Gentle Gardening

Summer 2001
Raised beds
Jean English photo.

By Sue Smith-Heavenrich

Every summer I put in a garden: a patchwork of red and green lettuces, the traditional trio of corn-beans-squash, a splash of cosmos and bachelor buttons. Our garden puts food on the table, I tell my husband when I ask him to till up just one more weedy patch. My garden is for beauty, I tell my mother who can’t understand why I’d rather spend a whole summer tending my Elbas when I could just as easily buy a bag of potatoes for $2.00 at the store.

Ancient Egyptian physicians understood the healing benefits of gardens. Modern medicine has taken a few thousand years to catch up, but the consensus among health professionals is that gardening is good for you. It exercises mind and body, improves circulation and respiratory health, lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. Gardening involves three main motions: lifting; pushing and pulling; and twisting. It also involves a lot of hand work: planting, pruning, snipping. As with any physical activity, you can overdo it if you’re not careful. You might not get carpal tunnel syndrome from planting out your petunias, but careless work habits can lead to repetitive stress injuries all the same. The trick is to garden gently.

Garden Gently

It may be tempting to till the entire garden in a single afternoon, but all that vibration isn’t good for your hands. Neither is raking, hoeing, or harvesting beans hour after hour. If you break up tasks and move from one job to another, you can avoid repetitive stress injuries. Till one bed, then weed around the perennials. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Instead of digging, I break up my garden soil using a broadfork. The broadfork has a bar, with five thick steel tines, which I step on and push into the soil. I grab the handle (about waist high) and pull back, then push. This is much easier on my body than digging and lifting – even for breaking new ground.

Don’t Be Lazy; Do It Right

One spring I was in a hurry, trying to shape all my beds and get them ready for planting. I caught a root in the tines of my rake. Rather than cutting the root, I tried to yank it out. Rakes are not designed for that job, I discovered, and spent the rest of the summer learning with a shoulder injury.

First rule of gardening: If the tool has a blade, keep it sharp! It takes less energy to push a sharp blade into the soil.

Second rule: Learn the most efficient way to work with the tool. Push your shovel with one foot and bend the other leg. Then push, keeping your body close to get better leverage.

Third: A job done at the right time takes less effort. Cultivating weeds within a few days of tilling means you’re slicing through thin, newly-germinated seedlings instead of sturdy, inch-thick stems. Frequent cultivation requires less time, less muscle strain, and no chopping.

Fourth: Find the right tool. For slicing weeds, an oscillating hoe may be a better choice than the one in your garage. An oscillating hoe looks like a stirrup and wiggles back and forth as you push and pull it. It slices through weed seedlings without disturbing the soil, so new weed seeds aren’t brought up to germinate. It also reduces back strain, because you stand taller and use a push/pull motion rather than chopping.

Ergonomic Tools

Even the healthiest gardener can find his ability to plant and prune diminished by accident, illness or age. Just ’cause we gettin’ older doesn’t mean we can’t play in the dirt! Some gardening supply companies carry tools especially designed to make garden work easier for folks with carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis. Engineers have applied their knowledge about the mechanics of how human bodies work to the problem of tool design, and created “ergonomic” trowels and other garden tools. The trowels you find at the local garden center have straight handles. To dig with them, you bend your wrist. Ergonomically designed trowels have a bent handle that keeps the wrist straight while digging. The shape of the trowel takes strain off the fingers. Even something as simple as adding a thick foam layer around the handle can make a tool easier to use. T-grip and D-grip handles are designed to attach to hoes and rakes. Adding a D-grip handle to the lower part of a hoe handle gives the forward hand more leverage. Adding a T-grip to the back provides more control for pushing or pulling. One tool that makes work easier is a wheel hoe. A wheel hoe looks like something that ought to be pulled behind a mule. Instead of a mule, you provide the power. Wheel hoes get their name for the wheel in front, and come with a number of attachments. Mine has hoe blades, cultivator feet, and small plow shares that can be used to plow, hill or furrow. Get one with a pneumatic tire. If you’re tired of picking tools off the ground, hang them on a tool-tree or stash them inside a plastic garbage can on wheels.

Cultivate New Ideas

For more than a dozen years, I’ve been gardening with raised beds. Not only does this reduce soil compaction, it also delineates paths for the children to run down. Recent studies show that gardening on raised beds (at heights from 9 to12 inches) reduces strain on your back, hips and legs. Even though my beds are not that high, I’ve found that I can reduce strain by working from a kneeling position. Lightweight padded benches and kneelers are advertised in catalogs – but I just carry a piece of foam pad or wear old volleyball kneepads over my jeans. Over the past few years, I’ve developed a lazy seeding method that requires no bending. I punch a row of holes in the soil using a ski pole. Then I drop seeds through a “longish seed thing-a-ma-jig” that I made by taping a funnel to a 4-foot length of rigid 1-inch PVC pipe. This works especially well for planting peas in early spring when the soil is too wet to work. Growing vertically is another way to continue gardening without straining your back. A number of vegetables and flowers can be grown on frames, trellises, tipis and fence posts. Bamboo tipis and A-frame trellises are inexpensive and easy to build. Not only do they put the plants within easy reach, but growing vertically saves space. You can grow a summer’s worth of fresh salad in a 4 x 4-foot garden.


Gardenscape Tools, (888) 472-3266,

Gardener’s Supply Company, (800) 427-3363,

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, (207) 437-4301,

Mellinger’s,, (800) 321-7444

One to Grow On, (888) 383-2239

Walt Nicke Co., (800) 822-4114

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