Accessible Gardening with Low Back Pain
My Garden, and Oh My Aching Back
My gardening hobby was taken away from me at the age of 29. SCHREEEECH! Wait a minute, I don't think so. Getting my hands dirty, watching my plants thrive, and smelling my roses; I cannot give this up. No way! When my back says no, I find another way. I have learned to adapt my gardening habits to suit my physical abilities because giving up a pleasurable activity is not an ideal option. Being smarter than my problem is the best option. Here are some ways that I have continued to enjoy my garden.
1. Staging Projects
I used to prune all 25 of my roses in one day. Those days are gone, baby, gone. Now, I stage such big projects over the course of multiple days. On the first day, I might prune five rose bushes; the second day maybe three bushes and so on. By spreading the task out over time, I allow my back to recover. I do not let my back get too overwhelmed. This concept can apply to any chore. Everything gets done eventually. Pacing myself also helps me to avoid fatigue, a low back enemy. When my muscles are tired and fatigued, my movement becomes lazy and sloppy. That's when injuries can occur.
Another advantage of staging projects is the ability to vary activities. Doing a small bit of one project and a small bit of another project helps to vary the muscle work. This strategy helps me to avoid repetition and sustained postures, both of which are low back enemies.
2. Proper Design
Getting down to the ground level is getting harder and harder every year. So, I like to raise things to my level (which is rather tall). By using containers and raised beds, I have brought the garden to me. In fact, I have a large picnic table that I place containers on and use to repot plants. Everything is easier for the low back when the hands stay between the shoulders and the waist.
Anything that I can do to reduce reaching eases my back pain. I try to plant in clusters to reduce reaching for far away plants. Now, I can place myself in one spot and attend to all the plants in a cluster without overextending myself. By keeping the hands close to the body, the low back pain stays under control.
And what about those plants? I look for carefree plants when designing a new area. Less watering, mulching, pruning, spraying, etc, etc... Less work, less pain; that's my motto. I also try to buy the smallest plants because they are easier to handle when planting. They all eventually grow-up if I don't kill them first.
3. A Mechanical Advantage
In physics class (not my favorite subject), I learned that with a long enough handle you can move the world. This concept is called creating a "lever arm". Try using a small trowel to make a hole. Not too easy, right? But use a long handled shovel, that's when the dirt can really start to fly. Long-handled pruner help reduce work load also. What about those long-handled "reachers" or grabbers? Those help me grab things on the ground. Finding the right tool with the right-sized handle really helps to reduce the amount of "muscle" work needed for a project. Less work, less pain means more enjoyment.
Every spring, one of my patients comes to me with a pain flare-up after weeding. So, every year, I teach people how to weed using the "Swiss Ball"-the big rubber exercise ball. If the weed must go, find a better way to pull it by supporting the low back. Laying over the ball (belly down) with the knees on the ground is a mechanically better position to do any task at the ground level (I have even painted baseboards in this position. See picture) The weeds don't stand a chance if you are creative and find a better way to do things. Gardening can be accessible if you try to give your back an advantage-a mechanical advantage.
Being Smarter than Your Problem
The world of gardening is open to you and me who have low back pain as long as we stay smarter than our problem. By discovering alternative ways to do things, you can stay within your physical limitations. Freedom can be found within boundaries and limitations. Start by finding a sustainable pace and staging projects. This allows things to get done without flare-ups. Proper garden design and plant selection reduce the work load on poor aching backs. And finally, giving low backs a mechanical advantage with the right tools can reduce the risk of more pain. Continuing to find pleasure through gardening can be a reality for those with back pain. In fact, finding pleasure and doing something you enjoy every day, be it gardening, crafting, or another pastime, is a critical aspect to living with a painful condition. Remember, life is short, even on the longest days; so, learn to stop and smell the roses.