Gardener: Heal thyself!

Spending time in the garden can be very satisfying and provides great exercise, but it can also be risky if some basic steps are not followed. The safety steps for the backyard gardener include preparing the body before gardening; using tools that minimize stress to joints and muscles; keeping cool and hydrated, preventing diseases; careful observation of power lines; maintaining protection from the sun and mosquitoes; and using pesticides correctly.

By Kathie Hopkins
Larimer County Extension Master Gardener

To prepare your body before gardening, perform a few minutes of general stretches, which will help protect your body and prevent injuries. The stretching will help lengthen your muscles and decrease the tightness that can occur after repetitive activities such as hoeing or raking. Your knees, back, and neck are very prone to tightness and will be especially grateful for stretching before some of the laborious tasks involved in gardening. And the repetition involved in using a hoe or trowel can also lead to carpel tunnel syndrome, which may be avoided by taking rest periods and stretching the fingers and wrists on a routine basis.

A careful selection of tools will also help protect your body while gardening. Consider ergonomic tools which help avoid bending and stooping, and the use of telescoping handles which reduce stress on the joints and muscles. Tools with padded handles will ease wrist and hand fatigue and using a padded stool or gel-filled kneeler will help you avoid constant bending. Store tools near your gardening area so you aren’t required to travel long distances to fetch them.

You may also decide to wear a type of carpenter’s apron and carry tools in pockets or load them into a wagon or wheelbarrow to carry them to the garden. Another method to avoid stooping and bending is to use raised beds in the garden. The raised bed can also be built with seats along the perimeter, so the gardener can be comfortably seated while caring for their garden bounty.

Another safety consideration when gardening is to maintain a current tetanus immunization. The tetanus bacterium, officially known as Clostridium tetani is found in dirt, manure, or even potting soil and can find its way into your body through cuts or scratches. Talk to your healthcare provider about a tetanus immunization and a booster every 10 years so you can avoid this serious illness.

In our hot, dry high-desert area, it is important that you keep hydrated—the best way to maintain hydration is to drink water. And don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink water, your body is constantly making and using energy, and requires water for metabolism and the energy cycle. Make a point to drink water or rehydration drinks before, during and after your gardening activities and avoid alcohol or caffeinated beverages because they can increase dehydration. Another method to keep cool is to use a misting bottle or sprayer, or even a cloth dipped in cool water that is wrapped around the back of your neck. Schedule your gardening time so that you can avoid the intense temperature highs of the day, which usually occur from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Wear sun-protective clothing while enjoying your garden, especially a wide-brimmed hat to help avoid sun exposure to the delicate planes of your face. Don’t wear a ball cap from your favorite sports team, as they don’t protect the ears, neck, or much of your face. And remember to use mosquito repellent to help avoid mosquito bites and West Nile disease which has been found in mosquitoes in northern Colorado. Wear sunscreen and reapply every 60-90 minutes, depending on your activity level (you’ll need to apply sunscreen more frequently if you are sweating).

Using a ladder to trim tree branches or clean the gutters? Be aware of overhead power lines and avoid contact with those lines, which can lead to electrocution. Even digging a hole to plant a new tree, or install a fence, shouldn’t be done until the area has been located for underground power lines, so call your 811 to schedule an appointment for a free utility locating session at your home. You can also schedule an appointment online at www.call811.com.

If you use pesticides or herbicides, always follow the manufacturer’s directions for mixing or dilution of the product and keep pets and people off of the area until the recommended time has passed. Wear the property safety equipment which may include safety goggles, long pants and shirt or a mask. Store the product in a safe area, so that Fido doesn’t get curious and decide to taste the product!

The final tip towards safety in the garden is to take planned rest breaks. Sit on your favorite bench or rock and drink in the beauty of your garden and the breath-taking Colorado scenery.

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