5 Keys to Gardening with a Bad Back

Our expert reveals how to preserve your back while you’re getting your green thumb on.

During our current pandemic, we’re all looking for ways to find satisfaction that don’t require socializing. Many people are enriching their lives during this time of isolation by literally going back to the land; they are rediscovering the joys of gardening.

Gardening with back painDon't let back pain keep you out of the garden. Our expert will tell you how to spare your back.

Those who have a history of back problems or have undergone spine surgery may think that gardening is out of the question for them. Even some doctors may tell their patients that gardening is a no-no if they have a bad back.

Not true. In fact, gardening can be therapeutic both physically and mentally for those with compromised backs as long as they follow some common-sense safety concepts. I actually recommend it!

Taking an ergonomic approach to gardening can make it very back-friendly. You should equip yourself with gardening tools modified for gardeners with neck and back problems. You can even create your own, as I’ll show you later in this article. Modified tools alone can greatly reduce the likelihood of compromising your back.

Establishing the right setting for your garden—one that can be handled with minimal bending and reaching—is also very important for protecting your back. There are a number of ways to do this.

Here are the five keys to what I call my back-preserving approach to gardening. They will make you more productive in your gardening by reducing fatigue and discomfort, as well as minimize the risk of exacerbating any back problems.

1. Think High, Think Small

Choosing the right environment is the most important step for gardeners who have a bad neck or back. I strongly suggest gardens on raised platforms that are high enough that you can literally stand and garden. You can buy such structures, or get creative and make these gardens yourself by repurposing old furniture like dressers and vanities.

New raised beds can be gardened in the “square foot” manner to minimize bending and squatting. The Square Foot gardening method was invented in 1976 by Mel Bartholomew, a former civil engineer and efficiency expert who took up gardening when he retired.

Raising a square foot garden up to waist level with an old piece of furniture or an elevated frame makes for a very back-friendly planting enterprise. Being able to garden in a smaller footprint means less time spent weeding, bending and reaching—and more time reaping the benefits of the harvest.

Square foot gardeningYou won't have to bend over as far if you plant in raised beds,

Last year my wife, Julie, built a square foot garden as outlined in the link above. We were both amazed at the yield from our relatively small and easy-to-handle plot. It was an eye opener for me as a physician who cares for people with back pain. I realized that this type of garden is highly manageable and requires only light lifting. Making gardening easier also makes it a lot more fun.

2. Prepare Work with Your Back in Mind

Here are some good tips on how you can easily modify your methods and tools for safe gardening. The ideas include repurposing a golf bag with wheels to carry your tools and selecting long-handled tools. You should also use a two-wheeled garden cart. It’s more balanced than a standard wheelbarrow that has only one wheel—and is better for your back.

Gardening cartUse a cart instead of a wheelbarrow because it's easier to control.

3. Learn and Practice Safe Postures and Positions

Never use your back muscles to lift. That should be left to the stronger muscles in your thighs and buttocks. Bend your knees, hinge yourself at your hips and keep your back straight, from the base of the neck to the end of your back.

Practice bending in front of a mirror to make sure you have the right technique. Here’s a YouTube demonstration on raking and hoeing that will serve you well.

Use a potting bench, or even an old table, so that you can plant your containers while standing. And be sure to have a stool or even an overturned heavy bucket handy so you can sit down easily when you need a break.

4. Contain Yourself!

One great, back-friendly gardening method is to focus your plantings in containers. Plant them where they will ultimately sit, so you don’t have to lift or carry them. Use styrofoam peanuts in the bottom third of the containers instead of gravel to make them lighter. If planting in large containers on your patio, invest in wheeled pot trolleys or dollies so you can move the containers easily.

Container gardeningContainer gardening may be easier than planting in a bed for people with back pain.

5. Focus on Time, Not Task

 If it’s a big project, break it down into parts. There’s no requirement to aerate the whole bed at onece. Divide the bed into halves or thirds, and the work will be more pleasant.

Also, because people always underestimate how long a project might take, set time limits – and stick to them! When you first start gardening after recovering from surgery or a back injury, set a limit of 15 minutes for the first two or three days. If your back and neck are not irritated, then move to 30 minutes at a time.

Be smart about how and what you do. Under no circumstances should you shovel or pull up heavy, deep-rooted plants. These are dangerous moves that could put an end to your gardening for some time. Remember, pain is nature’s way of telling you to stop.

Also, be sure to talk with your spine specialist before you start gardening. I suggest bringing this article with you to the appointment. It could provide a new perspective, since many physicians may not be aware of the back-friendly gardening options I discuss in this article.

Benefits of Gardening

We all know that activity in the fresh air can make us feel healthy and happy, and that gardening can provide good exercise. Other therapeutic benefits of gardening in particular have been well documented.

One meta-analysis assessed the effects of daily gardening in seven studies encompassing nearly 2000 participants. Daily gardeners were found to experience greater reductions in stress and improvements in general health and life satisfaction compared to non-gardeners. These findings were independent of any differences in socio-economic status between the two groups.

Gardening may have a major positive impact on a number of dimensions of life satisfaction, as shown by a large survey. Based on survey answers from 402 respondents who identified themselves as either gardeners or non-gardeners, the gardeners had significantly greater levels of energy, optimism, zest for life and self-concept (a measure of self-esteem, openness and other factors relevant to self image).

Apparently, even a little gardening can go a long way. One study investigated two groups of participants who engaged in a stressful task and then spent 30 minutes either gardening outdoors or reading indoors. Reductions in the stress hormone cortisol and improvements in self-reported positive mood were much greater in the gardeners than in the readers.

Moreover, positive mood continued to increase in the gardeners after the gardening activity was over, whereas it faded after reading ended in the other group. Of course, simply being outside and the physical exercise of gardening could have contributed to the stress reduction.

And let’s not forget another rather important benefit from gardening, if you plant veggies: food fresher than anything you can buy. It’s a very short distance from farm to table!

Here’s to a beautiful, back-sparing garden in spring 2020. Let the growing begin!

Dr. McLaughlin practices brain and spine surgery at Princeton Brain, Spine, and Sports Medicine.  His book Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear is available on Amazon.

Updated on: 04/15/20
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