Take it slow in the garden to avoid aches and pains

FRESNO, Calif. — With the arrival of spring, there’s a lot to do in the yard. But tackling those gardening chores without developing some aches and pains isn’t always easy.

Experts say the key is to take it slow, which is sometimes challenging for avid gardeners like Sue Kendall, who was 58 when she took up gardening and now, seven years later, is known for her expertise for growing roses.

Kendall is just now getting back to tending to her garden after being sidelined for six weeks because of surgery for a rotator cuff injury and torn ligament last December.

Luckily, by taking a few, doable precautions — frequent break and stretches — she can get back on track.

Kendall, 65, lives in the Old Fig Garden area of Fresno, Calif. She talked about gardening just minutes after returning home from a physical therapy session Monday and given the go-ahead to get back to her 300-plus roses, if done in “moderation.”

“I’m fine now,” she said. “I started putting down fertilizer on the roses Sunday, yesterday and this week will be putting down a weed barrier. That will take a couple of days.”

Slowing down isn’t easy for Kendall, nor for other gardening enthusiasts. But it’s exactly what is needed, said Jeffrey Restuccio, author of the new book, “Get Fit Through Gardening” (Hatherleigh Press, Ltd.) Restuccio views gardening as exercise and a well-tended garden the benefit of a good work-out.

“Gardening by itself is not good for you; it’s only when you garden using proper form and technique that you reap its benefits,” he said. “You have to protect your back and learn to bend your knees,” he said.

Here’s Restuccio’s advice on giving your body a break. You can also view his recommended gardening positions at his Web site,

“Stretch before and after you weed, dig or hoe in the garden. Do warm up for 5 minutes before stretching and stretch again before you cool-down. Your body will thank you.

“Change your garden activity every three to five minutes. Don’t hoe or rake for hours on end. Mix up your gardening chores.

“Ease into it. After a long winter, be gentle on yourself as you begin early spring gardening.

“Protect your back from soreness and injury. Bend from the knees. Keep your back straight as you squat down from the knees and rise straight up using your legs.

“Keep your gardening ambitions in line with your time and ability. A smaller garden will be less work. Plant your garden so you plant one bed in April, bed two in May, bed three in June, and so on.

“Choose tools that are pulled and pushed, like a scuffle hoe, which slices the earth as you pull it. Make certain tools are of adequate length to avoid stooping. Don’t exacerbate a previous back or knee problem by using poorly designed, short-handled tools. Use ergonomic tools to help you accomplish more and work longer with less risk of injury.”

Limit gardening to two hours. “Leave something to do tomorrow,” he said.

Mike Noble, of Fresno, turned a plain backyard into a beautiful backdrop of zinnias, mumms and birds of paradise. He recalls planting a flower bed last year with a little too much zeal.

“The next day, my back was a little stiff and I couldn’t get out of bed,” Noble said. “I had been too lazy to stretch. I just rested that day and by the next day, I was ready to function.”

Noble enjoys tidying his garden with a pair of garden scissors and a bucket. Weekly garden maintenance keeps tasks from becoming “too overwhelming.”

“Gardening is supposed to be a hobby, yet we treat it like work,” he said. “We put too much pressure on ourselves to get things done. We ought to be enjoying gardening and treating it like fun.”

He would rather spend an hour during out the week gardening than have to tackle it all when its gone “too far.”

“The truth is, we’re not in our 20s anymore,” Noble, 59, said.

Carrie Lou Butchert, 72, lives in Fresno and says gardening “energizes” her.

“My son James thinks I have gone overboard with flowers, but I think you can never have too many flowers,” Butchert said.

Butchert and her husband, Jerald, spent nine hours fertilizing their 190-plus roses last Sunday. In the past, the couple has been so engrossed with a gardening project that they found themselves “working in the dark.” “The fertilizing is something we do once a year,” she said. “It’s worth it. Our roses are our pride and joy. Believe me, it’s a labor of love.”

The Butcherts also have raised flower beds that are “easier to manage,” she said. That’s good news since she has a new titanium knee, a result of too much gardening, she said.

“We use a Hula Hoe, so you don’t have to get on your hands and knees,” she said. “I look forward to spring and our garden is well-established so it’s not quite back-breaking as it used to be.”

Fresnan Susan Stiltz has a landscape design and consulting business. She is a certified arborist and worked with Tree Fresno for 20 years. She recommends using a gardening bucket with a cushion on top for sitting while gardening. Stiltz, 59, also uses knee pads.

“Sitting on something is better than bending at the waist,” she says. “I’ll do 10 to 15 minute sessions of stretching.”

Her favorite gardening chore is pruning. But it has its drawbacks.

“There’s a lot of stress at the arms, neck and shoulder while pruning,” Stiltz says. “Heat or ice packs are good for sore muscles.”

She varies her activity. “I like to work on a variety of things in the garden,” Stiltz says. “I don’t like to get bored.”

Kendall, a member of the San Joaquin Valley Rose Society, knows too much gardening will affect her body. “You’re enjoying it so much that you’re sore when you get up,” she says.

The fruit of Kendall’s labor can be seen at her home at Gettysburg and Maroa.

She’s usually gardening in the morning, wearing a hat, heavy rubber garden shoes, jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and sunglasses.

“I’m more careful and take breaks more frequently,” Kendall says. “I have chairs and benches throughout my garden for this purpose. If at any point, I feel my shoulders tiring, I stop for a water break and walk around talking to my plants.”