using hand tools, make sure you have the correct tools for the job, and that you use them properly. Before using, making sure tools are sharp and in good repair with any bolts and screws tightened. Files can be used to quickly sharpen blades.

*Be careful not to snip your fingers or hands when pruning!

* Use safety toppers on garden canes and stakes, even if bright tape to mark them.

* Store tools so they won’t fall on someone. Even when laying tools down outside, make sure blades on shovels, hoes, and gravel rakes are facing down. This will keep you or someone from stepping on them, hurting your foot or springing the handles up to your head.

* Use ladders long enough for the job. Make sure they are in good repair, with no cracks or broken parts, and with anti-skid pads. Make sure they are set up on level ground. And don’t step too high on them, above the marked safe rungs.

When using power equipment such as leaf blowers and weed trimmers, know how to operate machinery safely, even if this seems obvious. Store gasoline in safe containers and locations. Use proper clothing and protective gear for your body, especially ear and eye protection. I have some denim “chaps” found online, made specially to attach quickly around legs with velcro. Use slip-resistant shoes. Don’t wear loose jewelry that might get entangled. If using chain saws, learn their own specific safety precautions.

When mowing, turn mowers off and remove the spark plug wire before trying to work on or underneath them. Make sure mowers have safety shields. Watch for rocks and debris, and don’t mow over. Disengage blades before crossing gravel drives or walks. Don’t mow with children nearby — this is a leading cause of accidents. One out of every five deaths from riding mowers involves a child. If using a push mower, mow across slopes. Wear heavy shoes, leg (pants) and eye protection. Never pull a hand mower towards yourself. If using a riding mower, don’t go on steep slopes. Mow up and down slight slopes. Watch behind when backing.

If using electrical equipment such as hedge trimmers or mowers, make sure to use the proper size and length extension cord, in good repair without cracks, and keep it behind you at all times. Hedge trimmers can easily cut through such live electrical cords just as they do branches!

Of course don’t use electrical equipment on moist ground or in the rain, and only plug into outlets with ground fault circuit interrupters.

If applying chemicals, from pesticides to fertilizers, read any label precautions. Pesticides, even if “organic”, may require special precautions and clothing. Wear proper protective clothing, apply properly, and store containers properly. Make sure children and pets will not come into contact with them, either when applied or stored.

Finally, keep in mind these 10 tips towards safety when gardening.

* Look for loose or hanging branches, especially after strong winds and storms, that might fall and injure someone.

* Check for poison ivy annually, and remove wearing protective clothing. Herbicides can be used, or plants can be dug. If the latter, make sure not to burn or compost.

* Especially later in the season, check for nests of yellowjackets and wasps. These may even be in the ground.

* If there is lyme disease in your area, check yourself daily for deer ticks. If West Nile virus is in your area, use protective clothing and mosquito repellent.

* If you have or install a pond or swimming pool, make sure young children are supervised when nearby, or fenced away.

* Wear sturdy gloves, especially when working with shrubs or around perennials. If you have many roses, you might invest in a pair of thick and long rose gloves.

* Watch when stepping on loose boards or stones, or on slippery surfaces. Falling, especially onto hard surfaces, is a leading cause of accidents.

* Don’t lift objects too heavy for you. When lifting heavy objects, let your legs do the bending and not your back. Do warm-up activities before much heavy or repetitive lifting.

* If gardening in summer in bright sun, use sunscreen, sunglasses, and some form of cap or hat. Use sunglasses that are also rated as safety eyewear.

* If gardening in the heat, drink plenty of fluids, take frequent breaks in a shaded and cool area, or stop gardening in the hottest part of the day.

In 2003 in the U.S. there were 83 deaths from accidents with yard and garden equipment, and 279,000 hospital or emergency room visits. This does not include other gardening accidents than from equipment. Follow these safety tips, be aware of other potential hazards, and use common sense, and you can avoid becoming one of these statistics.

Dr. Leonard Perry is Extension Professor, Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. Visit his website at