Not surprisingly, looking after your garden can be more difficult if you have arthritis or a similar condition but it doesn’t mean you have to give up something you enjoy.
How can I protect my joints?
To help protect your joints from unnecessary strain you can try:
- changing the layout of paths and beds for easier access
- selecting easy-to-care-for plants
- choosing the right tools or adapting the ones you have
- doing tasks differently, for example sitting down to plant seeds so you don’t have to keep bending down.
You may need to get help with some of the heavier jobs, especially if you’re making changes to the layout of your garden, but make sure your helper understands that the aim is to allow you to manage your garden yourself.
How can I fight tiredness?
When you’re gardening, don’t overdo it. Pace yourself by:
- taking regular breaks – use a timer if necessary
- switching between harder and gentler tasks.
Where can I get more advice?
If certain tasks cause pain in particular joints, an occupational therapist may be able to help by:
- finding equipment that will make the job easier
- suggesting another way of doing tasks
- recommending splints to support your joints
- discussing when to take painkillers before you start gardening.
Protecting your joints
Gardening is a really good form of exercise, but doing some actions over and over can lead to inflammation and pain if you have arthritis, making it necessary to rest completely until the flare-up passes.
You should aim for a balance between exercising your joints and muscles to stay mobile without straining them. ‘Little and often’ is usually the best approach, but switching between different jobs will also help. The following tips should help to avoid flare-ups of pain:
- Change task to reduce repeated strain on the same joints. Don’t be tempted to press on until the job is finished. Try switching from one task after 20 minutes to another, allowing yourself a rest if you need it, so that you rest some joints and exercise different ones for a while. For example, break up harder jobs like hoeing weeds with spells of something gentler like pricking out seedlings.
- Spread the load. Try to spread the weight of items when you carry them by resting them on your forearms and hands, rather than trying to pick them up with your fingers only. Try resting a tray of seedlings on your forearms, for example. Keep your elbows tucked in to reduce the strain on your shoulders and elbows
- Use a garden stool. This will limit your reach so you’ll need to plan your borders around this or invest in lightweight, long-reach or extendable handled tools. However, it’s less tiring and reduces the load on weight-bearing joints. And because you’re closer to the ground you can use shorter, and therefore lighter, tools. Make sure you can get up easily from the stool – avoid sitting too long and getting stiff as this will make rising more difficult.
- Get a good grip. Slip a spongy rubber sleeve over the handle of a hoe or rake to increase grip. This will reduce the strain on your knuckles and jarring of the joints. A good pair of gloves also helps you to grip more easily. If you find it difficult to find gloves to fit – for example, if your arthritis has cause hand deformities – think about trying gloves made from elasticated material that fits on the hand and can then be strapped using Velcro (all part of the glove). Alternatively, gloves that don’t have the full finger length but which have flexible material may be useful.
- Wear splints. An occupational therapist will be able to advise on whether splints might help to support the joints of your hands and wrists and reduce the strain of some gardening tasks. A wrist splint may be helpful if you have painful or weak wrists, while a thumb splint may be useful for tasks that need you to have a tight grip for a long time (for example pruning). Wearing gardening gloves over splints will keep them clean and also increase your grip.
- Plan ahead to avoid unnecessary effort. If walking is difficult, avoid too many journeys up and down the garden by taking all the things you need in a wheelbarrow, bucket or trug. This will cause less strain on your hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Try not to start too many things that must be attended to whether you feel like it or not, and don’t worry too much about weeds and not getting all your jobs done – they can always wait for another day.
- Seek help with heavier jobs. Decide beforehand what you need help with and what you prefer to do yourself. Make sure that a well-meaning and enthusiastic helper doesn’t take on more than you really want them to.
- Avoid heavy lifting. If you can’t get help lifting bags of compost, especially from the boot of a car, think about buying two small bags instead of one large one. Many manufacturers now include handles on their compost bags, which makes them much easier to carry.
- Use the correct tools for the job. Use lightweight or long-handled tools, carry items in a wheeled device and keep gardening cutters sharp and well maintained for ease of use (do this with care if you decide to do this yourself). If a particular task causes difficulty or discomfort, it may help to speak to an occupational therapist. They’ll help you to understand why the task is causing pain and suggest changes to the way you do tasks or tools that will reduce the strain.
Planning your garden and choosing low-maintenance plants will make things easier if you go on holiday or into hospital, or if you or don’t feel up to gardening for a while.
Lawns need mowing regularly throughout the summer, so if you’re often away from home and don’t have reliable help it may be worth replacing the lawn with a low-maintenance area such as paving or gravel. You can leave spaces here and there between slabs for growing suitable plants, or you could grow plants in pots on the paved/gravelled area.
Plants like elephant’s ears, cranesbill, lavender and periwinkle backed by shrubs such as barberry, escallonia, senecio and viburnum can take care of themselves for long periods once their roots are deep in the soil.
Create a wildlife area using wildflower seeds, which don’t usually need tending, although you’ll need to prepare the ground well beforehand to avoid getting more weeds than flowers. This is also good for encouraging wildlife into the garden.
There are a number of books and websites on low-maintenance gardening which will suggest plants that don’t need a great deal of attention.
See our booklet for more information Looking after your joints when you have arthritis
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at how you can improve your garden layout to make gardening easier if you have arthritis.
This week we are working together with Arthritis Research UK to help Mature Times readers who are living with joint pain, or who know someone who is, to keep gardening. If you want to find out more about how Arthritis Research UK could help you or how you can join us in our fight against arthritis, go to www.arthritisresearchuk.org/