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Gardening with arthritis: tips and garden tool suggestions

06 May 2022

Whether you are a keen gardener already or want to start, there's no reason why arthritic joints need spoil your pleasure. Read our tips to make gardening with arthritis easier.

Elderly hand holding pink rose
Careful planning is key to avoiding unnecessary effort in the garden

We all know that gardening is good for our health and wellbeing, but what if painful, arthritic joints, swollen fingers and wrists or just general stiffness start to hamper your activities?

Thankfully there's no reason to let arthritic joints spoil your pleasure, in fact gentle exercise strengthens the muscles around damaged joints and can help to keep them more mobile. So, before you resign yourself to watching someone else do all the work, it's worth trying some of the tips below that may help you to carry on and reap the health benefits of gardening.

Tips to make gardening with arthritis easier

Buy lightweight, ergonomic tools

If your joints are starting to ache one of the first things to consider is changing your tools.

Try to go for lightweight implements with extended handles. A wide variety is available, all designed to make cultivation, weeding, pruning and tidying up easier.

Test them out for lightness and balance before buying and, if possible, try them out in the soil to make sure they feel right and you can manage them properly.

Some brands, such as Peta Easi-Grip, have handles specially designed to make them easier to hold.

Don't overdo it

Overdoing the digging or pruning can quickly lead to inflammation, swelling and pain, which may mean laying down your tools until the flare-up subsides.

The secret is to exercise arthritic joints gently without subjecting them to too much stress. Repetitive action for any length of time is not a good idea.

Instead, go for 'little and often' and take regular rest periods. Listen to your body and you should get the balance right.

Do you suffer from bone, muscle or joint pain? With the support of Saga Health Insurance, members can arrange physiotherapy without seeing a GP. For more information, contact us today.

Grow low-maintenance plants

The time may come when you just don't feel like gardening or you may have to spend some time resting. This is another occasion where it pays to plan ahead, choosing plants that will thrive without you.

Carefully selected shrubs and herbaceous perennials, for example, need less looking after than a lot of annual bedding plants.

Plants such as bergenias, cranesbill, lavender and periwinkle backed by shrubs such as berberis, senecio, escallonia and viburnum tinus need little looking after once they have rooted deeply.

There are many other low-maintenance plants worth investigating. Your local garden centre should be able to help or there are plenty of gardening manuals which could give you more inspiration.

Change jobs frequently

This is a good way to exercise different sets of muscles. For example, follow a short spell of hoeing weeds in the vegetable plot with something lighter like pricking out seedlings while sitting at a bench in the greenhouse.

Lift and carry with caution

Too much pressure can quickly damage the small joints in the hands. When carrying things try to spread the load by using both hands and arms, rather than taking the load with your fingers only.

When lifting a tray of seedlings pick it up with both hands and rest it on your palms. Better still, carry it on your forearms and keep your elbows tucked in to your ribs to reduce the strain on shoulders and elbows.

Get your grip right

Gripping a hoe or rake tightly for any length of time can cause knuckles to swell and ache. Slipping a sponge rubber sleeve over the shaft of the tool will absorb any jarring and help you to hold it less tightly.

Rubber grips on tools will protect joints. Buy tools with grips or make or buy your own grips. Plastic foam insulation sleeving used for domestic central heating pipes and available from builders' merchants and DIY shops is worth a try.

Minimise the effort

Careful planning is key to avoiding unnecessary effort. If problems with your hips, knees and ankles make walking difficult, take all you need in one go to avoid too many journeys up and down the garden.

Alternatively, if your shoulders, wrists and elbows are playing you up it is better to make several trips, carrying a small amount each time.

It sometimes pays to look at a job in a different way. For example instead of filling a large watering can from a tap outside the back garden and carrying it to the bottom of the garden why not install two or three open-topped tanks where you need them most?

You can then water plants with a small plastic can dipped into the nearest tank. Tanks can be filled up from time to time with a hosepipe.

Make weeding easier

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

Opt for container planting

Planting in containers makes sense because it means you can work at a comfortable height, especially if you find bending difficult. They also look attractive on a patio and are easy to maintain.

Annual bedding plants, heathers, herbs, spring bulbs and even fruit trees can be grown in this way, creating varied interest throughout the season. Heavy tubs can be mounted on castors if you need to move them around.

Find out about Saga Home Insurance

Use lighter tools

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.

Make mowing easier

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

Try gardening sitting down, when you can

There are several advantages to gardening while sitting down. The weight on load-bearing joints is reduced and as it is not so tiring you can work longer without discomfort.

If your balance is not so good, sitting also provides stability and if you normally walk with a stick it leaves both hands free for working.

Sitting does limit mobility and reach but you may be pleasantly surprised at how big an area you can look after from just one position.

You can buy gardening stools which can be used as a regular stool for working in raised beds, or turned upside down and used as a kneeler with the legs providing support when you need to pull yourself up again.

Sharpen your tools

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

Make your soil easier to manage

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. Alternatively, think about installing a few raised beds.

Find out about soil improvement

Put the wheelbarrow to good use

Carry stuff in a wheelbarrow – pots, compost, tools and whatever else you need to carry about. You could also try a two wheel barrow with a bar handle, which some people find more stable and easier to push.

Plan your outbuildings

Buildings such as a greenhouse, potting shed, tool shed or cold frame should be sited as close as possible to each other. Grouping them together saves carrying pots, compost and seed trays over long distances. If possible, the greenhouse should be near the house for quick access in bad weather.

The lids of some cold frames can be very heavy to lift. Go for a raised frame with a hinged lid clad with lightweight corrugated plastic sheeting and connected to a pulley and counter balance weight. It will be safer and easier to manage.

Tools for gardening with arthritis

Looking for a tool to make gardening with arthritis easier on the hands and body, or as a gift for a gardening-loving arthritis sufferer? We share some of the tools and equipment that should make things more manageable. Most of these items are available from a variety of retailers, including some of the well-known big box stores.

Back-saving tool grips

Additional handles can be attached to your shovels, rakes and forks to make lifting them easier. Simply attach halfway down the handle at a position that suits your arm length, converting existing tools to a two-handled tool.

2-in-1 kneeler

A 2-in-1 kneeler makes it easier to lift yourself up from the ground. There are plenty on the market, and some include pouches on the side to store equipment.

Raised bed kits

Keeping high-maintenance plants, or plants you might want to access frequently (such as herbs) in a raised bed will reduce the amount of bending over and kneeling you'll have to do.

Border spades and forks

Border spades are lighter and easier to handle than ordinary spades, but there's a big difference in weight between brands so shop around, and if possible try to find one in a shop you can try it out. Stainless steel with a polished surface tends to be better as soil won't cling to the tines as much as with carbon steel.

Long-handled trowel

Long-handled trowels can be used while standing or sat on a stool, making them useful if you want to avoid having to squat down too many times.

Cut-and-hold pruners

Cut and hold pruners can grip the plant matter in the teeth of the tool so they can be dropped into a bin or wheelbarrow instead of dropping onto the floor and needing to be picked up.

Two-wheeled wheelbarrow

Having two wheels means the weight of the material is on the wheels instead of your arms.

Peta ergonomic tools

Peta is a brand specialising in tools with easy grip handles that require less twisting of the forearm to use. If you'd prefer to use your own much-loved tools you can buy an adaptor to connect to trowels and forks to make them easier to hold.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.