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Gardening and Arthritis an Information Booklet
This information is from the Arthritis Research Campaign (arc). For more information, see the arc website at www.arc.org.uk.
Looking after your garden can be a problem if you have arthritis or rheumatism. Whether your whole body is affected or just one joint, you may find bending difficult or that you cannot get around too well or just suffer from general pain and stiffness.
This booklet shows how you can carry on gardening, whether you have a painful hip, swollen fingers and wrists, or a number of damaged joints. You will find ways to protect yourself from unnecessary strain by careful planning.
Pain in the joints and weakness of the muscles make it difficult to garden in the conventional way. But there are a number of means to overcome these hindrances. You can use different gardening methods, change the layout of paths and beds, select plants carefully and choose the right tools. It is important to use lightweight implements or ones which have extended handles. There is a wide variety of garden tools designed to make cultivation, weeding, pruning and tidying up easier. It may be important to handle tools before buying, so that you can test them for lightness and balance. If possible, try them out on the soil to make sure they feel right and that you can manage them properly.
Because arthritis comes in many forms, and varies in severity and extent, all the suggestions offered cannot be appropriate for everyone. A gardener whose stiff knee gives minor discomfort when s/he is digging will change his/her techniques to place less strain on the knee. Someone with widespread arthritis, however, may have to work from a wheelchair or a stool. One has to accept much greater limitations than the other yet both can enjoy gardening to the full. On some days you feel much better than on others and this affects your attitude to gardening as well as to everything else.
Protecting your joints
Gardening provides plenty of opportunities for healthy exercise in the fresh air and in pleasant surroundings. But overdoing things leads to inflammation, swelling and pain, making it necessary to rest completely until the flare-up subsides. The aim is to stay mobile and independent by gently exercising arthritic joints without subjecting them to too much stress. The amount of exercise will vary from one person to another. A general guideline is 'a little and often'. Prolonged activity of a repetitive nature is not a good idea. Your own experience will tell you how to get the balance right.
By changing jobs frequently you can exercise different sets of muscles. For example, a short spell of hoeing weeds on the vegetable plot should be followed by something gentler like pricking out seedlings while sitting at a bench in the greenhouse. It is tempting to carry on with one job until it is completed, but it is sensible to switch from one to another with rest periods in-between.
The small joints of the hand are damaged by too much pressure. When carrying things try to spread the load by using both hands and arms, rather than taking the load with the fingers only. When lifting a tray of seedlings, pick it up with both hands and rest it on your palms. Better still, carry it on your forearms and keep your elbows tucked in to your ribs to reduce the strain on shoulders and elbows.
Take a grip
Gripping a rake or hoe tightly for any length of time can cause pain and swelling of the knuckles. By slipping a sponge rubber sleeve over the shaft of the tool you can hold it less tightly. This will also absorb any jarring. Plastic foam insulation sleeving used for domestic central heating pipes and obtained from builders' merchants and DIY shops is eminently suitable for many tools.
Taking it easy
By planning gardening jobs carefully you can avoid unnecessary effort. If problems with your hips, knees and ankles mean walking is difficult try to avoid too many journeys up and down the garden. Take all you need in one go. Conversely, if you need to protect your shoulders, elbows and wrists it is better to make several trips carrying a small amount each time.
There may be ways to reduce effort simply by looking at the job in a different way. For instance, instead of filling a large watering can from a tap outside the back door and carrying it to the bottom of the garden, why not have one or two open-topped tanks placed in the garden where you need them most? You can fill them from time to time with a hosepipe.
Plants can be watered using a small plastic can dipped into the nearest tank. To make the tanks less obtrusive you can 'hide' them by surrounding them with suitable plants.
A little help
There are bound to be occasions when you need help with some of the heavier work, but be careful not to let your assistant take on more than is really necessary. It is too easy for an enthusiastic friend to be too willing to help, with the result that you become a spectator. You do not want to lose the pleasure and satisfaction of doing your own gardening. Decide how much you can do yourself and how much you need to delegate for example, you may be glad of help with heavy digging but you can manage the raking and seed-sowing or planting on your own.
By all means seek help when it comes to shifting heavy loads such as bags of compost especially when lifting them out of the boot of a car. You can probably find help at a garden centre, but if you are on your own when you get home, buy two small bags instead of one large one, even though they will cost more.
When you're away
There may be times when you need a spell in hospital or perhaps when you just don't feel up to gardening for a while. At these times the garden has to grow without you. This is where it pays to plan ahead, choosing plants which will thrive during your absence.
A garden filled with carefully selected shrubs and herbaceous perennials needs less attention than one consisting of a variety of annual bedding plants. In the first instance the bare soil is effectively covered, excluding light and preventing weed growth.
Plants like bergenias, cranesbill, lavender and periwinkle backed by shrubs such as berberis, escallonia, Senecio 'Sunshine' and Viburnum tinus can take care of themselves for long periods once their roots are deep into the soil. It is important to water them well during their first summer after planting. There are many low-maintenance plants which you can discover by consulting a good gardening manual or by seeking advice from your local garden centre.
Lawns need mowing regularly throughout the summer, so if you are frequently away from home and have no reliable help it may be worth replacing the lawn with a paved area. You can leave spaces here and there between slabs for growing suitable plants.