Horror in the Garden
Of Lesions, adhesions, and accidents waiting to happen
If you think gardening is for wimps, ponder this: Each year, an estimated 400,000 Americans are treated in ERs for injuries sustained in the garden, 27,000 of them from chain saws, 79,000 from lawn mowers, and, topping the list, a startling 222,000 from ladders. And we haven’t even talked about doctor visits for tendonitis, ocular abrasions, and other corporeal agonies.
Toiling in the tillage can be risky business, amigos, as anyone who’s ever drawn blood with loppers, or ruptured something wielding a pick-axe, or mashed a foot with a fumbled rock can tell you. I personally bear scars from all manner of gardening wounds, including, but not limited to, cuts from broken glass, gashes from razor-sharp ornamental grasses, and surgeries for a mangled meniscus and non-melanoma skin cancer.
I blush to tell you that most, if not all, of these insults to my precious flesh were entirely my fault and could have been prevented, had I not been an idiot–i.e., foolhardy, impatient, or just plain lazy–by failing to use common sense when cultivating the veldt. And so, sadder but wiser, I offer these safety tips to guide you as you venture onto the field of battle that is your back yard, lest you become another floricultural casualty with no one to blame but your pitiful self.
Dress and Daub Defensively On this one I’ve always been pretty disciplined, a result of which is that I’ve never had Lyme Disease (touch wood). My routine get-up includes long-sleeved shirt, tights tucked into socks, sturdy shoes or boots, hat, 50 SPF sunblock, latex
surgical gloves, leather gauntlet gloves, insect repellant applied from head to toe and, on occasion, face mask and safety glasses. The long-sleeved shirt is to prevent severe sunburn, bug bites, and minor cuts; the tights to ward off meandering ticks; the latex gloves to deflect poison ivy; the gauntlet gloves when tying up tall grasses or thinning overgrown shrubs; the face mask to avoid inhaling toxic herbicides; and the safety glasses to fend off flying debris from power tools. (Ear plugs to forestall hearing loss are also in order for wranglers of leaf blowers.) Moral: Do not even think about gardening in flip-flops, or gamboling, barefoot, on the grass; I shudder to contemplate the consequences if you do.
Use Tools Judiciously My arborist once told me that the most common occupational hazard among tree workers comes not from spills from cherry pickers or lacerations from runaway chain saws but, rather, from being slashed by folding handsaws. To avert such a calamity, it is imperative that you abide by this cardinal rule: after pruning, and before taking a single step, close the saw. Be cautious also with box cutters, the perfect implement for scoring root-bound plants or opening bags of mulch; be sure to retract the cutter after each use. And do not leave these and other tools lying on the ground, lest you trip or step on them (think pronged rakes, ouch); best to stash them in a wheel barrow or tool carrier, or on a tool belt.
Carelessness with riding mowers–especially on steep slopes—can lead to horrible injuries, even fatalities, if the mower overturns. Do not use this machine when you are fatigued; do not allow children on or near the mower; and always turn the mower off before clearing the blades of grass clippings. Take care also with electric tools; to prevent shock or electrocution, never use such tools on wet surfaces, and make sure the cords aren’t frayed. Tragedies can also occur with innocuous-seeming ladders leaning against trees. By not securely planting the ladder or by overreaching, climbers have lost their footing, resulting in broken limbs, concussions, and worse. As for chain saws, to my mind they are invitations to catastrophe (although my husband, over my screaming objections, insisted upon using this tool to split logs, saying huffily that he knew perfectly well what he was doing and did I think he was a child, blah blah blah—it’s a guy thing). Some landscaping jobs are best done by the pros.
Use Labor-Saving Devices I used to scoff at people who perch on folding stools while dead-heading, or kneel on knee pads while weeding, or rely on ergonomic tools; not for me the epithet, “wuss.” I paid for this cockiness with the aforementioned scars and surgeries. Inevitably, I had to embrace the reality of creeping decrepitude, swallow my pride, and purchase, among other things, a rubber-padded, long-handled shovel and, dammit, a combo kneeling pad/ folding stool. I also bought a large tarp to drag heavyweight items such as bagged topsoil, rather than carry them and risk internal herniation. (Consumer product safety experts say that men should lift no more than 64 pounds, and women, 28 pounds. Heeding this advice–shameless hussy that I am—for any object that looks to be 29-plus pounds, I dimple adorably and entreat the big strong man I live with to shlep the load for me.)
MISCELLANEOUS Space limitations preclude my droning on about other gardening dangers. Nevertheless–and this is not meant to freak you out—horticultural honor dictates that I squeeze in a few: Repair loose paving stones or bricks; point out poisonous plants to be avoided by your kids; in tropical weather, garden only in early morning and late afternoon; drink plenty of fluids (sorry, no booze) and take frequent breaks; bend at the knees and keep your back straight rather than stoop; alternate tasks to prevent carpel tunnel syndrome and blisters; spray Roundup and other chemicals at the end of the day and only when the air is still; if you’ve been exposed to poison ivy, immediately rub Tecnu on your skin and rinse thoroughly with cold water; and for God’s sake, make it your business to finally read those manuals that came with your tools.
Truly committed gardeners face horticultural hazards every day, laboring in the service of glorious pastoral beauty for the world to enjoy, and for that, they deserve some respect. Humorist S.J. Perelman, a devout urbanite, found this out for himself when he bought a Bucks County farm, only to quickly discover that country life was not all mint julips, and that mown grass actually grows back. In his hilarious book, Acres and Pains, he put it this way: “[T]o lock horns with Mother Nature, the only equipment you really need is the constitution of a Paul Bunyan and the basic training of a commando.”
Well, yes. But look at what you get in return.