With all of the grim, nasty jobs out there, gardeners know they have it good. All other things being equal, would anyone really rather stand in an assembly line or sit at a desk than kneel in a rose bed? But as Bonnie Lee Appleton and many others have found out, it's easy to get too much of a good thing.
A professional horticulturalist and gardener for the last 30 years, Appleton has spent more time with hoes and pruning shears than most people spend with their children. She always loved the work, even as it wrecked her health. Now a professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech University, Appleton teaches an important message: Gardeners need to tend to their bodies as well as the soil.
Appleton learned that lesson in the mid-1980s while working toward her PhD in horticulture. As it turned out, her degree required endless hours of hoeing, weeding, and lifting -- "graduate grunt-work," as she calls it. Before long, searing pain started shooting up her arms, her hands became too numb to grasp tools, and painful pins-and-needles sensations kept her awake at night. "My hands were in sheer agony," she says. "I knew right away that gardening was causing the trouble, but I didn't know what to do about it."
If she had been a secretary or a computer programmer, her problem might have been diagnosed right away. As it was, it took several trips to the doctor to give her misery a name: carpal tunnel syndrome. Yes, that malady of the computer age -- an often debilitating condition in which the median nerve in the wrist is pinched or compressed -- strikes old-fashioned gardeners, too.
Now she had a diagnosis, but there was no way of knowing if she could ever return to her garden. Hoping for the best, she bought every book she could find on carpal tunnel syndrome. She soon discovered that some sufferers have found relief on the job by using specially designed ergonomic tools, including hammers, scissors, and -- Eureka! -- pruning shears.
With a lot of hunting, Appleton put together a small collection of ergonomic gardening tools, including easy-to-squeeze shears and lightweight aluminum trowels with big handles and molded foam-rubber grips. To her amazement, she could once again trim hedges and dig up weeds without the slightest twinge of pain.
At the time, few gardeners had even heard of ergonomic tools, let alone used them. Appleton tried to change that by writing a series of articles in horticultural journals and popular magazines. "I figured that if I was suffering from this, a tremendous number of other gardeners must be going through the same thing," she says. Today, gardener-friendly devices are available at any big gardening or home-supply store, and they usually don't cost more than regular tools, she says.
Even with the best equipment, Appleton still has to play it safe. To reduce wear and tear on her knees and back, she works from a standing position whenever possible. And unlike her graduate student days, she never does the same thing for more than 20 minutes at a time. "Luckily, my attention span isn't much longer than that anyway," she jokes.
Appleton also wears the one piece of protective equipment that no gardener should go without: Sturdy gloves. Without proper covering on the hands, a gardener is bound to get blisters as well as serious cuts and scrapes from thorns, tools, or stakes, she says. They should also wear face shields while using power equipment.
All professional gardeners should know that their job can be hazardous, and be prepared. For example, a first-aid kit should always be close at hand. In the event of an emergency, at a minimum a gardener should have easy access to an instant cold pack for sprains, ibuprofen or other painkillers, lotion for insect bites and rashes, gauze and bandages, soap or liquid cleanser for washing off pesticide spills, tweezers for extracting insect stingers, and antibiotic cream for cuts. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also advises that gardeners not wear jewelry while working, because it can get caught in the moving parts of mowers and other equipment.
Gardeners and landscapers must also take special care with pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals, which can cause skin rashes, nerve disorders, respiratory illness, and a variety of chronic diseases. As described in a recent bulletin on gardening safety from the University of Arizona, a gardener should always wear neoprene or rubber gloves, safety goggles, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and sturdy shoes (not sandals) when mixing chemicals. In addition, the chemicals should be mixed in an open area and sprayed when the air is relatively calm; gardeners should wear a respirator during the spraying and avoid skin contact with the spray and sprayed plants. Above all else, gardeners have to read each section and follow the instructions on every chemical label, and follow all the precautions it advises.
Most gardeners today are familiar with integrated pest management (IPM), a system that seeks to reduce pesticide use in favor of non-chemical alternatives. Among other things, they've used black lady beetles to manage apple pests (including the European red mite), and to control greenhouse pests such as whitefly nymphs through the use of a small wasp that acts as a parasite. To reduce your own exposure to pesticides as well as the environment's, you may want to check out the integrated pest management resources at a university near you (see Resources).
Landscaper Dawn Hobart and her boyfriend Steve DeForest, who work at Fairfax Greenhouses in eastern Iowa, take plenty of precautions when they're working outdoors. But sore muscles and bees aside, they say, the thrill of creating a work of art in a customers' yard never wears off. Hobart recently led a group of grade-school children in gardening exercises, teaching them how to dig and helping them plant a sunflower seed that she expects to see turn into a giant tower of yellow and green. "I want to be back here tomorrow, helping customers and doing what I love," she says. "This is what I was meant to do with my life."
National Gardening Association, http://www.garden.org/
Thornton, Joe. Pandora's Posion. MIT Press. A book about the dangers of industrial chemicals used in pesticides.
Consumer Product Safety Commission. CPSC Alerts Consumers to Lawn and Garden Care Dangers.
Lander BF, Knudsen LE, Gamborg MO, Jarventaus H, Norppa H. Chromosome aberrations in pesticide-exposed greenhouse workers.Scand J Work Environ Health. 2000 Oct;26(5):436-42.
McFarland, EG. Olecranon and prepatellar bursitis: Treating acute, cronic and inflamed. Physician and Sports Medicine.2000;28(3).