Creating an Arthritis-Friendly Garden

Fresh air, sunshine, the pleasure of watching living things grow — there’s no disputing that gardening offers a host of benefits. But if you have arthritis-related discomfort or mobility issues, just moving around between flower beds can be challenging, while planting, weeding, and harvesting could seem next to impossible. The good news is that with a few movement modifications and the proper tools, you can not only still enjoy gardening with arthritis but also maintain an activity level that helps you manage your arthritis symptoms.

Gardening with rheumatoid arthritis: Does a body good

Arthritis pain stops a lot of people from being physically active, and a lack of physical activity can worsen your condition and lead to weight gain and a decline in overall health. Getting regular, moderate-intensity physical activity — which elevates your heart rate enough so that you’re breathing somewhat heavily but can still carry on a conversation — offers a host of benefits. It can strengthen the muscles around affected joints, maintain or improve range of motion, decrease bone loss, and reduce stiffness and pain, just to name a few.

Tending to a garden can provide moderate-­intensity physical activity, and for people with limited mobility, it can be a good alternative to other activities that may be too difficult. Johanna Leos, MAG, MBA, HTM, a clinical horticultural therapist at the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Maryland, recommends gardening as a way to stay active, noting that it provides “consistent movement of af­fected joints” that is “not so vigorous as to create further damage.” In addition, researchers at Kan­sas State University have shown that gardening may help to improve hand strength in older adults.

Gardening may have psychological benefits, too, says Barbara Kreski, MHS, OTR/L, HTR, Director of Horticultural Therapy Services at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Illinois. “Viewing and experiencing nature has been shown to elevate mood, reduce perception of pain, and increase social interaction,” she notes. “Often, people who are feeling vulnerable are strengthened by tending something even more vulnerable than themselves. And the feeling of gratification that results from work is very satisfying.”

But although the advantages of gardening are many, it might not be so easy to enjoy them if typical gardening activities such as bending and stooping, gripping handles, or carrying pots trigger more problems than benefits. The good news is that there are tools and strategies that can make working in the garden easier and more comfortable for people with arthritis.

Assessing your needs for gardening with arthritis

Before you start gardening (or modifying your garden, if you already have one, to make it work for you), you want to have a sense of what you can and can’t do. It’s wise to start by talking to your doctor or a physical or occupational therapist. Taking into consideration the type of gardening activities you want to do, which joints are affected by arthritis, and what your physical limitations are, the doctor or therapist can help you modify activities or adjust medicines so that gardening is more feasible and enjoyable.

“Seeing what you are able to do is an important thing,” explains John Indalecio, a certified hand therapist at the Hand Therapy Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “It’s one thing for people with arthritis to look through catalogs or on the Internet for garden tools, but not every item is for every person. Some people may need to sit down and garden, while others can do it on one knee. Some may need long handles that give them more reach, while others are more able to bend.”

Assess your joint strength: What are your hands, wrists, and elbows able to do and tolerate? Can your knees support your weight when rising from a kneeling position? Will bending over, lifting pots, or raking the soil aggravate arthritis pain in your back? “It’s important to do a trial run,” Indalecio says, “to see when you have trouble or where you have the most difficulty. Think about how you are doing things. What is harder for your body in terms of certain postures or movement?”

You may also find that different times of day may work better for you than others. Although many people tend their garden in the morning, when temperatures are cooler, that may not be the best time if you often experience morning stiffness. If you do your gardening in the afternoon, Indalecio recommends taking frequent breaks and shielding yourself from the sun.

Setting up your arthritis-friendly garden

Once you understand your strengths and limitations, you can choose the gardening option that makes sense for you — both in terms of physical abilities and logistical constraints. If accessing the outdoors is difficult for you or you want to be able to garden year-round regardless of the weather, windowsill planters or plant stands complete with grow lights can allow you to garden indoors, without bending and stooping.

If you have outdoor space that you can access easily, a container garden on your deck or patio, a greenhouse, or a raised-bed garden can be set up to meet your needs.

Container garden

It’s possible to grow a wide variety of herbs and vegetables in pots and planters on your patio. Choose lightweight containers for planting, and place them on wheeled bases to make them easier to move around. You can also place planters on railings, shelves, or another elevated surface to reduce your need to bend. Another option is to use hanging planters (including upside-down ones) or containers on pulleys that you can raise and lower. To keep the weight of plant containers lighter and easier to manage, make the potting soil less dense with additives such as rice hulls, vermiculite, or perlite.

Greenhouse

If you’re thinking of setting up a greenhouse, options range from portable structures to permanent installations. Having a greenhouse protects your plants — and you — from inclement weather, and keeping plants on shelves or tables can allow you to care for them while seated.

Raised garden beds

If you have a more traditional backyard garden, installing raised beds can minimize the amount of bending you need to do. Elevating the planting beds to about 24 inches above the ground and enclosing them with walls wide enough to sit on will enable you to garden from a seated position. Keeping the bed narrow (four feet wide at most) reduces the need to reach. If you’re in a wheelchair, a tabletop planting bed can allow you easy access to the plants. The Carry On Gardening Web site offer more information on raised and tabletop gardens (see Gardening Resources).

Use the right tools

Once you set up your garden, there’s still the business of planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting — all tasks that can be difficult for painful or stiff joints. Fortunately, manufacturers have developed a host of gardening tools that are designed for people with limited mobility or joint problems, such as tools with long or telescoping handles to increase reach and gardening carts to transport supplies with and to sit on. The following are some tips for selecting arthritis-friendly tools or adapting ones you may already have so that they are easier to use.

Try before you buy.

Take advantage of display models and try out tools in the store. Can you open and close those shears with ease? Is that trowel too heavy to handle?

When buying equipment, “don’t skimp on tool quality,” says Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR, board-certified rheumatologist and Director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland. Dr. Wei recommends using stainless steel shovels rather than carbon ones so that less soil will stick to the blade, making it less heavy. And smaller border spades may be easier to use than larger, heavier digging spades.

Get a grip

You can add foam or grip tape to the handles of your tools to build up the grips and make them easier to hold. Or you can buy new handles for your favorite tools that allow you to keep your wrist in a neutral position as you use the tool. For example, the Easi-Grip Add On Handle gives conventional tools an ergonomic grip handle for easier use and better control. You can put it on hoes, rakes, hand tools, and brooms. Add a support cuff, such as the Easi-Grip Arm Support Cuff, to increase stability and lessen finger and wrist strain.

Roll with it

Invest in a rolling stool or seat that lets you move around the garden easily and then sit while you work. This reduces your need to bend over and keeps weight off large joints such as the knees. For transporting debris, tools, or other garden supplies, consider garden carts with pneumatic tires or lightweight pop-up containers.

Ease your knees

If you must kneel, use a cushioned kneeling pad to soften the impact and brace yourself with one arm while you work with the other. Or buy a kneeler seat, a special stool that has cushioning on both sides of the seat and functions as a kneeler when turned upside down.

Give yourself a hand

As we age, our skin be­comes thinner, making us more prone to scrapes and tears, so it’s important to protect your hands as you work in the garden. You’ll want a good pair of gardening gloves that not only offer protection from the cold but also cushion joints. Bionic Gardening Gloves, which earned an Ease-of-Use Commendation from the Arthritis Foundation, are designed to improve your ability to grip, pinch, and twist objects. These gloves are available at www.bionicgloves.com.

Wise watering

Make it easy to water your garden by laying soaker hoses throughout instead of lugging garden hoses or watering cans each time.

Choose your plants wisely

Planting perennials rather than annuals can translate to less work each season because they come back for several years. Also, avoid high-maintenance plants that require a lot of pruning or attention.

Make other adjustments

Even if you have the right tools, gardening can still be uncomfortable if you don’t also pay attention to your body’s positioning as you work. Keep your wrists in a neutral position (straight and flat, not bent upward or downward). If you are lifting something heavy, use your forearms, not just your hands, and carry the weight close to your chest. If you have to bend over to pick something up from the ground, extend one leg out behind you as a counterweight to keep from straining your back.

It’s also a good idea to stretch before and after gardening to help prevent joint injury. In addition, taking frequent breaks and stopping before you become exhausted will keep you from overdoing it. Whatever you do, “do not push through pain,” reminds Kreski. “Pain is a warning to stop.”

Finally, keep in mind your abilities and remember that gardening is supposed to be enjoyable, not stressful. “Adjust your expectations — just because you have a three-acre backyard doesn’t mean you have to use it all,” Indalecio says. “The bottom line is engaging with your life, and you can do it on your own terms.” Make adjustments, such as scaling down the size or height of your garden, that make maintenance tasks more manageable. With the right tools, modifications, and mindset, gardening can be a relaxing and rewarding hobby.

by Nancy Christie is a freelance health writer and editor based in Ohio.

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