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Flower Power

Health Wanted


Published April 28, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Gardening is an all-American activity. Some 80 percent of Americans reportedly got back to the land last year, and are likely to do so again this season. That's good news for a country hoping to slough off its slovenly image, as gardening is one of the healthiest hobbies.

But it can also be a real pain in the butt -- and the back, wrists and arms. Flush with spring fever, hundreds of horticulturalists dash out to dig the flowerbeds, only to find themselves flat out on their own beds, unable to move a pulled muscle. And northern Vermonters, who've been waiting extra-long for planting season, often rush it even more than the rest of the country; winter lingers in their bones. "The boomers are out there, crying, ooh, ow!" says Rose Getch of the National Gardening Association (NGA), based in South Burlington. "But they also think, 'I still want to garden, I still want my herbs, there's nothing better in the world to me than a fresh tomato out of my own garden.'"

Even among the younger set -- 27 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds garden -- toiling in the soil may well take a toll. Allergies, heat-related illnesses, sunburn, dehydration and cracked hands and feet are common complaints. Then there's tendonitis, arthritis, creaky knees, slipped disks and severed digits, victims of lawnmowers and other power tools. Repetitive-motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, once considered the domain of the computer-bound, have also gotten on gardeners' nerves.

The majority of pruners and planters report scratches, puncture wounds, animal and insect bites, cuts, scrapes and splinters. Usually it's no big deal -- unless you're one of the unlucky few who contracts a deadly disease through that nick to the skin: Tetanus bacteria is commonly found in soil, ordinary dirt and manure. "Tetanus is rare in the U.S. today," says Susan Rehm, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "But it's difficult to tell when you may be exposed, and the potential consequences can be devastating."

Weeding out many of these hazards is a snap. You can get a tetanus-diphtheria (Td) shot every 10 years; wear a hat and protective clothing; drink water (but not from the hose, which may contain traces of toxic chemicals); moisturize; take allergy medication; and be careful around power tools. But digging up solutions to other aches and pains is a tougher task -- gardening is, after all, a hands-on hobby that can contort the body.

Now, thanks to growing awareness of accessibility issues, ergonomics and functional fitness, a crop of new products and techniques addresses gardening gripes. "There are so many adaptive ways that you can garden," says Getch. She points to raised beds and containers -- for less stooping and squatting -- that are now in shops, catalogs, back yards and community plots. Longer tools also allow folks to stay upright; some gardeners make their own with PVC pipe, attaching non-slip foam or rubber grips to prevent cramping.

For inflamed joints, the Atlanta-based Arthritis Foundation recommends Bionic Gardening Gloves; designed by a hand surgeon, they provide extra padding on the palm and between the fingers, and fit like a, well, glove. Squeezing a small "stress-ball" helps strengthen the hand, wrist and arm to reduce the risk of repetitive-motion injuries. And new loop-handle, "bypass" pruners function like scissors, cutting out the need to squeeze forcefully. Some gardeners pick low-maintenance plants such as day lilies and violas; others, like Getch, choose downsized hoes, shovels and rakes. "For many jobs, you really don't need a monster tool," she says. "You can use a kid-size tool and do the exact same thing, with less stress on your arms, hands and backs."

The rest of the body can be protected with a bit of conditioning. "Even if you've been working out all winter, skiing like a madman and going to the gym, it's good to start out slow," says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturalist for the NGA. "Don't go out and prune 20 fruit trees in one afternoon; work for an hour and then take a break, or do a number of different gardening tasks."

Every morning, Nardozzi practices yoga, one of the best ways to ready oneself for the rigors of reaching, pulling, twisting, bending and balancing. Among the best postures for the back, sides and chest are the Cobra, Upward Facing Bow and Triangle, along with a series of Sun Salutations.

All this preparation is worth it: Gardening's benefits outshine its hazards. An hour of trimming shrubs burns about 350 calories, while chopping wood, turning compost and digging up weeds can mimic crunches and weight-lifting exercises in the gym. The effort exerted while planting seeds is about the same as that expended during a bike ride; tilling a garden is comparable to aerobics -- and usually gets more immediate results. "Gardening, unlike other forms of exercise, uses all the major muscle groups," says Nardozzi. "And it's fun -- you're not trying to distract yourself with a Walkman while you're running and sweating and thinking, 'Oh, god, it's so hard, how many more minutes until I'll be done, and then I can go have my donut?'"

Donuts aren't the usual reward for time in the garden. More Americans than ever are finding gardening to be the most satisfying -- and cost-effective -- way to eat healthy, organic food. Apartment dwellers can choose from a number of dwarf varieties of vegetable plants and fruit trees, while others just fill window boxes to liven up fare without fat or sugar. "Herb gardening is really growing," says Nardozzi. "People are becoming more health-conscious, trying more exotic flavors."

And even though they may eschew the exotic, kids are becoming increasingly grounded in gardening, thanks to new programs in schools and community gardens that aim to plant a seed for lifelong horticulture. "Twenty years ago, a lot of people still had a connection with their rural roots," says Nardozzi. "But now, even in the Burlington area, I run into kids who don't know where food comes from. In Vermont! They think tomatoes come from a can or peas come from the frozen food section."

Through a program called Plant a Row for the Hungry, children can learn about the land and feel like they're making a difference in the world by donating part of their harvest to local food shelters. Plus, studies have shown that kids who garden perform better in school, work more cooperatively with others and experience a greater level of self-esteem.

These mental health benefits come as no surprise to anyone who's spent time watching their wisteria bloom, grown their own buttery Brussels sprouts or spent an entire day pulling weeds after a bad break-up. For thousands of years and throughout the world, humans have found hope, catharsis and emotional well-being in gardening. Horticultural therapy is now an established professional field that focuses on helping elderly, sick or traumatized patients heal through exposure to peaceful garden environments. From elaborate Japanese Zen landscapes to a few terracotta pots clustered outside the kitchen window, these healing gardens come in all sizes.

Burlington writer KK Wilder, 62, stopped gardening in 1994 when she became disabled. Last summer, she arranged for two wheelchair-accessible containers, made from septic-tank bottoms, at the Ethan Allen community garden. With the help of her 88-year-old mother, Wilder grew petunias, sunflowers, cucumbers, basil and Swiss chard. Morning glories cascaded from the corners, while more than 300 tomatoes appeared on a single plant. "Last year was very difficult for me; I lost one of my best friends and four days later I lost my brother," says Wilder. "Gardening made all the difference in the world. It was exactly the therapy I needed."