Gardening tips for arthritis sufferers

Tiffany Daneff / 26 November 2015

With the worry of arthritis setting in, Saga Magazine's gardening editor takes a look at what she can do to protect her fingers when gardening.



Not that long ago I succumbed to the tempting trays of violas outside the supermarket. I bought a large tray of a pretty purple flowers for a fiver, a bargain I reckoned, and then planted up the violas in lots of different size terracotta pots. And very pleased I was with the results. I arranged them in a row along the garden table which I can see from the sitting room window.

So that was that. But then along came this new alphabetical family of hurricanes accompanied by gusting winds which have hurled round the house and screamed down the chimneys like excitable banshees.

Better bring those pots of violas in, I thought, before Barney or Abigail or whomever, smashes them to pieces. It was dusk when this thought occurred and the dog needed walking so I rushed outside, grabbed the pots, rushed them back indoors and only after the deed was done did I stop to think about my hands.

These last few years my fingers have been suffering. It’s partly chilblains and partly something else which I have a horrible feeling is arthritic. And possibly inherited. It’s been a nuisance for ten years or more and gardening is definitely something that doesn’t help. Weeding is always bad. Pulling nettles is worse. After a couple of hours yanking out roots my knuckles ache with the gripping. Carrying pots and heavy unwieldy bags of compost and grit is another irritant.

Find out what you need to know about arthritis.

I’m always in a rush, which compounds the problem as I tend to grab at the top of a sack with my fingers rather than bending down and picking the whole thing up from the base with my arms. Most of the time I just ignored the discomfort and got on with whatever needed doing. Then, one morning this summer, I noticed that I couldn’t cut through the toast crusts with my knife. I could feel a clicking in my forefinger. Not good. So I’ve gone to the doctor and am having tests and so on and so forth. All so incredibly tedious.

While waiting for the tests to come through the doctor recommended avoiding doing things I didn’t need to do (um, like the boxing I’d just taken up at the gym which I love) and trying to hold things (pots, shopping bags) using my palms and arms not just my fingers.

As for the chilblains, there’s not much that can be done about those except to avoid extreme temperatures which is always hard, especially if, like me, you enjoy warming yourself up with a little leaf raking. But then someone sent me some silk garden liner gloves which are thin enough to wear under any garden glove without feeling like your fingers have become individual Michelin men. 

I’m rather enjoying them, not just because my fingers are keeping warm but also because this extra-fine layer of silk helps stop gardener’s finger - by which I mean that vile effect soil has on skin where it turns otherwise normal finger tips into rough splitting emery board-like horrors that sting when you squeeze lemon into your gin and tonic. You can find these gloves for £15 a pair at www.genus.gs.

Tips for gardening with fragile fingers

I then did a little checking up on what I should and shouldn’t be doing in the garden, to help my hands that is. This is what I found:

Good plants to grow

Grow flowers that need less care such as elephant’s ears, cranesbill, lavender and periwinkle. For shrubs try barberry, escallonia, senecio and viburnum - they can take care of themselves for long periods once their roots are deep in the soil.

Get some grips

Rubber grips on tools will protect joints. Buy tools with grips or make or buy your own grips. I found some on Amazon that were originally designed for rowers. Not cheap but effective.

Mowing tips

Try to cut down using heavy petrol mowers. Hand mowers are lighter (especially if you leave off the grassbox) and look for ones with a horizontal bar so that you can lean forward and push it with your stomach. Good for core strength too. (And remember to keep your wrists straight.) Or think about a robot mower, or a ride on mower for really big areas. Or get someone else to do it for you, if you can.

Read our guide to buying a lawnmower.

The right way to dig

Use a border spade rather than digging one. These have smaller blades, which is not just lighter but it means you can't load it up with so much soil which reduces the strain. Stainless steel blades are better than carbon steel as soil sticks less and they clean more easily. Use a border fork if you can get away with it and garden on more friable soil. On very light soil you could use a soil miller instead – and this is a good way to work in an application of farmyard manure.

What about weeds?

Weed annuals when they are young and come out easily. Also weed after rain when the ground is soft. Avoid using a draw or Dutch hoe which means repeatedly lifting and lowering. A push pull hoe will skim the soil and reduce the effort. Use a long handle to reach the back of the border. Reduce the weed growing surface with a mulch or bark chippings or cover the bed with black weed suppressing membrane and plant through cuts in this mulching over to hide the horrible thing with gravel.

Find out about using ground cover to suppress weeds.

Stop carrying heavy buckets

Install a hose pipe so as to avoid carrying buckets and cans of water around. They put a lot of strain on your hands. If you can’t get a hose dot some water butts or large galvanized troughs to collect rainwater (which plants much prefer anyway).

Sharpen up

Keep tools sharp so as to reduce the effort in cutting. This really does make a difference.

Think before you lift

Don’t rush around hurrying madly to get everything done. Allow yourself time to think and instead of grabbing with your poor exhausted fingers think about holding trays properly. Spread the load on the palms and forearms where possible.

Make light work of your earth

Lighten heavy clay soils with generous applications of grit and well rotted farm manure. You may need someone to help, of course, but this is well worth doing.

Find out about improving clay soil.

Don’t buy bulk

Instead of buying one large sack of compost or grit, buy two smaller ones and, if possible, do ask someone to help you both when you leave the shop and when you get home.

One wheel or two?

Carry stuff in a wheelbarrow – pots, compost, tools whatever. You could also try a two wheel barrow with a bar handle. (I’ve not tried these. Apparently they are more stable but surely two wheels will require more push.)

You can find out more from arthritisresearchuk.org

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