How to Garden with Arthritis

By Shannon Coughlin, Master Gardener in Training

I love gardening. My gardens are my place of happiness, my therapy; I’m sure many of you feel the same way.

Over the years I have particularly enjoyed the hard physical work of gardening – digging new beds, arranging rocks, planting shrubs and flowers, pruning, and of course, never failing to visit and financially support every nursery or plant stand encountered! I found gardening good exercise, stress relieving, and also very much enjoyed the creative aspect of doing my own landscaping.

Life has ways of dealing us the unexpected and unwanted. Several years ago I developed a medical condition which affected my ability to do physical tasks. While it was good to know what was responsible for my body betraying me, I had to learn to deal with it and to deal with the frustration of my increasing limitations.

Everyone said I needed to cut back on my gardening but there was no way I was going to give up something that I loved so much! I would need to learn to work with it and around it. Here is what I learned – timing, tools, and ensuring safe practices are the important trio.

Arthritis and fibromyalgia are counterintuitive conditions. The days when you feel you can’t move a muscle or a joint are the days you should be doing your best to move as much as possible. Moving helps to keep your joints and muscles lubricated and flexible, and gardening gets you moving. Having said that, timing comes into play. If you are having a particularly painful or uncomfortable day, it would be best to do light work such as dead heading and watering so as to not exacerbate the pain. Find what time of day works best for you – for some it is mornings, others the evening. I work best on cool, and even better, overcast days or cooler evenings. I simply can’t tolerate mid-day heat any more. Working mid-afternoon in the extreme heat conditions such as we have had this summer is not a good idea for anyone as it can lead to dehydration, dizziness and possible heatstroke.

Timing also relates to pacing yourself; don’t overdo it. Overdoing it on a day when you are feeling better is gardening snakes and ladders! You might get one or two steps forward but then be unable to get back out in the garden at all for the next few days. On good days enjoy working away, but take breaks when putting in several hours. Always have water with you to ensure you stay well hydrated, (your muscles will thank you), and it will help avoid dizzy spells. Listen to your body signals and stop before you are depleted. The garden will still be there tomorrow.

Tools can be our best friends to help us continue to enjoy gardening: try plant hangers that can be lowered, extended length pruners, shorter smaller shovels that can be used when sitting, sharp edged hand trowels, extended reach weeding tools like a Japanese hoe and so many other clever means to get done what needs to be done. One of my favourite purchases this year is a smaller lightweight wagon that works as a little dump truck. I can fill it with soil or mulch, wheel it to where I want the material to go, flick the catch, and it dumps. Cuts shoveling in half! My other favourite garden vehicle is a three-tier stainless steel cart my husband brought home from work years ago when they were tossing it out. That cart has many miles on it, so useful for unloading plant purchases and transporting them around the yard to where they need to be, transporting fertilizer, tools, and newly created pots. Not only does the cart help not having to carry items in arthritic hands, pushing it helps with movement and balance on days the knees are protesting.

Smart tools are gardening fundamentals. While a very heavy rubber hose has its attributes, pulling it around and having to wind it back up after use can be a strain. I love the very light fabric hoses that extend when filled with water then collapse to nothing when the water is turned off and can be gathered in one hand to put away. Yes, over the years I have had some completely blow up but have found a brand that has lasted over two years now. The trick is to bring it and your nozzles into the house for the winter.

Use tools for planting and weeding that give you more leverage and action. For me, an example is an arrow shaped digging tool – about 18 inches long – that lets me use the point to make holes or cut weeds, using the wider back end to rake the weeds towards you for bagging up. Wrestling with yard waste bags can be a pain in multiple ways. Bag holders that keep them open are handy but I prefer to use large plastic garbage cans with holes drilled in bottom to let moisture out. I find them easier to fill and drag around.

Many tools are specially designed for arthritic hands with ergonomic shapes and thicker easier to hold handles. Look into the Arthritis Society’s Ease of Use Program to check out these tools designed to help give you comfort. Not specifically designed for arthritis but so very helpful is an extending pruner. The one I purchased this year, while a bit heavy, extends to over 8 feet to help me reach big weeds and small trees or suckers in awkward places that would otherwise require hands and knees work.

What I call gardening body tools are very important as well. When gardening, wear good solid shoes that will help with balance and foot safety instead of flip flops or sandals that can cause slips and falls and leave your feet exposed to injury from sharp twigs or stones. Wrist and knee braces can be valuable for support and help reduce the potential for injury and strain. Good gardening gloves will help protect your hands from nicks and scratches. A hat or visor is vital to protect yourself from sun exposure. Also use a good sunscreen and light full coverage clothing to add additional sun protection. It is hard enough to sleep comfortably with arthritis, without having to nurse a sunburn in addition. Check your medications as some can cause serious sun photosensitivity, another unexpected and hard learned lesson for myself this year.

The days of kneeling to work in my gardens are over for me. My best friend in the garden and yard is the two step Rubbermaid stool, just the right height that it is high enough for sitting down and easily getting back up, yet low enough that I can bend over and reach the ground to dig or weed. The stool also has a low reinforcing band around the legs that not only makes it sturdy but also prevents the legs from sinking into very moist soil or grass (not that we have that as a concern this summer). I can readily dig with my short handled shovel while sitting on the stool. I keep one stool in the front yard, one in the back for flower bed work, and one in the vegetable garden area.

Thinking garden safety is essential and balance is the key to avoiding falls. If you struggle with balance, have a cane or garden stick on hand to help you manoeuver. When I had a tumble after shoulder replacement surgery and couldn’t pick myself up, I learned the hard way to always have your phone on you in case of a fall. Do your best to avoid ladders, especially if working alone.

Over the winter, I build my garden plan for the upcoming year. A garden “business plan” will cover what seeds and seeding accessories you will need to get started, what bedding plants you want to buy, your soil, compost and mulch needs, perhaps some changes to existing beds or new plantings, and even garden decor. I continue to do some of my best planning over the season while taking a break sitting on my stool, surveying the yard from my perch. While spring brings a lot of work opening up and planting our gardens, having a plan ready helps us to work more effectively and efficiently, saving time and energy. We often tend to overdo it in spring especially after our long sedentary winters so your plan can cover timelines and estimated hours of work to accomplish your goals. Again, pace yourself.

When getting stocked up in spring, take advantage of delivery services to reserve your energy and time for direct gardening activity. You can shop on line and have just about anything delivered now – soil, mulch, bedding plants, trees, shrubs, tools, and accessories. In addition to your garden plan, keep a garden diary of what worked, what didn’t, new plants you want to try, and plants you want to move or dig out completely. These notes will form the basis of your next garden plan. Labelling all your garden plants or having a plant map can help with knowing/remembering what you have come spring – another work smarter not harder, and even money saving tip.

Think about your garden structures and what options there are to help ease the workload and strain. My vegetable garden and some flowerbeds are in raised beds to which I can pull up my stool on difficult days instead of having to kneel or stand. One of your best gardening friends is going to be serious deep mulching! Mulching represses weeds and retains soil moisture. Less weeding and watering is a good thing for arthritic hands! Another option is container gardening which will allow you to enjoy a diversity of flowers and vegetables in a more manageable size.

Even with all this, as hard as it is, as I always prided myself on being self-sufficient, I sometimes now have to ask for help. The solution is to ask the right people to help such as someone strong and healthy who has gardening knowledge and interest. If the best you can get is strong and healthy, then be there to give them explicit guidance on what needs to be done, what is a precious plant and what a weed, exactly where you want soil or mulch spread, and how thick. It will save frustration on both your parts, and get the work done so that you can relax and enjoy the beauty and fruits of your gardens.

Whatever your challenges might be, I hope implementing these tips will help you enjoy all that your gardens have to offer for many years to come!


Published:  September 2021