Gardening: Adapt garden tools and methods to aging’s aches and pains

For those experiencing pain in the garden, standard tools like rakes, shovels and pruning shears with smaller sized heads are still capable of doing most garden tasks. Using lighter tools can reduce stress on joints. (LEE REICH / Associated Press)

For many of us who are serious gardeners, gardening is a lifetime passion. Digging in the dirt, planting and then caring for the plants is an important ritual in the cycle of our lives. Even when the aches and pains of age begin to catch up with us, we are still driven to continue playing in the dirt. We can’t help it. Still, our passion to garden can get seriously sidelined when arthritis, joint pain, illnesses and balance keep us from doing what we love.

Adaptive gardening seeks ways to change the tools and how we use them so that the small and large joints in our wrists, knees, hips and backs can be kept in a natural, ergonomic alignment. This reduces strain on our joints and, thereby, pain. Here are a few simple and inexpensive adaptions that can be made to ordinary garden tools and techniques.

Replace or refit hard, narrow tool handles with padded ones. Inexpensive foam pipe wrap used to insulate water pipes can be cut to length, slipped over the handle and duct-taped if necessary.

If standard tools are getting too heavy to handle comfortably, replace them with fiberglass-handled tools or tools with smaller heads. Children-sized tools are often less than half the size of adult tools but still capable of doing most garden tasks. Shovels with smaller heads make you take smaller shovelfuls which reduces stress on joints.

If bending down to plant seeds is a problem, take a 2-to-3-inch diameter piece of PVC pipe and cut it to the height of your waist. Cut one end at a sharp angle and duct tape a kitchen funnel to the other end. To plant the seeds, draw the sharp point through the soil to make a furrow. Turn the pipe to the funnel end and drop the seeds through the funnel into the furrow at the proper spacing. Reverse the pipe again and draw the soil back over the seeds.

Pruning shears, loppers and garden trimmers are often hard for people with reduced hand and arm strength to use because they require a lot of force applied at an awkward angle for the hand and wrist to accomplish the task. Tool companies are starting to bring out cutting tools with larger grips that in some cases roll with your hand motion, which spreads the stress over more of the hand. Other companies have developed gearing designs that amplify the force applied by the hand into a much stronger force at the cutting edge. Add lightweight fiberglass, aluminum or titanium handles to these tools and you have a tool that can do a lot of work with minimal stress on the user.

Lastly, learn to lift properly. Keep the weight of whatever you are lifting close to your body and lift it using your legs. If you have to break a task into smaller pieces, do so. Hand trucks and other wheeled carts or slidable saucers let you use leverage to move a heavy object.

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