heather wright digging a hole in her garden bed

Planting Without Pain: How to Garden Comfortably

More than half (55%) of US homes have a garden and 18 million Americans are planting and cultivating food and flowers every year. While there’s nothing better than a garden bursting with vibrant veggies and fragrant flowers — all the work it requires (lifting heavy pots and plants and bending, twisting and reaching to plant, dig and water) can lead to lots of back and neck pain and even injuries.

My patient Heather Wright knows all about this. She loves to garden. It’s not only a passion of hers — it’s also her profession. She started a business in 2023 — Wright’s Farmacy — which views food as medicine and sells surplus produce from her family’s garden through the business to her community.

Heather is also familiar with back pain. She is a veteran and an athlete who has competed and medaled in multiple Wounded Warrior Games after battling back from an injured back. Told at one point she had the back of an 80-year-old, she underwent a two-level spinal fusion with me and worked with a physical therapist to get back to competitive athletics.

Now, as an entrepreneur and gardener, she spends hours at a time doing the very physical work of gardening — lifting, leaning, stretching, pulling, pushing as she grows green beans, yellow squash, zucchini, a number of peppers, lots of herbs, sweet corn, cantaloupe and more. It’s a lot on your body and your back and what I love about Heather’s approach to this work is — she’s always asking — how can I do it differently to protect my back. She’s got lots of great ideas that are not only helping her — she knows they’ll help others too. She shared them with me recently and gave me permission to share them not only with my patients — but here too.

Tips for Gardening without Pain

If you can, warm-up prior to gardening activities, a gentle walk and/or some mobility/range of motion movements for the major joints.

The scale or size of your garden determines your volume of workload and hours of labor. It’s often suggested to tend a smaller space more intensively than a larger space poorly. This will help not only physically but will help it feel manageable and more enjoyable.

Gardening involves natural movements in all planes of the body and in all directions. It’s important to be mindful of body positioning and movements. It’s easy to get focused on the task and then find yourself in a compromised position, such as reaching outside your center of gravity or bending without support. Check in regularly and readjust as needed. One key is to keep things close to the body, whether carrying items or when pruning, planting, or harvesting — try not to reach beyond where you are stable.

Heather Wright tending to her garden

Body positions that promote back health are kneeling, all fours, or seated work with an upright posture and neutral spine. It’s very easy to stray from these positions and it requires constant checking in. Various aids are available to help with good posture: kneelers with handles, pads, knee pads, garden seats on wheels (some seats even turn). A key part of body positioning is supporting the spine when you can — resting an arm on a bent knee or supporting the body on all fours — this is often taught in physical therapy and carries over to tasks like emptying the washing machine, etc.

Styles of gardening can aid better posture too — raised beds (various heights), small kitchen gardens, container and/or vertical gardening. Focus on growing what you and your family eat first. If you are growing in the ground and harvests are very low, such as spinach, greens, etc, try sitting on the ground and harvesting to your side, after a few minutes, turn and change sides for symmetry. Sitting and kneeling on pads can help a lot too.

Pay attention to how long you’re in one position. You don’t want it to be too long so take breaks and pace tasks. Also consider gardening on non consecutive days to give you time to recover.

The bottom line is — if gardening is causing pain, you don’t necessarily have to avoid it completely. Talk with your doctor or physical therapist and like Heather — find innovative ways to adapt and get back to doing what you love.

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