Grit Blogs > One Foot in the City

The Arthritis Garden

Joan Pritchard HeadshotI thought I might share with you that I garden with arthritis, with the hope of encouraging others who contend with the problem.  Perhaps I can glean some new ideas from you to work around it when “Arthur” is there in the morning and I can’t wait to get to the garden.Early Iris  

How disabling is arthritis?  Well, it just depends on the day.  There are the days when I shuffle around like a hobbled horse, and there are days when I am pain-free and prancing like a race horse.  Either way, though, if you have serious arthritis, one has to be prepared for the worst days.  Those good days just don’t come that often.

Why mess with a garden, under such circumstances?  Because my mind is programmed to tell me I am a normal person, fully mobile.  Each of us has a self-image of health that defines what we do and how others perceive us.  If we believe we are incapable, we become so.  If we believe we “can’t,” then life begins to shrink around us.  But nature is in my bones.  To become an inactive earthling just doesn’t work in my mind.  First, I still need exercise for my body, and second, my heart and soul take wing in the wild.  I simply cannot imagine life without my gardens. I call that my connection factor to the earth.

I prefer to look at the task of gardening with an eye to “what can I do if I modify the task or procedure,” rather than saying I can’t do it at all.  I believe gardening is well worth the effort, because it provides critical exercise, especially in the areas of strength, stamina and balance.  Perhaps I could go to a gym and get a routine for this (who am I kidding?) or I can get it by gardening.  Besides, I am too well aware of the signals of aging like flabby underarms, gasping for breath on the stairs, and the statistics that one in three seniors fall each year – a balance issue for sure.

Thankfully, gardening has changed over the years and better techniques are available.  Some of those offer excellent alternatives for someone like me.  My limitations focus on the use of feet and tasks of balance, and use of the back, all related to a fall which resulted in broken heels and fractured vertebrae.  I am most grateful for the work of Helen and Scott Nearing who wrote so carefully about composting and water conservation and Ruth Stout, the “mulching queen,” each of which clearly tell me that digging a garden is not appropriate.  By converting to a mulching system, I no longer need to worry about using my poor feet on a shovel, and the weed population is very manageable.  To use up all that time I save from not performing such tasks, I read such magazines as Organic Gardening, GRIT, and even Fine Gardening.  One likes to be reinforced with good current information.

The feet, and the necessity of being on them, continue to be my biggest challenge.  Of course, I use my lawn tractor and attached wagon extensively to carry all manner of material.  I also position either benches or large plastic tree pots around the garden to get me off my feet when I’m working in that area.  As it turns out, I like some of those areas so much that I spend considerable “butt time” just enjoying.  I’m sure there is considerable research supporting the link between meditation and strong gardens.

Time and intensity are also modified for me.  Of course the start-up season is the worst, but once I’m past that I slack off and use the coolest parts of the day for about a two-hour stretch of labor.  I have divided the garden into smaller “rooms” or areas and set smaller goals for daily work.  I admit that I also add compost and bark mulch to these areas in the flower garden as I clean and groom in an effort to conserve water and weed-pulling efforts.  I also use a “one wagon” rule during the summer – this is applied when I begin to tire.  Instead of allowing myself to work to the point of exhaustion, I take my garden cart and walk through filling it with weeds or clippings.  When that one wagon is full, I quit.

Of course, I have also changed tools to accommodate my lesser strengths and capabilities.  I acquired a “lady’s shovel,” swear by my Japanese hoes, and have acquired some adapted trowels.  One of my best friends is a good serrated knife to clip roots. 

So there you have the secrets of my arthritis garden.  I suppose the solutions have to meet the needs for the areas of the body affected, but over time I have managed to get a good work-out and a good garden at the same time.  Are there days when I have pain?  Sure – most of them.  But, I choose to have discomfort while I’m doing what I love,  knowing my body is keeping its flexibility and balance, that I am still strong, and my heart and mind are where they need to be – in the garden. 

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6/18/2012 1:25:28 PM

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cindy murphy
4/28/2012 3:30:41 AM

Wonderful blog, Joan. You've mentioned some great ideas, even for people without arthritis or other health issues that might keep them from gardening. I love your one wagonful a day rule; it sounds like a manageable way to keep a handle on the weeds. I once read a gardener's weed-control method that stuck with me - she spent just 5 to 10 minutes each day pulling weeds; not long periods of time at all, but the idea was to do it each and every day, instead of waiting until weeding became an actual time-consuming chore. It works for me (most of the time). Enjoy your weekend.


nebraska dave
4/27/2012 2:06:43 AM

Joan, I like your philosophy. I too have a similar philosophy. I go by the motto that if I don't move it then I'll probably loose it. In my observation there are too many folks that think they should live a perfectly pain free life. It just don't happen. I've found if I hurt then I work it and the pain will lessen. That works for me and I'm not saying that it should work for everyone. I was married to a wife that had major health issues so I do know about the limitations of having serious health problems. In the mean time I'll muddle through the day putting up with a pain here and there. Have a great day in the Arthur garden.