The cooler days of fall are right around the corner, giving gardeners renewed energy after the heat of summer. Whether you're digging a new bed, dividing or moving perennials or planting trees and shrubs, fall is the perfect time to tackle such projects.
But such physically demanding tasks can also put a strain on a gardener's body. Here are some tips to keep you healthy as you get down and dirty:
• Protect your back. Lower back muscles are intended to keep us upright. They are postural muscles and are not designed to lift heavy loads. The thigh, calf and abdominal muscles are the primary movers for lifting. Your arms and back should act like pillars, making a strong connection between the load to be lifted and the legs as your thigh muscles lift the load.
Lifting a 10-pound load can actually put 100 pounds of pressure on your lower back. Lifting heavy loads can strain your neck and shoulders as well as your lower back.
To lift safely, pivot your feet and don't twist your back. Push rather than pull if possible. Keep items close to your body when lifting and carrying. Lift the handles of a wheelbarrow at elbow height. Keep your stomach muscles firm while lifting and performing garden tasks.
Know your limits. Test the weight of the load before lifting. Slide heavy bags to the edge of the car trunk and to a wheelbarrow, then wheel to garage or site. Open large bags of soil or mulch and transfer to smaller containers. Plan ahead and remove obstacles from your path.
When shoveling, keep hands widely separated for good leverage. Bend at the hips and knees, not the waist. Keep the shovel close to your body and use your legs to lift the load. Do not stand in one place, twist and throw the load. Instead, turn and step to keep your hips and shoulders moving in the same direction.
Other risk factors associated with back injuries include prolonged or awkward postures, including bending and twisting. Prolonged generally means holding a position more than 10 minutes. Avoid prolonged bending over; it fatigues the lower back muscles. Instead, bend your knees, squat or half kneel and switch legs often. Sit on a bench. Half lunge forward, making sure your knee does not go past your ankle, using your back leg for balance. Avoid prolonged kneeling; it's also hard on your knees and hamstrings. After kneeling, stand and stretch your legs and back.
• Use the right tool for the task. Hand trowels are perfect for planting smaller perennials, but reach for a spade or digging fork when tackling established plants.
Pruning isn't a major fall chore. It is generally recommended to stop pruning plants in August to avoid encouraging fresh, new growth that can be damaged by frost. You can prune plants for use in holiday decor in December. Many gardeners are guilty of using what's at hand to prune, often selecting a tool too small for the cut they're making. Hand pruners should be used for branches up to 3/4-inch in diameter. Loppers give gardeners increased reach and leverage, but are meant for branches no larger than 1 3/4 inches in diameter. Hand saws are best for branches 2-3 inches in diameter. Branches more than 3 inches thick are best cut with power tools. Maintain your tools; sharp, oiled tools require a lot less energy and create less strain
Your equipment should fit your size, build and capabilities. Avoid heavy tools. Be mindful of the length of the rake or shovel. Longer handles can ease back strain. Handles that are too short can cause excessive forward bending and can cause back strain. The end of the rake handle should reach the height of your ear when you are standing upright. There are quality tools sized for shorter gardeners.
Enlarged handles or cushioned grips can be helpful for those with arthritic hands. Ergonomically designed tools have become widely available and can minimize aggravation of arthritic wrists or shoulders.
Lightweight wheelbarrows are easier to lift and maneuver but consider the design. Is it a lightweight cart but with wheels in the back versus the front? This type can be awkward to lift and heavy to move. When the wheel is in the front, the weight is over the wheel and is, therefore, less work for you to lift. This allows you to get closer to the load and lift with your legs instead of your upper body and back.
• Avoid overuse injuries. Excessive weeding or trimming with hand pruners or snips can lead to tendonitis of the wrist or elbow.
Avoid repetitive motions -- actions performed more than four hours per day or 20 times per minute. Switch tasks and/or positions. Heading out to plant 200 bulbs in one day can be backbreaking work. Mix in some other activities to give your back a rest. Excessive raking can lead to discomfort in the upper back, lower back, shoulders and neck.
A few hours of gardening spread out over the week can often accomplish more work than one long full day of gardening and can do so without resulting in sore muscles and an aching back.
Gardeners with limited time and small windows of perfect weather may have to resort to some degree of overuse. For that conundrum there is always the time-tested solution of a hot bath and a hot toddy to sooth those tired muscles!
Erin Howell is a Penn State master gardener and a physical therapist assistant. Columns by master gardeners sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.