When I garden, I sometimes feel my age. And I'm not alone. Ironically, many of us reach the stage in life when we have more time to garden, just as gardening becomes increasingly difficult. Gardeners may find their backs, knees, wrists and shoulders showing the effects of general wear and tear. And repeated exposure to sun over time can cause problems with eyes and skin.
That doesn't mean it's time to throw in the trowel. Here are some things you can do now -- regardless of your age -- to prevent or reduce the likelihood of gardening-related problems.
• Consider scaling back if working in the garden becomes too demanding. Doing more of your gardening in raised beds and containers will reduce the need to kneel or bend. Or you might consolidate your garden beds or convert some garden spaces to less demanding plants, such as ground covers, shrubs (hardy roses or azaleas), or low-maintenance perennials such as hostas, daylilies or ornamental grasses.
• Warm up with some gentle stretching exercises before tackling gardening chores. Then take frequent breaks -- in the shade if it's hot and sunny. When you're working in the garden, vary your activities so you aren't repeatedly stressing the same joints and muscles.
• Drink plenty of fluids. Drink cool (not icy-cold) water, before, after and during your stint in the garden. Tea, lemonade and sports drinks are also fine.
• Garden early in the day, when temperatures will be lower and the sun less intense. Sunburn and prolonged sun exposure have been implicated in the development of skin cancers. For best protection, wear a hat and loose-fitting, light-colored clothes with long legs and long sleeves. Use a fragrance-free sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or more on exposed skin.
• Wear sunglasses that are polarized with a UV-blocking filter. Sunglasses are not the place to economize. If the glasses are too dark your pupils will dilate and allow more damaging UV light to enter. And if they don't fit well, they'll slide down your nose as you garden, so you're more likely to just take them off.
• Buy ergonomic tools and keep them sharp and in good working order. Many tools have padded grips or adjustable handles. Some are light weight (a particularly helpful feature in lopers), others are designed to use while standing upright rather than bending over. There are even tools sized for shorter people or gardeners with smaller hands.
• Garden sitting down. Look for products that allow you to garden from a sitting position. Kneeling devices that flip over to form a small seat and short carts serve both as a low stool and a handy carrying device for supplies.
If you must get down on your hands and knees, high-density foam kneeling pads or strap-on knee pads help take the pressure off.
• Keep bugs at bay. Avoid gardening around dusk, when mosquitoes are at their worst. Use repellents containing DEET whenever mosquitoes are a problem. But be sure to wash the repellent off with soapy water once you go indoors. In fact, consider saving your daily shower and shampoo until after you're done gardening. The scent of soaps, shampoos and lotions attracts insects.
Deb Brown is a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service Yard and Garden Line. For help with garden, plant and insect questions, call the Extension service at 612-624-4771.