Tips for gardening with arthritis

21 April 2020
Maureen pruning roses in her garden.
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The sun is out, and the sky is blue, so it’s the perfect time to get stuck into the gardening. Spending some time outside on these longer and lighter days can help our wellbeing too, especially in this time of lockdown. It's a chance to enjoy nature, plant some seeds, watch the birds and boost your vitamin D.

For people with arthritis, gardening can be more of a challenge. If you get tired easily and have painful joints, tending your plants may seem like more trouble than it’s worth, but we can all enjoy the pleasures of gardening if we change how we do it. 

Karin Orman, lead professional adviser at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, says: “People tend to get stuck in patterns of behaviour. For instance, you may have spent four hours at a time gardening in the past. If you have arthritis, this is likely to make inflammation worse and cause pain and fatigue.”

People should carry on gardening if they enjoy it, says Orman. “It’s rewarding, a great form of exercise, and is a distraction from pain, it’s important to recognise your limits.”

Pace yourself

“Listen to your body. Take breaks every 20 minutes and change tasks regularly to avoid repetitive movements. Also avoid over-stretching and holding your body in an awkward position.

“Think about the time of day you garden. Some people need time in the morning for their joints to become less stiff and painful, so they might be better heading out into the garden in the afternoon. Other people may feel more tired in the afternoon, though.”

Having an absorbing hobby can be distract you from any pain you’re in, but Orman warns you need to be careful you don’t get so lost in the activity that you forget to take breaks and overdo it, putting your body under stress.

Choosing the right equipment

If arthritis has affected your grip, an occupational therapist can advise on special tools or may suggest adaptations such as spongy sleeves to slip over the handles of rakes or hoes.

“There a wide range of tools available from specialist suppliers to counter a weak grip, and you can adapt tools you already have with add-on handles and grips,” says Orman. Long-handed tools prevent you over-stretching, while kneeling pads are the perfect way to take the strain off your knees.

Read more about the award-winning Kikka Digga, a gardening tool attachment which helps make digging easier.

Planning your garden

There are many ways that you can enjoy low-maintenance gardening. Opt for fences instead of hedges, choose hardy perennials rather than bedding plants, and go for narrow beds and raised planters to avoid overstretching. You could consider swapping your lawn for gravel and putting down weed membrane and bark on your borders to cut down on weeding.

Spreading the load

When carrying things, try to spread the load by using your arms rather than fingers, which are more likely to get injured. Try to avoid heavy loads and plan your work to minimise fatigue. For example, use two small bags of compost rather than one big one, think about what you need, and use wheelbarrows to avoid unnecessary trips to and from your garage or shed.

“Gardening offers many health and wellbeing benefits and, with the right adaptation and modifications, people with arthritis can experience these benefits, too,” says Mark Lang from Thrive, a charity that runs gardening projects to change the lives of disabled people.

“There are many ways you can reduce your workload and make gardening more accessible – but don’t underestimate the importance of just being in the garden. Feeling like you have time to sit and enjoy the view is important, too.”

Make the most of your windowsill

If you don't have a garden, you can add greenery to your home with house plants and grow herbs on your windowsills in trays. Try anything from mint, parsley to coriander and you can use these to spice up your cooking. Pea shoots are another really easy one to grow and you can add these to salads. 

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