The physical side of gardening

For the professional, gardening can be a very demanding job. It requires the memory of an elephant to correctly identify thousands of different plants at a glance. It requires the organisational abilities of an executive, to remember the huge to do list, and to be able to prioritise them correctly. It requires the logic of a mechanic, able to fix a machine on the spot, with the minimum of tools. It requires the analytical mind of a biological scientist, able to spot the difference between mineral deficiency, fungal pathogen or insect attack and diagnose the best solution. And, by no means least, it requires the physical abilities of an athlete, able to keep up with the relentless demands on a body that this kind of physical work entails. 

For many non-gardeners the idea of spending all day ‘pottering’ in the garden seems very attractive. With plenty of sunshine, fresh air and a beautiful workplace, what could be better? Having spent all of my career so far working in horticulture, I have to stop myself telling people the reality of doing it as a full-time job is totally different to doing it as a hobby. Being on your feet, doing physical work, all day, whatever the weather is quite a tough proposition most would shy from. In a commercial environment, driven by deadlines and profit margins, I have seen many people struggle to keep up with the physical demands placed on them day after day. After moving four tons of materials across the garden in wheelbarrows, when the next load arrives it can start to feel like an endless task, and thank goodness it is, otherwise we would all be out of a job.

Over the years I have seen my fair share of accidents in the garden, from the everyday minor cuts and scrapes, to the unbelievable stories of careless chainsaw owners, runaway mowers or man-eating rotovators. There are plenty of chances to do oneself harm, and I have had to have the occasional trip to accident and emergency myself. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) around 300,000 Britons are injured in the garden every year. 

The statistics show that the most common accidents in the garden are slips, trips and falls. Even with the strength of a gladiator and the balance of a prima ballerina, we would all feel a little vulnerable perched at the top of a ladder, swinging a hedge cutter around in the pouring rain, but the most common accidents occur from slippy or uneven surfaces. Just wearing a good pair of boots can work wonders, and provide you with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat. 

The next most common injury is back pain; something I have had to deal with on more than one occasion. The constant bending, lifting and twisting can place a lot of strain on he lower back. I regularly used to suffer from bouts of sciatica in the autumn from collecting up the huge piles of leaves. With regular stretching and acupuncture I was able to get relief, but the best ways to prevent back pain are 1. Avoid lifting where possible (use a device or machine to do the work) 2. Lift correctly (bending at the knees, keeping the back straight and keeping the load close to the body to reduce strain.) 

One of the most common injuries they found were those sustained to the eyes. The eyes are sensitive instruments and unfortunately very vulnerable and easily damaged. A stray branch, spiky leaf or even just a speck of dust can wreak havoc with the eye. I have managed on more than one occasion to get something in my eye, scratching my lens and spending the next couple of days in some discomfort. Whilst many of these incidents would have been impossible to predict, wearing eye protection, wherever possible is a good prevention. I found that the eye protection made for carpenters who use nail guns as part of their everyday work were suitably tough and comfortable for most jobs where there was a risk of injury, although for jobs like brush cutting, a full face guard is an added line of defence.

Another risk for gardeners to consider is that of allergies. There are hundreds of plants in the garden that could potentially be poisonous. Recently we heard of a gardener who was poisoned by the Aconites (monkshood) he was dealing with. Seeds from Ricinus (the castor oil plant) contain powerful toxins (ricin) that were, several years ago, implicated in the poisoning of a secret agent using a poison-tipped umbrella. These types of poisoning are very rare, but it pays to know which plants could pose a potential risk. Even innocuous seeming plants such as cherry laurel can produce cyanide gas from fresh clippings or foxgloves, which contain chemicals that will slow the heart rate. As the famous physician Pliny said ‘Sola docsis facet venum’ (the dose makes the poison) – anything can become dangerous in the wrong amounts.

Strangely, the results do not show how many people suffered from what must be one of the top injuries sustained in the garden – sunburn. Exposed to the elements we can often think we are hardy enough to take the weak British sun, but it is surprising how quickly damage to the skin can be done. Gardeners are among the highest risk group for skin cancer in the UK, primarily because we are in the sun more than most. Never underestimate the value of high factor suncream and a large hat. 

With a little thought and preparation before starting work most accidents can be avoided in the garden. You can easily protect yourself from electrocution by using a residual current device (RCD) when operating electrically powered tools. This will cut out if there is a power surge or short circuit. Keep chemicals out of reach of children, locked in a cabinet, and always use them exactly as instructed on the label. Always use the suitable personal protective equipment for a task, wether it is gloves, goggles, helmet, or facemask. Always check that ladders are in good condition before use, and use them at the safe angle (1 in 4) with three points of the body in contact with the ladder at all time 

Gardening is great for health when done correctly and a little bit of fresh air and hard work will keep you young vigourous and full of life well into your old age, but going about it all wrong could potentially shorten your working life. Although, knowing most gardeners, we would probably just put a brave face on and keep soldiering on whatever happened.


Author: jlrobbins

I grow plants

7 thoughts on “The physical side of gardening”

  1. I don’t know how pro gardeners do it … My arms are constantly scratched up from pruning and my legs look like I’ve been in a battle with an angry cat!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh bugger, I did leave a comment but it seems to have gone missing. I think it was along the lines of saying how much knowledge & skills gardeners have, yet how unappreciated they are. Horticulturalists need to be paid a lot more than they are.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On the back pain issue, I’ve discovered the joy of using a long-handled shovel to dig and shift with, rather than a broad shovel or spade. Helps shift the strain from the lower back to the shoulders, chest, upper arms and thighs. Great bit of kit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I also prefer a longer handle. Makes sense as the longer lever will only make it easier. I think the short handles are derived from traditional mining tools, for use in confined spaces.


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