My yoga teacher begins each class by asking if anyone has any injuries or conditions she should know about before we start. At this time of year, my response used to be classic and consistent, “My back is off—I’ve been spending a lot of time in the garden.”
Over the years, this complaint has eased as I’ve learned some easy ways to protect my back when I’m weeding, planting, harvesting and pruning.
Practice an Ounce of Prevention
The best way to prevent injury in the garden is to make a habit of moving your body in lots of ways. The more exercise you get—walking, jogging, dancing, swimming—the better conditioned your body will be to moving in different directions, which leaves you less vulnerable to tweaking a joint or pulling a muscle in the garden.
Lift the Right Way
From bags of mulch to shovelfuls of compost to bushels of tomatoes, there’s a lot of lifting involved with garden work. Hold objects as close to your body as possible to protect your low back and shoulders. Bend your knees into a squat and lift straight up, rather than bending from your hips to lift. And be aware of your limits—enlist a bucket or wheelbarrow if that bag of soil is too heavy or unwieldy, or ask a friendly neighbor to lend a hand with the big lifts. Some of those tomatoes are a great “thank you” gift for neighborly help!
Bending, lifting and twisting—the “BLT” of the work of a gardener—is something to avoid doing at the same time. As much as possible, try to stack your hips over your feet with your shoulders square and your neck soft before you bend or lift in a smooth motion. If you need to twist to reach a weed or spade, practice moving your whole body instead of putting pressure on your spine by trying to do too much at once.
Use Your Tools
Garden tools, from forks to hoes to shovels and spades, are more than mere accessories to shop for at the garden center. They are assets you can use to protect your back, shoulders and neck. Use your tools to leverage your strength, taking care not to twist and dig at the same time. Tall shovels can save you from bending to dig in new plantings. Cushioned stools can help you sit or kneel by your beds in more comfort, and garden carts can turn some of your lifts into pushes, which is easier on the back. A raised bed—some can be built to be accessible from a regular chair or even standing—can protect your back even more.
Lean into the Healing Power of the Garden
Dr. Hong Shen, a pain management specialist with the Cleveland Clinic, urges us to hold onto time in the garden as healing, restorative time. “Gardening reconnects us to the cycles of nature,” she said, “These cycles are the rhythm of life itself. When we spend time in the garden, we learn to slow down and forget our daily worries.”
How do you protect your back in your garden?