Tools and tips make for gardening without the aches

For The Beachcomber

It’s spring! You sprang from the couch, grabbed a tool and hit the garden. And what did you get? Aches and pains! In early spring (and at a certain age), what you need are some tips, tools and techniques for low-ouch gardening.

Stand and let the tools reach for you

Becky Bumgarner, a pro gardener and tool maven, saves her back by using long-handled tools that reach and stretch instead of her body. Her favorite cobra heads and scuffle hoes are more than 55 inches long, nearly as tall as she is; their push-pull action razors through weeds just below the soil surface. With a long, skinny rake, she then pulls the weeds onto a tarp she drags and flings at the nearest compost pile.

Tools that telescope are like longer arms. Bumgarner’s Fisker telescoping hedge trimmer gives her 40 inches of reach so she can prune the lowest shrubs without much bending. For orchard care, her favorite pole pruners come with a hand trigger and a levered handle. Rather than fire up the chainsaw, she puts a pruning blade in a battery-operated Sawzall. “It zips off suckers quickly,” she says.

Think lower resistance

You can muscle dull, lightweight or big-headed tools through soil — or you can use sharp tools with heft that almost drive themselves through the work. Many new tools come unsharpened, but True Value’s service shop can sharpen them for a few bucks. A beveled edge points the tool in the right direction. For example, a scuffle hoe’s head slips best beneath the soil if the top is beveled outward and down.

Bumgarner’s favorite tools have business ends only 2 inches wide. Her Rogue 25S scuffle hoe has a tiny

2.5-inch triangular blade that gets into tight places. The narrow stainless steel blade of her Pro Radius transplanter plunges into heavy soil like butter, its notched end perfect for punching through blackberry roots. The circular handle offers a wrist-friendly ergonomic design.

Kneel with better tools

I appreciate a garden kneeler. They cushion the shins, and those riser-bars help me stand up. But then, how my pinched knees howl. So I’ve learned to tuck a yoga brick under my bottom to keep my weight from squashing my leg joints.

Also, working a short-handled tool while kneeling forces you to tilt forward, putting stress on your lower back. Instead, use a mid-length tool about 24 inches long that can reach across garden beds. Mid-length tools aren’t common in stores; try online.

Bring the garden to your height

Raised beds are a help, but how about higher? Gardeners Supply and Costco offer planter boxes on legs that lift the garden to counter height. Even compost gets a lift with Costco’s elevated pair of rotating compost bins.

A big pot raises the ground level; add a trellis or stake to bring beans, cukes or tomatoes to easy pickin’ height. Try hanging baskets: I once saw luscious strawberries dangling from a macrame planter —no slugs near!

But use lightweight soil mixes and wheels under those pots, or suffer a herniated disk as Carolina Nurik once did. Now when she tends her potted tomato vines, she sits on a garden kneeler, a kiddie chair or her Step2 Garden Hopper that scoots across the floor.

When she sprays her dozens of fruit trees, she doesn’t strap on a backpack sprayer. Instead, she puts the heavy tank in a little wire granny-cart and drags it behind her. To lift heavy bags of soil, she drops the end of her tilt-up wagon. I do something similar with my hand truck: Keep heavy weight on wheels, the center of gravity down low.

Gear up your body first

Finally, gear up your body beforehand: sunscreen, hat and rubber slip-ons instead of boots you’ll pretzel yourself to wrench off. I’ve seen garden pants with built-in pockets for knee-pads — or make your own with velcro and oil cloth. You might consider an orthopedic cumberbund to support your back. Don’t do too much in your first sessions, and change position often — perhaps putting out a yoga mat, as flower grower Hope Bloesch does, as a reminder to stretch.

And don’t forget this hot gardener’s tip: Aleve. Before you step out the door.

Karen Dale is an avid gardening and writer who recently released the book “Garden On, Vashon.”

Inspired by Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Dale wrote the book after realizing that island gardeners and farmers could yield a bookful of stories and tips. The book is equal parts gardening how-to, island history and gardening adventures with the author.

Copies are available at several island stores and nurseries as well as online at

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