What to Do When Your Green Thumb Has Arthritis

These 11 professional tips will help you enjoy gardening (relatively) pain-free

By Leslie Land
Originally Posted On May 3, 2013

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Leslie Land, longtime “Garden Q+A” columnist for The New York Times, is a journalist, chef, garden consultant, the author of two cookbooks, co-writer of two garden books and founder of the food, garden and foraging blog In Kitchen and Garden.

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I am mostly unbothered by the signs of my advancing age: Finding a wrinkle here or a gray hair there disturbs me not a jot. But last spring the osteoarthritis that I've had in my hands for more than a decade stopped being a minor annoyance and became quite literally a major pain, especially when I’m in the garden.
 
Simple tasks like weeding and deadheading had always been meditations that freed and quieted my mind. Then suddenly they were the opposite. My mind was pretty much tied up to the noise of my thumbs hurting.

Knowing I wasn’t alone didn’t help; the majority of women over 50 have this kind of arthritis. And the longer you live, the more likely it is that you’re in for it. (Men are somewhat less likely to be cripplingly afflicted, but plenty of them suffer nevertheless.)
 
Arthritis in the hips and knees is usually more debilitating, so it’s not surprising those joints get a lot more notice from the medical community and the media. But speaking as a gardener with only the one variety, I am here to tell you that is bad enough.
 
There are orthopedists who specialize in hand conditions, therapists without number and no shortage of soothing drugs, both prescription and OTC, but for me the biggest relief came through behavior modification. By the end of last summer, I was able to care for the garden almost as well as I had done before, and although my doctor and therapist both deserve some credit, I’m convinced more of it goes to me, because I (mostly) followed this simple, at-home program.

A Behavior Modification Guide to Hand Preservation 
 
Drugs can help ease some of the pain of arthritis, but doctors, therapists and sufferers all agree that the best “treatment” is less of the kind of use that aggravates the condition. Since no use isn’t possible for avid gardeners, I’ve come up with a number of solutions and work-arounds that I’m listing below.
  1. Think of your pain-free hands as money in the bank. Then realize that everything you do with them has a “use cost.” Even things that normally don’t hurt, like petting the cat or smoothing a planting bed, are putting at least a small strain on your joints, thus subtracting from your account.
  2. Give yourself a daily allowance. If you spend a bunch of hand use making a pie, you'll have less for picking peas. When I'm planning to do a lot of cooking for an evening party, I harvest the food and herbs and cut and arrange the flowers on the previous day. On party day, I ignore the garden, upping the chances I can cook all day and still hold my fork without wincing when dinnertime comes around.
  3. Sort tasks between "must be done" and "must be done by me." Only I can make the artistic decisions called for in hydrangea pruning. And my delicate touch is essential for successful transfer of sweet pea seedlings from starter pot to waiting trench. But just about anybody can dig the trench the seedlings will go into, just as almost anyone can deadhead the daffodils, turn the compost and carry seedlings to the garden from the car.
  4. Delegate as much as possible. This brings us to the unpleasant realization that there is not always a delegatee just waiting around to be used. Keep a list of non-urgent tasks ready to whip out whenever some unsuspecting friend offers to lend a hand. And if those kinds of friends are in short supply at critical times …
  5. Hire help. Paying somebody to do garden tasks is very difficult. Even if finding the dollars is easy, finding the right helper is not. The local teenager looking for pocket money is a myth, but craigslist.orgtaskrabbit.com and Work Wanted sections of local papers are likely places to find affordable part-timers. (Most newspaper classified sections are more extensive online than in print, so don't forget to check the Internet.) Bulletin boards at supermarkets are another place to look for signs or post your own. As usual when hiring strangers, check references and be wary.
  6. “Preheat” your hands. Don’t leap right into the cold garden without doing this. Warm joints move more smoothly than cold ones, and joints that start out at body temperature chill quickly outdoors, especially in early spring and late fall. This step can be as simple as a five-minute soak in hot water (wear thin rubber gloves) or as elaborate as using a hot wax machine. There are dozens of models available through online beauty outlets, on Amazon, and both new and used on eBay.
  7. Ration hand use by kitchen timer, not specific task. Work in the garden is open-ended almost by definition. I can be weeding the bed by the driveway, firmly committed to cleaning up just that one bed for today. But then if I turn my head to the side, there are some very untidy zinnias that really should be deadheaded. Next thing I know it's 3:30, and my hands are killing me. Remember, this method works only if you stop working when the bell goes off. It may seem too obvious to mention, but I can testify that time limits are very easy to ignore if your hands don’t hurt yet. 
  8. Use your whole hand (or both hands) to pick things up. We tend to grab for things with just our fingers, but doing that requires a pinching motion, which stresses the joints. Then you have to press tightly to keep your grip on whatever, stressing them even more. Once I started paying attention, I was amazed at how often I did just that, moving empty flowerpots without putting a supporting hand underneath, using my fingertips to carry one last planting stake, grabbing a trowel that was just out of reach instead moving toward it and picking it up with my whole hand. Although breaking this habit is difficult because it’s so useful, it does get easier over time and even partial success is worthwhile. I’d give my current efforts about a C minus. But even that is making a big difference.
  9. Keep your tools sharp. This also helps mega in the kitchen. Well-honed cutting edges take far less hand pressure to do their work. There are also many garden implements designed to be easier for arthritic hands to use. Actual helpfulness varies considerably; my hands are small, for instance, while many “ergonomic” handles are larger than usual.
  10. Use a voice recorder, not pencil and paper. If you (like me) are a person most comfortable with the written word, get a recording device that transcribes words to text and can store photographs as well. I use my iPhone, and I’ll bet other smartphones can do this, too.
  11. Sit still and bathe your hands in the sunshine. Find a spot to just enjoy the place without worrying about work to be done. Emotional stress-reduction is also part of the program. And what’s the point of all your hard work if you forget to just sit in the garden and bask in its beauty?