Gardening is awfully good for the soul, but it can be hell on the body.

The former is the stuff of early-spring daydreams. The latter – all that pain from hauling and bending, raking and pruning – fades in winter.

We’re in delicious denial till April.

And then, filled with primordial anticipation, we head outside, only to inflict pain upon ourselves once again.

“Sore muscles come with the territory, but when you get such a positive result, you tend to block that out of your mind,” says Winnie Harris, program and volunteer coordinator for University City Green, which has planted thousands of trees and bulbs in West Philadelphia neighborhoods over the last dozen years.

Now here’s a gardener we can identify with. “Can’t wait to get out there,” Harris says, even though summer brings 16-hour workdays with UC Green’s youth program, taking care of 500 street trees, plus work in her own garden.

“As one of my girlfriends said to me,” Harris confesses, ” ‘You don’t know when you’ve had enough and you’ve done too much.’ “

To reinvigorate, and to ease the exhaustion and sometime soreness, she soaks, sometimes twice daily, in a tub of steamy water infused with an old-time favorite: Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap.

“Nothing like that peppermint bath,” Harris says.


But sometimes peppermint won’t cut it, as Patty Brick of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., knows firsthand. She’s a gardener and physical therapist well-acquainted with sore back muscles and injuries to shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands caused by stressful repetitive motion in the garden.

“People are lifting heavy bags of mulch, repotting and replanting, moving shrubs. Everyone’s trying to plant these beautiful planters, then lift them up,” says Brick, recalling a patient who went hosta-crazy one weekend digging and dividing up a long row of hostas, making new holes, lugging plants from Point A to Point B, and putting them all back in the ground again.

“It’s a lot of work for weekend warriors trying to get all their gardening done,” Brick says.

Pruning, with its constant and forceful squeezing, is another big-time pain-producer.

“People will go and clean out an entire row of shrubs and not think anything of it, creating that same motion 100 to 200 times,” Brick says. “Two days later, their wrist is bothering them and they don’t understand the burning in their elbow that’s radiating up to the shoulder.”

It’s called lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow.

Time to toss the “weekend warrior” model, which gets a lot done on Saturday and causes miserable immobility on Sunday. Brick has a better idea, one she uses on the flower and vegetable gardens, shrubs and containers on her own one-acre property.

This is going to sound like your mother telling you to eat right and go to bed early, but there was truth to that and there’s truth to this:

Brick sensibly divides the garden chores into manageable bites, in proper sequence; then, using ergonomically designed tools, she paces herself. She cleans out the beds in March, moves things around in April, plants anew in May.

Brick takes her time, making sure to work in two-hour chunks or so, with breaks in between. “Give your muscles and joints a chance to recover from what you’ve done for the last two hours,” she says.

Such admirable organization! Such exemplary self-control!

Perhaps we alone lack these qualities, for here’s another gardener, David Siller, who is all of that. He only occasionally gets sore, which, for a 31-year-old guy, is about as bad as it gets.

Siller farms for Weavers Way Co-op in Mount Airy, Pa., using his hands like any home gardener, but on a much grander scale. Not like the big commercial farms, though, where he says “you can see farmers with big beer bellies riding tractors.”

Siller tries to stay mindful of his methods. When digging holes, for example, he won’t jump on a shovel, over and over, with one foot. Better to evenly distribute the weight by using both feet.

Lifting is another problematic activity, as anyone who has ever lugged mulch bags through the back 40 can attest. Weavers Way farmers routinely hoist 50-pound boxes of cucumbers, watermelons, and eggplants – but not by bending at the waist. Siller bends his knees slowly, keeping his back straight.


He keeps in shape with runs and daily yoga, learned from Mom, who’s a yoga instructor. Siller does an hour a day in winter, ending with the corpse pose, which transports him to that fascinating state between effort and repose. In summer, after a long, muscular day at the farm, he might manage 15 minutes.

“If I’ve been outside working hard all day in awkward positions planting … you don’t get to pay attention to your body as much,” he says. “Coming home, taking a moment to examine your body through breath and observation, that is a really powerful thing.”

Feels good, too.


Dianne Walker, a master gardener from Moorestown, N.J., seems to do it all: peppermint soap, yoga … and hip-hop. “It wears you out. You really get a workout with hip-hop,” she says, valuable training for taking care of her landscape shrubs and four 12- by 12-foot garden squares filled with vegetables, berries, cutting-quality perennials and herbs.

“I have almost an acre and it’s really covered with a lot of stuff. It’s a lot of work and I don’t have the stamina to do it,” says Walker, who designs gardens. “I’m hoping the hip-hop will give me a little more energy.”

Marie Bertolette Page of Willow Grove, Pa., who has a large garden and tends two other private gardens, swears by pilates and exercise class, as well as brisk walks and stretching to keep her muscles toned for gardening.

She paces herself, works slowly, eats right, probably even goes to bed early.

But if you’re doing none of the above, and you’re hurting, and you have a heavy pile of flagstone to move, Page has some advice we like:

“Hire a strong teenager, or get your son to do it.”

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