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HOW CAN gardening make us feel so lively and engaged yet a few hours later, so worn and decrepit?

We’ve all known hale-and-hearty 80-year-olds who attribute their stamina and sense of well-being to gardening. We’ve all felt that sense of rejuvenation when we’re out digging in the soil with the sun on our backs. And yet . . .

Too often we suffer for it later. The most common injuries are lower back pain, and strains to ligaments and joints. The British College of Osteopathic Medicine takes gardening risks seriously, warning that the garden may not always be the healthiest place. The garden itself is benign; it’s our ambition to accomplish miracles in a single afternoon that is treacherous.

We know full well that this headlong pursuit of garden-making is an unfolding process, a lifetime work. So what’s the rush? The weeds will still be there tomorrow.

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To make sure you’ll be able, if not eager, to pull those weeds, here are a few tools and practices to prevent strain and injuries:

Tools have undergone an ergonomic revolution, and it’s possible to find ones to fit your height, weight and hands. Felco and Bahco brands of bypass pruners now have front handles that rotate toward you when you squeeze them to reduce wrist strain. And Fiskars’ PowerGear pruners have a gel pad to make them more comfortable to grasp. Green Heron Tools sells a shovel-spade hybrid, styled for women, that comes in three lengths with a handy D-shaped handle.

Every gardener I questioned about tools is hooked on the CobraHead weeder and cultivator that digs deep to root out weeds. The locally made Shrew from Pro Gardener Tools, with its sharply beveled swivel head, is impressively efficient, too.

Before you take tools in hand, warm up with a brisk walk. Swing your arms, breathe deeply, get your blood circulating. Think of it as planning time, a chance to focus your brain as well as invigorate your muscles.

Cultivate a yoga or Pilates practice as well as your garden. Strong core muscles, an awareness of how your body works, and knowledge of your breath and balance help you stay mindful and safe during a long day in the garden.

Switch chores often; after all, there are plenty to choose from. Repetitive movements create strain and cause problems, so dig a little, prune a little, haul a little, weed a little.

Kneel down when you’re planting, bend your knees deeply when you’re lifting. That big pot that’ll look just right once you slide it a foot to the left? Ask for help, save your back.

Take frequent breaks, despite how hard it is to tear yourself away from an unfinished job. Sit down for a few minutes every hour or two. Rest, drink a cup of tea, admire your work, and come back to it refreshed.

Wear a hat to keep the sun (and rain) off your face, and sturdy boots or shoes to protect your feet and keep them firmly balanced on the ground. Wear gloves to protect your hands . . . and keep them on. The best gloves do no good discarded at your feet as you plunge your hands into the soil. Now, if in the heat of gardening, I could only remember this.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at

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