To many, gardening and back injuries go hand in hand. But that shouldn’t be the case. Gardening can be the most back friendly activity that you engage in, but you have to be smart about it.
Gardening is not about killing yourself with hard work, heavy lifting or tugging and pulling.
I’ve got back problems and have had for many years. Is my bad back the result of 40 years of nursery and landscape work? That would be an easy conclusion to come to, but I know dozens and dozens of people with back problems and when I visit the chiropractor the office is filled with people with back injuries. I’m guessing that most of them haven’t spent 40 years day in and day out doing the kind of work that I do. Many of them have spent their entire career sitting in an office chair.
Have I done stupid things that attribute to my back problems? Yep!
Keyword? Stupid. I’ve done things that I’m sure have taken a toll on my back, but when I look back at many of the things that I’ve done most of them probably helped to strengthen my back. Why is my back so weak now? I’d say that being 75 lbs over weight for 25 years or so is probably the biggest contributing factor. Finally, I did manage to lose a lot of that weight in the last year. I’m down about 65 lbs and I feel really good!
How to Avoid Back Injuries in the Garden.
1. The right tools for the job.
2. The proper technique.
3. Patience my friend, patience.
In a few days I’m going to share with you some things that I’ve learned about shoveling dirt, stone, mulch, anything at all. Shoveling. Sounds simple enough right? Everybody does it wrong. I can’t share it today, I have to take some photos first. But in the mean time, tools, techniques and strategies that will make your life easier.
Preparing a New Planting Bed.
1. Make friends with the grass, sod and weeds that are in your way. Don’t fight with them. Don’t pull, pry, lift, lug and haul them away. Simply till them in. Let the soil dry. Till again. Let the soil dry till again. If you do this several times over ten to fourteen days the weeds and grass that you need to get rid of will be complete expired. Tilling once won’t work. Tilling, letting the soil and exposed roots dry will kill those plants and they will become organic matter for your garden. Don’t haul them away, make them work for you. Me? I love my Mantis tiller. I also have a Troybilt and I love that too, but they are different machines for different jobs.
How to Use a Wheelbarrow Safely.
Duh!!! Who doesn’t know how to use a wheelbarrow? Most people. Most people don’t know how to use a wheelbarrow. But I will show you and you will learn something valuable.
If you have a cheap, rinky dinky wheelbarrow go buy a new one. These are the brands that I recommend.
Plastic Wheelbarrows and Me.
You know those plastic wheelbarrows? Man oh man are they light. And when you dump mulch out of them it flies out like a kid going down a playground slide on a sheet of wax paper! But they flex! What happens is when you put something heavy in the tub like soil or stone, the plastic tub will flex a little as you raise the handles to move the wheelbarrow.
The flex is ever so slight, but it’s just enough to throw the wheelbarrow off balance so you instantly try and compensate and when you do, you will tweak your back in the process. Not good! Not good at all. Those little tweaks can put you in bed for two weeks.
Two years ago I ordered two super heavy duty plastic wheelbarrows from a company that will remain nameless. When I unpacked them and put them together I was fall down impressed at how well they were built, how wide the rubber tire was and just how well constructed they appeared to be. They did not work well at all. And this is why.
1. The plastic tubs still flexed when loaded with soil. I hate that! I feel it in my back every time it happens.
2. The big, wide, rubber tires could not be inflated to the point of being hard. At the recommended air pressure the tires would still squat when loaded with soil. A soft wheelbarrow tire is a killer. It quadruples the effort that it takes to move the wheelbarrow. It’s a good work out for a football player, but not so much for an old guy like me.
3. After just a few loads one of the wooden handles snapped in two! Nothing worse than having 10 cu. yds. of topsoil in somebody else’s driveway and have one of your wheelbarrows self destruct.
Needless to say I was disappointed with these wheelbarrows. I spent the right amount of money, $130 bucks each as I recall. The guy that designed this particular wheelbarrow had the right idea, it just went bad.
Did I mention that I like Jackson Wheelbarrows and will be forever sold on them? Make sure you watch
My Wheelbarrow Movie.
Digging Out Old Plants Safely and Easily.
Easily? I might of made that part up. Digging out old plants can be a work out, but without a doubt I know how to make it as easy as possible. There are two tools that I use. They are my secret weapons for digging out stumps. Once you learn how to do this you’ll learn to enjoy the process. Sorta. Take a peek, Mike’s Stump Removal Instructions.
Quit Pulling on Things Dog Gone It!
Wanna hurt your back? Grab a root, branch heavy thing-a-ma-jig and pull. That’s a sure fire why to hurt your back. My all time favorite gardening/landscaping tool is the Nursery Spade. I’ll do you a demo, remind me. But a good nursery spade is heavy strong, super reinforced handle and heavy. I said that right? They are heavy. At least heavier than the typical garden spade. But that weight is the magic of the tool. My point? Use the spade to cut the roots before you start tugging on them. If there were a way, I’d wear my nursery spade in a holster on my side. The most valuable tool I own because it can do the most work with one swing than any other shovel on the wall. You can see it in action in the stump removal video.
A good nursey spade will set you back $90 to $120 depending on where you shop. Spend the money.
Bend Your Knees When Lifting Heavy Items.
This is difficult to explain, I probably need to make a movie about this. But if you just bend over to lift something all of the weight of the lift is on your low back, right at your waste line. On top of that, all of the weight of your upper body weight is already pulling on your low back before you even add any additional weight to the lift. This is not good!
If you crouch down and bend your knees your upper back is almost straight, your upper body weight is not pulling on your back, then use your arms to do as much of the lifting as possible. When I have to carry something really heavy, say a balled tree coming off the tailgate of a truck? I’ll slide the ball off the truck, onto my bent leg, right above my knee. Then to the ground using my arms not my back. If I have to carry it a short distance I will actually walk with my leg bent, tree riding on my leg not my back.
Make a Sling and Split the Load with a Pal.
In the nursery biz we often use a piece of burlap to carry balled trees. One guy on each side, the tree riding in the sling. The weight of the tree is cut in half for each person. Duston and I demonstrated this last fall and did a video for you, put that video on this site, but me and Google couldn’t find it quickly so I quit looking. I know it’s here but I don’t remember what keywords I used on the page. It had to do with digging a Hemlock tree, planting a Hemlock tree and I think it was November. Somebody will find it for us, I know they will! Thanks for that, I’m running out of time. Got a truck load of pots waiting to be unloaded!
Questions, comments, additional tips you want to share? Post em below!
Hi Mike! Love your posts! I always seem to have a sore back after pulling weeds. Squatting for long periods in the garden does a number on my back! Any advice?
Lots of weeding can be hard on the back. Might I suggest a long handle weeding tool like the action hoe, search this site, and better weed management, see this; https://mikesbackyardnursery.com/2012/06/weed-control-facts/
Thanks for all this advice, Mike! I watched one of your wheelbarrow and how to dig up a tree videos last year and it really wised me up about how I was doing things! I tried attacking my hobby like it was supposed to be hard, toiling type work. Just a dogged-dumb work ethic I guess. Not only was the way I was doing it wear me out fast, and I get fatigued so much more impossibly sooner than I did a few years ago, but I wasn’t doing my already weakened back and hip muscles any favors. I would have to lay up for two days with every one day of strenuous activity and take anti-inflammatory medicine (which incidentally I read stunts the building up of muscles at a time when your exercise is supposed to cause them to build!). Now doing things the smart way, your way, and not being ashamed to admit I need to take care and it’s just the wise thing to do, I am a bit stronger, can tackle the chores all day and come back strong the next, and I am really enjoying the joy of gardening! Thank you!
Another wheelbarrow tip I learned is to place the greatest weight over the wheel of the barrow – it is much easier to lift and push.
About 15 years ago I was diagnosed with a crumbling hip joint and was often in great pain. I lost 40lbs and am still going strong. I only feel pain when I do something STUPID!
I live in South Africa and found your website just recently. What a win! Thanks for all the great info.
I have found something that helps with the aches and pains of life or gardening, LOL. Its a lotion called Real Time Pain Relief. You put it on the site of your pain. Smells great, has no side effects (unlike those pills and potions) and works great. I’d be glad to send anyone a free sample. Just send me your contact information at [email protected]. I’ll get it in the mail to you right away!
frances wilson says
love all yr great ideas.but i,in my 70’s have found a new why to use my wheel barrel,as one day my great-gran-daurghter was picking up branches for me and she turn around backwards,and pull the barrel backwards,so i try it,and it sure made a different.and also,don’t throw away yr old barrels,as i painted mine,and planted lettus,and radies,last year,and the rabbits couldn’t get to it,oh and also a few flower seeds.to brighten it up
Richard Miller says
Have you ever heard of filling the wheel Barrel tire with foam? This was recommended to me by a landscaper working on my property. He said it prevents flats and soft tires.
Coleen Goree says
I’m surprised you didn’t mention a little preventative strengthening. Sit-ups, push-ups, Yoga or pilates… They’ve really helped me.
Exercise! She’s talking about exercise! But she’s right, being in shape before you go out in the yard sure would make things easier.
Mike, You lost 65 pounds this past year?????????? Wow!! That’s great!!! How the heck did you do it? It’s taken me a year to lose a measley 15, and yes, indeed, I do have more to lose! Love all your emails and advice!Thanks!
Sue, Pam and I did weight watchers for a year and the program really does work if you follow it. We no longer belong to weight watchers, but we still follow the program we learned from them.
Robin I have to disagree with Mike on this one. You have to dig to China at least 3 foot deep and get every last piece of root out or you will be cussing it every year. I did this, even crawled under the sidewalk after it. So far so good after I think it is 4 yrs or more now. I helped an other woman put down heavy cloth and lava rock, she also had some other guy put down big river rocks in the back yard. Well the grass is still there it just grows around the barriers or comes up and becomes one with it. I assume we are talking about the same grass that is what they call it here. I’ve looked in books and it maybe quack grass it is the stuff with the nasty rope like roots that the idiots that put the sidewalks in all over town dragged in. GRRRR!
Most people in my area have bermuda grass. The roots only grow about six inches deep.
In another state I had Johnson grass, which looked exactly like bermuda grass to me, but the roots are like wires and they go two feet deep.
When I use Roundup-type sprays on my bermuda grass, the grass always comes back a time or two — thinner each time.
I found a wonderful spray that kills grass, including bermuda, but not other plants. It’s called Ornamec. Search for it online to find the best deal.
Lisa Ayres says
I had back surgery to repair a broken vertebrae due to a birth defect, 22 years ago. Yes, I have back pain every day, but I am not in a wheelchair. The best advice I got was, when lifting an object, bend down to pick it up, but DON”T look at the object when you lift. Lift your head and look straight ahead. That simple change takes 2000 lbs. of pressure off your spine. Again, grasp the object, look straight ahead, and lift. It really will help in the long haul. Secondly, of course don’t make yourself handicapped by being severely overweight. Good gardening to all! Lisa
Thanks for reminding me. I remember hearing that as well but had completely forgotten about it. Since I do have back issues every lift that I do is very calculated.
As a retired Safety and Health trainer your tips are right one and a great help for us dirt lovers. You are such a great help for all of us – keep the tidbits of advice coming.
clyde w holmes says
SOME OF THESE TIPS I HAVE PRATICED THEM THROUGH THE YEARS
ILEARNED THEM WORKING AS AN CONSTRUCTION ELECTRICIAN AN
WE HAVE HAD SOME OF THEM ON THE JOB YOU L\EARN THEM QICKLEY OR LABR HARD SOME TIMES. I THROUGHLY ENJY EVERY ONE OF YOUR TIPS AN SEEM TO LEARN SOME THING ON EVERY ONE OFTHEM I KNW YOU ARE DOING A GOOD IN WRITING AQAND LET US ALL LEARN WHAT WE CAN OF EACH TIP. MAY GOD BLESS YOU FOR
THE WORK YOU ARE DOING FOR ALL THIS WORK.
Robin Bosser says
I have bermudagrass. Can I still till it under and make a flower bed? It seems like nothing kills it, and it spreads big time.
Bermuda grass is a living plant. It’s needs water, sunlight and nutrition to survive. So yes, you can till it under but you have to keep working that soil until all of the roots are no longer viable. Don’t be in a hurry. Secondly, I’m pretty sure it spreads from both seeds and rhizomes, so even though you can get one area clear of Bermuda it’s likely to work its way back in if you are not diligent. Covering the area with 9 layers of newspaper after you plant, before you mulch will also help a lot.
Edwin J, Losiewicz says
Many years ago, I worked on my friends Father’s dairy farm. The cows in the barn were fed by filling a washtub with feed and carrying it to them one at a time.
I suggested making a ramp to replace the step and using a wagon with two tubs.
You’d would have thought i had slapped his Mama. I guess the guy who invented the wheel wasn’t very well liked.
I was real happy to leave farm life.
you should also point out to lift the handles a little high, which will put more of the weight on the wheel.
Very timely Mike! I plan on doing some major gardening this spring and will keep your advice in mind. Thank you again
Moving from a desk job to a FUN job does take a toll every day, so I gratefully welcome the tips/tricks ancillary to plant growing activities.
We recently excavated a 20’x20′ layer cake of ancient weed mat-grass-weeds and I wasn’t sure if repeated tilling would do the trick or if I would just get IMPATIENT and spray the whole thing with ground-kill chemical. I’ll stick with the tiller.
BTW, I just love seeing all the Believers amongst your subscribers. So I’ll add my name to that group:
God Bless you and your work!
Thanks Mike for this info. I have a bad back and part of it is probably from foolishly working the hard way in my yard for 30 years. It is a shame you weren’t around to give me advice back when.
I hope to be able to work in my yard this summer. Not sure but if I do, I have your info saved to look though.
Great job and such a wonderful service to your subscribers. Thank you again so much.
God Bless you in all you do.
I like what you have to say in the artical about preventing back injuries. I recently invested in a small garden tiller. I haven’t used it yet but am looking forward to NOT having to manually till the gardens this spring. That is if spring ever decides to get here this year!
As far as the wheelbarrow is concerned I do have a metal one but found as I have gotten older that it is still a LOT of work to move one when it has a heavy load. Last year I bought a dumpable garden cart. On 4 wheels it is a breeze to move everything from heavy topsoil, patio pavers, sand, plants and even debris from trimming the yard, trees and bushes. It’s saved my back, and now it feels like punishment to have to use a wheelbarrow.
steve rothrock says
I never considered I didn’t know how to use a wheelbarrow. Your video is very instructive and makes just common sense. My problem is I want to fill the wheelbarrow to heaping and then the tire gets soft and the whole thing is extremely hard to move. So I strain and strain because I want to make less trips back and forth. Results…a trip to the pain pill bottle.
Thanks for the tips.
Hey Mike, YOu have a pinterest link BUT, it will not link to my pinterest site. It “says” there is no account for your site. What do I need to do? Your great ideas need to be in one special place for me! MamaPat
Walter Cantrell says
Hey Mike, How are you doing? I was reading the email this morning and the video is on you tube #59 How To Plant A Ball and Burlap Dug Tree . I enjoy all of you videos thanks a lot for all the info. Walter
Walter, thanks but that’s not the one I was looking for. I did one last fall with a hemlock tree. Maybe I’m losing my marbles???? Only had a few to start with.
Fred T Ennenga (WhiteHorse says
Hi Mike! I can attest to everything you have said my friend! After 35 years of farming the results are the same; doing stupid things results in back problems until you return to the soil where you came from. Your famous Wheelbarrow Movie is great! Have a blessed day!
Robert Kelley says
Good points, I have a steel wheelborrow that I purchase in 1974, not as nice looking as it was when I bought it and I have replace the tire due to dryrot but its still used every year by me or my neighbors. Common sense should also be used when using any tool. Don’t overload the wheelbarrow, what a couple extra trips if your back is at stake. Enjoy your tips and looking forward to spring.
Larry Booher says
Walking will not hurt you, big loads will. Several little trips is easier on the back and legs than one big trip. The same with shoveling – we do not have to lift the whole pile with one shovel load – act like a politician and just keep shoveling.