Telemed waiting room
Schedule an Appointment

The Keys to Gardening with a Bad Back

5 Principles for Safe, Therapeutic Gardening

Many people with a history of a bad back and patients who’ve had spine surgery mistakenly believe that gardening is out of the question. Sometimes doctors categorically tell their patients that gardening is a no-no if you have a bad back.  Not true. Gardening, if certain commonsense safety concepts are followed, can be therapeutic physically and mentally.  I actually recommend it!

What are the keys? Think ergonomically. In other words, choose or create the proper environment to garden and use the right tools properly. Many garden tools can be modified specifically for gardeners with neck and back problems. Following these steps will help to make you as productive as possible by reducing fatigue and discomfort.

Here’s what I’d call my “work smart, not hard” approach to gardening.

  1. Think high, think small. Choosing the right environment is the most important part about gardening with a bad neck or back. I strongly recommend considering stand up gardens which are raised high enough so that you can literally stand and garden.

    You can buy such structures, or get creative and make these gardens yourself, repurposing old furniture like dressers and vanities.  Gardening in a smaller footprint means you spend less time weeding, bending and reaching, and more time reaping the benefits of the harvest. New raised beds can be gardened in the “square foot” manner to minimize bending and squatting.

    Last year my wife, Julie, built a square foot garden as outlined in the link above.

    We were both amazed at the yield of her harvest and what great fun we had tending to this relatively small and easy to handle garden.  This was a real eye opener for me as a physician who cares for people with back pain.  I realized that this square foot garden was manageable, required light lifting only, gave us wonderful vegetables all summer, and was a lot of fun.  Raising the square foot garden up to waist level with an old piece of furniture or an elevated frame makes for a very back-friendly garden.

  2. Prepare work with your back in mind. Here are some good tips on how you can easily modify your methods, and tools, for safe gardening. The ideas include repurposing a golf bag with wheels to carry your tools and selecting long-handled tools. Also, use a garden cart which is more balanced with 2 wheels rather than a wheelbarrow – again, it’s better for your back.
  3. Learn and practice safe postures and positions. Never use your back muscles to lift. That should be left to the stronger muscles in your thighs and buttocks. Bend your knees, hinge yourself at your hips and keep your back straight, from the base of the neck to the end of your back. Practice bending in front of a mirror to make sure you have the right technique. Here’s a YouTube demonstration on raking/hoeing that will give you an idea of how to make smart gardening moves. Also, use a potting bench, or even an old table, so that you can plant your containers while standing. And be sure to have a stool or even an overturned, heavy bucket handy so that it is easy to take a seated break.
  4. Contain yourself! One great, back-friendly gardening method is to focus your plantings in containers. Plant them where they will ultimately sit, so you don’t have to lift/carry them. Use Styrofoam peanuts in the bottom 1/3 of containers instead of gravel, to make them lighter. If planting in large containers on your patio, invest in wheeled pot trolleys or dolleys so you can move the containers easily.
  5. Focus on time, not task. If it’s a big project, break it down into parts. There is no reason you must get the whole bed aerated all at once. Divide the bed into halves or thirds, and the work will be more pleasant. Also, because people always underestimate how long a project might take, set time limits – and stick to them! When you first start gardening after you have recovered from surgery or a back injury, set a limit of 15 minutes for the first two to three days.  If your back and neck are not irritated, then move to 30 minutes at a time.

Just be smart about how and what you do. Under no circumstances should you shovel, or pull up heavy, deep-rooted plants. These are dangerous moves, and they could put an end to your gardening for some time. Remember, if something hurts, it’s nature’s way of telling you to stop.  Also if you have a bad back, never embark on gardening before discussing it with your spine specialist first. Just make sure to bring this article with you!  It may provide a new perspective, because many physicians will think of the old fashioned gardening, not this new age concept of raised gardens.

We all know that activity in the fresh air can make us feel healthy and happy; that certainly holds for gardening. The outdoors can have an amazing therapeutic effect on our well being.  If you are a vegetable gardener you get the added benefit of healthy eating from your own  harvest, to boot!

Happy spring, and here’s to a beautiful garden and a great harvest!

Request an Appointment

Submit an appointment request on our patient portal or contact our New Jersey and Pennsylvania campuses to speak with a patient advocate.

Take the Next Step

New Patients Existing Patients