I'm Not Getting Older, I'm Just Getting Stiffer

I'm Not Getting Older, I'm Just Getting Stiffer

Because I live in a town which has the second oldest population in the United States, I was able to lie to myself for a very long time. It's easy to feel young when the average age of the people in line with you at the supermarket is 20 years older than you are.

But that was at the grocery store. Last year I began to notice that this wasn't necessarily true at the nursery. There I am that nice older lady and people rush to carry gallon pots of plants for me, as if afraid I'll strain myself.

But lately I've noticed that, aside from an ancient sycamore or two, I'm probably the oldest thing in my garden - and definitely the creakiest. I noticed it when getting down on my knees sent out crackling noises somewhat akin to fireworks. I noticed it when I realized I was using my mattock as a pry bar, not for rocks, as was intended, but for myself. And when I kept losing tools because my aging eyes couldn't distinguish them from mulch and fallen leaves. And finally I realized that I wasn't accomplishing as much as I felt I should, or enjoying it as much as I always have. Old age? Yes. Fibromyalgia, too. Aches and pains and woe and misery if I stop to think about it. I try not to think of that. I'd rather think of more positive things - like all the ways I can find to continue to enjoy my favorite hobby.

It's too late to do much about the gardens - we're not going to rebuild them now, after all this time. But getting the right tools turned out to be the key to helping me avoid putting too many limitations on myself and my garden activities.

I used to be of the school that would buy cheap trowels at the drugstore, thinking of them as disposable. But then someone gave me a really good one and I immediately perceived its worth. Ergonomics seems to be the key word of the day. A good, well designed ergonomically correct tool could make a difference in how long I can keep on gardening, and how much I can get done each day while paying only the most minor dues in the way of strained muscles.

And so the hunt began.

There are a lot of tools out there that call themselves ergonomic. Not all of them are. But there are several that really fit the bill - tools that allow you to work in comfort and without strain; some specifically designed for people with weak arms or wrists, or aching backs and creaky knees. Let me introduce you to a few that I found especially helpful.

Comfort first! I'm the kind of gardener who crawls along the ground, inching further and further into the beds in hot pursuit of weeds. Kneeling pads help creaky knees - but they aren't convenient if you're a crawler. Instead, you need knee pads that strap right onto your knees, or those that can in some way be attached to your slacks. Gardenscape offers an ideal pair that are extra thick in case, like me, you're crawling over rocks and stones as well as dirt. Once outfitted with those and a good pair of gloves and a wide-brimmed hat to keep sun damage to a minimum, it's time to tool up.

PRUNING AND CUTTING TOOLS

When I finally head out to the garden in late winter to do some real work, my gardening muscles are bound to be out of condition. So using good tools from the start is critical. The first task for me will be cutting back roses and other shrubs, which calls for a great pair of loppers. My personal favorites are Fiskars Power Gear Pro model. Made of aluminum they feel practically weightless - but they make very light work out of cutting through even a 2" thick hardwood branch. I can honestly say I have never before been as impressed as I was with this tool.

Before I found the Fiskars I was desolated by the discovery that I am too uncoordinated to use ratchet loppers, because I have seen them at several home and garden shows. I've also seen feeble looking white-haired old ladies usse them to cut through 2-inch thick branches like butter. The Corona brand comes with high praise from others who are more coordinated than I am.

If you need to prune high branches, then what you need is a pruning stick. Many of these can be very awkward to use, because they wobble. Once again the Fiskars Pruning Stik weighs only 31 ounces and has a 12' foot reach, which allows me to go quite a ways up, or even into a deep bed, without strain. Plus the cutting head rotates up to 240 degrees, meaning I don't have to put my arms into some strained and awkward position to make the needed cuts.

A pole saw, made by Silky of Japan also gets high points for being easy to use and sturdy enough not to wobble and sway, but instead remains stiff enough to give you some control.

When it comes to hand tools, there is a lot of disagreement. Many people swear by Felco pruners, but just as many others either balk at the price, or find them too large for small or stiff hands. One solution to this is to use a two-handed pruner like this one from Corona. Another good two-handed pruner is made by Sandvik. These tools appear slightly larger than what we are accustomed to in a pair of pruning shears, but they also allow you to cut through branches of up to ¾" even with limited hand and arm strength.

However, if you insist on the old familiar one-hand model, and if you are relatively coordinated, Barnel's hand ratchet pruners may be the answer, since they, too, demand very little in the way of strength. In fact these are highly recommended for people suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. My only objection to these is that they are SO lightweight that they feel more like a toy than a heavy-duty cutting tool. But many people swear by them.

I know - I'm beginning to sound like Fiskars paid me to do this section of my article, but I really do like their ergonomic tools - and their Power Gear Pruner is every bit as effortless to work with as its big brother, the lopper. They are very light, very strong, and very comfortable to use.

DIGGING AND WEEDING TOOLS

Once things in the garden are cut back, it's time for spring clean-up. For me, this entails a lot of raking and stooping. A relatively new company called Choice Products has the tools to make this easy. The first is a Pickup rake that scoops the leaves up and them actually holds onto them by means of a sort of opening and closing moutht. So you don't have to stoop at all - just rake, scoop and dump into the compost. Use their Trash Funnel with it and your work is done. This is a frame that will hold your lawn and leaf bag, with a funnel that holds the bag wide open so that you can drop the leaves in easily.

Once the old mulch is cleared, I can see precious spring plants peeping up at me - as well as not-so-precious weeds. This is where I used to drop to my (padded) knees and start pulling by hand. I can't do that anymore, but luckily I've discovered a couple of weeding tools that work so well for me that I scarcely mind.

One is the Henningsen Circlehoe - which is, as the name implies a circular business end attached to a stick. These come in several sizes. The ones I like best are an 15" long form which is great id you do like getting close to your weeds, and a longer version for standing and weeding. The long Circlehoe comes in with either a 59" or a 65" handle for taller gardeners. The circular shape of the hoe allows you to pull it through the soil toward you, leaving sliced weeds in its wake. But because of the design, you can hoe quite close to your flowers and leave them unthreatened. The little circle is very lightweight, and the tool is easy and almost a pleasure to use.

The Weedinator by Notstooped Tools is another interesting product - the inventor swears that it will make weeding almost fun. It looks a bit like an aluminum geriatric cane with a strange tip attached - but that strange tip is a weeder designed to get even stubborn taproots. And you don't need arm pressure at all. There is a "step-on" device near the tip, which permits you to drive that tool into the earth using your foot. Then you simply tilt the handle backwards and up comes the weeds!

Take a look at the hand tools made by Notstooped. Now is when we get to something really different - and invaluable for people with arthritic hands or weak wrists. Let me warn you - these are not pretty tools. But they are incredibly utilitarian. When I first looked at the unconventional handle design I was convinced that the tools would be impossible to use. But as soon as I grasped one, I knew - this was the ultimate tool design for someone like me with fibromyalgia making both arms very weak and painful.

There is a different version of the above-mentioned tools - a trowel, fork, weeder and cultivator called "Fist Grip by an English company called Peta. They aren't very common in the US yet. But they are available through Life With Ease. That same company carries other devices to aid the creaky gardener - add-on handles and arm supports that will allow you to convert your present tools to ones that have the more comfortable and ergonomic grip as the Fist Grip tools. These tools are featured in our Smithsonian Institute's Cooper Hewitt Museum of Applied Art because their design is so successful in helping both the aging and the disabled to continue to garden happily.

If you do buy any new hand tools, try to get the longer-handled ones, which will extend your reach without your having to bend or stretch too much. You may also find that spades and longer handled digging tools will be easier on you if you get them with a D-shaped handle. Some tools also have a spot where you can put your foot to help drive that blade into the soil without straining your back and arms too much.

If you don't want to go out and invest a fortune in new tools to accommodate the old body, here is at least one simple trick that I know of that can help you to adapt your hand tools. Go to a hospital supply store and ask for their foam grip product. You spray this foam on the handles of your current tools and then grip it as you would if using it in the garden. The foam will harden into a cushioned grip that is precisely molded to your hands.

And a last trick - the one my husband tells me has been most useful for both of us with our aging eyes. Get a can of fluorescent spray paint. Get the pink, or the orange - not the green, which is admittedly a bit more aesthetically pleasing - but counterproductive. Spray the handles of all your tools with this fluorescent color. Never again will you lose a tool because it was too hard to distinguish from the dirt and mulch you dropped it in. Originally I used green - but it soon got dirty enough to get lost in certain shades of green foliage.

Believe me - once you make the switch to good tools that really work for you - you won't want to lose them.

PS - You may have noticed that many of my links in the pruning and cutting section of this article led to a company called Frostproof.com. This was intentional, not only because they are very concerned with ergonomics and quality tools, but also because they have the lowest prices I have found on most of these tools. Since my diagnosis of fibromyalgia threatened to curtail gardening for me rather suddenly, price became a concern when I was faced with replacing most of my tools. I don't suppose most of us want to spend money that we don't need to spend.

About the Author Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.

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