Gardening and arthritis

gardening and arthritis


Looking after your garden can be a problem if you have arthritis or rheumatism. Whether your whole body is affected or just one joint, you may find bending difficult or that you cannot get around too well or just suffer from general pain and stiffness.

This booklet shows how you can carry on gardening, whether you have a painful hip, swollen fingers and wrists, or a number of damaged joints. You will find ways to protect yourself from unnecessary strain by careful planning.

Pain in the joints and weakness of the muscles make it difficult to garden in the conventional way. But there are a number of means to overcome these hindrances. You can use different gardening methods, change the layout of paths and beds, select plants carefully and choose the right tools. It is important to use lightweight implements or ones which have extended handles. There is a wide variety of garden tools designed to make cultivation, weeding, pruning and tidying up easier. It may be important to handle tools before buying, so that you can test them for lightness and balance. If possible, try them out on the soil to make sure they feel right and that you can manage them properly.

Because arthritis comes in many forms, and varies in severity and extent, all the suggestions offered cannot be appropriate for everyone. A gardener whose stiff knee gives minor discomfort when s/he is digging will change his/her techniques to place less strain on the knee. Someone with widespread arthritis, however, may have to work from a wheelchair or a stool. One has to accept much greater limitations than the other – yet both can enjoy gardening to the full. On some days you feel much better than on others and this affects your attitude to gardening as well as to everything else.

Protecting your joints

Gardening provides plenty of opportunities for healthy exercise in the fresh air and in pleasant surroundings. But overdoing things leads to inflammation, swelling and pain, making it necessary to rest completely until the flare-up subsides. The aim is to stay mobile and independent by gently exercising arthritic joints without subjecting them to too much stress. The amount of exercise will vary from one person to another. A general guideline is ‘a little and often’. Prolonged activity of a repetitive nature is not a good idea. Your own experience will tell you how to get the balance right.

By changing jobs frequently you can exercise different sets of muscles. For example, a short spell of hoeing weeds on the vegetable plot should be followed by something gentler like pricking out seedlings while sitting at a bench in the greenhouse. It is tempting to carry on with one job until it is completed, but it is sensible to switch from one to another with rest periods in-between.

The small joints of the hand are damaged by too much pressure. When carrying things try to spread the load by using both hands and arms, rather than taking the load with the fingers only. When lifting a tray of seedlings, pick it up with both hands and rest it on your palms. Better still, carry it on your forearms and keep your elbows tucked in to your ribs to reduce the strain on shoulders and elbows.

Take a grip

Gripping a rake or hoe tightly for any length of time can cause pain and swelling of the knuckles. By slipping a sponge rubber sleeve over the shaft of the tool you can hold it less tightly. This will also absorb any jarring. Plastic foam insulation sleeving used for domestic central heating pipes and obtained from builders’ merchants and DIY shops is eminently suitable for many tools.

Taking it easy

By planning gardening jobs carefully you can avoid unnecessary effort. If problems with your hips, knees and ankles mean walking is difficult try to avoid too many journeys up and down the garden. Take all you need in one go. Conversely, if you need to protect your shoulders, elbows and wrists it is better to make several trips carrying a small amount each time.

There may be ways to reduce effort simply by looking at the job in a different way. For instance, instead of filling a large watering can from a tap outside the back door and carrying it to the bottom of the garden, why not have one or two open-topped tanks placed in the garden where you need them most? You can fill them from time to time with a hosepipe.

Plants can be watered using a small plastic can dipped into the nearest tank. To make the tanks less obtrusive you can ‘hide’ them by surrounding them with suitable plants.

A little help

There are bound to be occasions when you need help with some of the heavier work, but be careful not to let your assistant take on more than is really necessary. It is too easy for an enthusiastic friend to be toowilling to help, with the result that you become a spectator. You do not want to lose the pleasure and satisfaction of doing your own gardening. Decide how much you can do yourself and how much you need to delegate – for example, you may be glad of help with heavy digging but you can manage the raking and seed-sowing or planting on your own.

By all means seek help when it comes to shifting heavy loads such as bags of compost – especially when lifting them out of the boot of a car. You can probably find help at a garden centre, but if you are on your own when you get home, buy two small bags instead of one large one, even though they will cost more.

When you’re away

There may be times when you need a spell in hospital or perhaps when you just don’t feel up to gardening for a while. At these times the garden has to grow without you. This is where it pays to plan ahead, choosing plants which will thrive during your absence.

A garden filled with carefully selected shrubs and herbaceous perennials needs less attention than one consisting of a variety of annual bedding plants. In the first instance the bare soil is effectively covered, excluding light and preventing weed growth.

Plants like bergenias, cranesbill, lavender and periwinkle backed by shrubs such as berberis, escallonia, Senecio ‘Sunshine’ and Viburnum tinus can take care of themselves for long periods once their roots are deep into the soil. It is important to water them well during their first summer after planting. There are many low-maintenance plants which you can discover by consulting a good gardening manual or by seeking advice from your local garden centre.

Lawns need mowing regularly throughout the summer, so if you are frequently away from home and have no reliable help it may be worth replacing the lawn with a paved area. You can leave spaces here and there between slabs for growing suitable plants.

Paths and beds

Working in the garden can be so much easier if you give some thought to its layout. Ideally there should be firm paths alongside the beds and borders, so that most of the cultivation can be done without having to step onto the soil. This is important if you have difficulty keeping your balance on uneven ground. To achieve this the beds should be quite narrow. If you can get to the bed from both sides it should be no more than 4 feet (1.2 m) wide, so that the middle can be reached comfortably without stretching. Non-slip paving slabs make safe paths; they can also be used for shallow steps where the ground level changes. Wooden handrails alongside steps are also helpful.

If you find it difficult to bend to ground level or work from a wheelchair a raised bed would be helpful. It would also be more interesting than a one-level garden. Raised beds can be expensive to build and you will need extra soil to fill them. However, if your garden soil is heavy clay a raised bed gives you the opportunity to create an easily managed area by bringing in good topsoil.

If you have a sloping garden you can make a terrace by building a low retaining wall alongside a level path and backfilling with soil, which has the effect of making a raised bed. Even raising the soil level a small amount makes management much easier. After all, getting down to the last foot is the most difficult.

A containing job

A wide range of containers can be used for working at a convenient height. These look attractive on a patio and are easy to look after because they are near the house. Annual bedding plants, heathers, herbs, spring bulbs and even fruit trees can be grown in this way, creating varied interest throughout the season. Heavy tubs can be mounted on castors should you need to move them around.

Herbaceous borders

The traditional herbaceous border requires a lot of attention at different times of the year – staking, pruning, dividing, dead-heading and weeding – so give careful thought before making one. You can reduce the need for staking taller plants by choosing those that are self-supporting, for instance lupins, phlox, achillea and Japanese anemones.

If you cannot reach the back of the border easily, it is better to plant shrubs which require less attention. Euphorbia wulfenii, Euonymus fortunei, Aucuba japonica, Potentilla fruticosa and Choisya ternata are good examples. They form a pleasant background for lower-growing species at the front. Small annuals such as pansies and marigolds can be planted near the path, but an edging of pinks or lady’s mantle is just as effective and will create less work.

Fruit growing

You can buy fruit trees that have been grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks. This restricts their growth, making the fruit easy to reach. They also come into bearing early, so you do not have to wait more than a year or two for your first harvest. You can grow fruit trees in a variety of forms – cordons in a slanting row, and espaliers and fans perhaps against a wall or fence. You restrict their height to whatever suits you by pruning in August.

Gooseberry plants can be grown on a ‘leg’ – a single clear stem 2–3 feet (0.6–0.9 m) high. This saves you bending down to pick them. Strawberries grown through holes in a barrel are easier to gather and they are less likely to be spoilt by slugs or grey mould.


Growbags that have been used for tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse can be used again the following year for salad crops such as lettuce, radishes, spring onions and beetroot. They all do well in these second-hand bags, which can be placed on an old table or bench if it is more convenient to reach them. You can, of course, also grow tomatoes and courgettes outside in the garden in growbags if your garden soil is unsuitable, but these must be in fresh compost.

The deep bed method

If you need a labour-saving way of growing vegetables you could try the deep bed method. In this method the plot is divided into strips 4 feet (1.2 m) wide, separated by paved paths. The ground should be well dug over, incorporating a generous amount of farmyard manure, peat or well-made garden compost into each trench. Do not walk over the soil after this stage. All cultivation, planting, weeding, feeding and harvesting is done from the paths using tools long enough to reach to the centre.

Because the soil is not compacted, sowings of root crops can be spread more densely than normal over the whole surface, because the growing plants push each other sideways in the easily crumbled soil. There is no need to sow in rows. Such dense planting reduces the competition from weeds and results in crops which are at least as high as conventional methods, despite the extra space devoted to paths. The following autumn you lay a fresh supply of manure on the surface. This works down into the soil by the action of worms and by weathering during the winter. A little light cultivation the following spring will make sure it is completely mixed in. No further digging is necessary for several years.

The initial digging of the plot may be difficult, but if you can get help at this stage the deep bed method of growing vegetables has much to commend it. The fact that the soil is loose and friable in the bed raises it a few inches above the level of the paths. This makes it easier to reach; it also means it warms up quickly in spring, improving germination. A gardener with arthritis can sit at a stool on the path and reach the middle of the bed easily with suitable tools. If your reach is very limited the width of the bed should be reduced accordingly. Do not make each bed too long, because you will have to walk all round it to get to the other side.

The lawn

While the lawn is a traditional feature of garden design, if you find it difficult to look after there is no real reason to feel you have to have one. You could substitute narrow beds separated by paths, or pave the area, leaving spaces in which to plant shrubs or annuals.

Some people increase the size of their lawn to reduce the area of cultivated borders, but this may be a case of solving one problem and creating another. A lawn needs regular attention throughout the season if it is to look attractive. It can be expensive to maintain, taking into account the cost and maintenance of a lawnmower and the price of lawn dressings.

Island beds in lawns are fashionable but they do make mowing more complicated. It is easier to manoeuvre the machine if the shape is simple and the edges are straight.

For someone who suffers from arthritis the most difficult part of mowing the lawn can be getting the machine out in the first place. Store your mower somewhere accessible, avoiding steps and tight corners.

Garden buildings

If you need buildings such as a greenhouse, potting shed, tool shed and cold frame try to place them near each other. Clustering buildings saves carrying pots, compost and seedtrays unnecessarily. If possible the greenhouse should be near the house for quick access in unfavourable weather. This applies also to the compost bin and the dustbin.

The lids of some glazed cold frames are very heavy to lift. A raised frame with a hinged lid clad with lightweight corrugated plastic sheeting and connected to a pulley and counterbalance weight is much safer and easier to manage.

The greenhouse

A greenhouse or conservatory shelters plants from wind and frost and provides pleasant working conditions for the gardener during inclement weather. It should be in good light but not necessarily placed where it receives full sun all day, otherwise it will become unbearably hot in summer. A south-west aspect is ideal. Some dappled shade from nearby trees in the middle of the day helps keep it cool.

‘Coolglass’, a special white paint, can be sprayed or painted onto the roof glass in early summer to reflect the sun’s rays and reduce the temperature. Although rain will not affect it, it nevertheless wipes off easily in autumn when you no longer need it.

The staging should be at a convenient height. You should be able to work comfortably while sitting on a stool with a back support. You may prefer to rest your elbows and forearms on the staging while pricking out seedlings. If all the staging is at the same height it is easy to slide trays along without lifting them. It is fortunate that modern composts, pots and seedtrays are much lighter than their predecessors.

Plants in the greenhouse depend largely on the grower for the right environment in regard to temperature, ventilation, light and moisture. Nowadays thermostatically controlled fan heaters, automatic vent openers and capillary watering systems go a long way to providing these conditions with a minimum of effort on the part of the gardener. By using growbags to grow tomatoes and cucumbers you can even avoid digging the border soil.

If you need to do your gardening from a wheelchair you should choose your greenhouse with care. The doorways on many greenhouses are too narrow and the sills too high for wheelchair access. Greenhouses with double door width and an unobstructed threshold are supplied by Eden Greenhouses.

Hedges and fences

Even slow-growing hedges like yew need trimming once a year, but hand shears tend to hurt arthritic joints. An electric hedge trimmer is not much better; it is quite heavy and the vibration does not help. Try to keep your hedges low so you do not need to stretch too much. Lavender and box make good low hedges for dividing up the garden. A row of fruit trees grown as cordons makes a decorative ‘hedge’, perhaps to separate an ornamental garden from the vegetable plot. A properly erected wooden fence treated with preservative will last for many years without attention and can be used as a support for climbing plants.

Shade and shelter

During the middle of the day in summer shade is very welcome. Bear this in mind when deciding where to plant trees. Perhaps the shady part of the garden would be a good place to have a garden seat.

Make sure the one you buy is not too low and has a comfortable backrest to provide adequate support. Trees and hedges reduce the strength of the wind, making the garden more sheltered and private. This encourages birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects to visit your garden.

The soil

The key to making soil cultivation easier is to improve the quality of the soil itself. Heavy clay can be lightened by digging in farmyard manure or good garden compost to improve its structure and drainage. The addition of sharp sand or grit allows air into the soil, making it easier for roots to penetrate. It also makes it easier to dig in the future.

Turning the soil over in autumn exposes it to winter frosts and makes it easier to break down, ready for sowing the following season. Organic matter added to light sandy soil helps feed plants and retains moisture in hot weather. It is important to turn as much of your garden waste into compost as you can; stable manure or spent mushroom compost may be expensive and hard to come by.

Get digging

A border spade has a smaller blade than a digging spade so you will not be tempted to dig large spadefuls. It is lighter and easier to handle and, anyway, you should take small bites at the soil. Soil tends to cling to ordinary carbon steel spades, which adds weight, so stainless steel is better if you can afford it. It is also easier to clean afterwards. Spades with extra-long handles, which give greater leverage and reduce the need to bend, are now available.

If your soil is light and crumbly use a border fork instead of a spade because it is lighter and penetrates the soil more easily. If bending is a problem try clamping an auxiliary handle part-way down the shaft of your spade or fork. This saves you leaning over too far and provides a comfortable grip for your lower hand without twisting your wrist. If the soil is light and sandy you may not need to dig at all. A deep tilth for seed-sowing and planting can be created with a soil miller. This long-handled tool has four star-wheels which break down the soil into fine particles as you move it backwards and forwards. Well-rotted farmyard manure spread over the surface can be incorporated into the soil with the soil miller. This is a good tool for use with a deep bed system.

Weeding out

Perennial weeds like dandelions and couch grass should be carefully forked out without breaking their roots. As a last resort, bad infestation can be treated with a weedkiller such as ‘Weedol’ or ‘Tumbleweed’.

Annual weeds should be hoed while they are young and easy to deal with. They should certainly not be given the chance to set seeds. Use a hoe that skims the soil surface back and forth, chopping off the weeds at ground level. The push-pull hoe has thin sharp blades which do this job with minimum effort. Like the spade, the push-pull hoe can be fitted with an extra-long handle to make it easier to use; the implement rests on the soil surface all the time.

The draw hoe requires more effort since it has to be continually lifted and put down again. It is tempting to use it with a chopping action, but this causes jarring of the joints. The continuous jabbing action required by the Dutch hoe has a similar effect, and so should be avoided.

Weeding by hand is tiring if you cannot reach easily down to ground level. The ‘Baronet’ weed puller has a steel blade which is pushed into the ground alongside the weed. The weed is gripped and pulled out by closing the handle; it can then be transferred to a bucket or barrow. Although this implement only deals with one weed at a time and may seem slow compared with hoeing, it saves having to rake together all the weeds and picking them up afterwards. It is also easy to use sitting down. An effective way of controlling annual weeds on an established flower border is to cover the soil with a 2-inch (5 cm) layer of shredded bark. This excludes light from the soil and suppresses weed germination. An alternative method using the same principle is to cover the prepared bed with black polythene, then plant through slits cut in the sheeting. A layer of gravel scattered over the top holds down the polythene and improves the border’s appearance. This method is also effective against perennial weeds.

Sowing the seed

The Wolf seed drill enables you to sow rows of vegetable seeds without bending down to ground level. The loaded tool is pushed along the drill, distributing seed evenly and accurately as it goes along. It is suitable for most vegetables except peas and beans, but these can be sown by dropping them into the trench down a 3-foot (0.9 m) length of PVC waste pipe 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. A lightweight mini-rake can be used to draw a shallow layer of soil over the trench to cover the seeds.

Planting out

Planting out summer bedding plants is another job involving a lot of bending. You can avoid this problem altogether by growing only shrubs and herbaceous perennials in the borders. However, sitting at the edge of the bed you can take out a hole with a long-handled trowel, place a small plant on the trowel and lower it carefully into the hole. Pot-grown plants are the most suitable for this technique.


Ideally a mains water supply should be laid to a central point so that a short length of hosepipe will easily reach any part of the garden. Carrying water in cans and buckets is very tiring and time-consuming. Besides keeping one or two tanks in the garden which you fill periodically with a hosepipe, you can collect rainwater in water-butts connected to the roof of the greenhouse or garage.

In a dry summer when a hosepipe ban is likely, repetitive watering by hand may be a really serious problem. Free-draining borders in full sun are best used for growing drought-resistant plants such as wallflowers, rosemary, broom and santolina. These come to no harm if they dry out for a few days.

If you sink a flowerpot to the rim in the ground alongside a plant and fill it from a small watering-can the water will be directed straight to the roots without wastage. Mulching with shredded bark reduces evaporation, but it should only be applied to soil which is already moist. One advantage of dry soil is that the weeds do not germinate so quickly.

Hanging-baskets retain their moisture longer in light shade, and happily some of the most popular basket plants like fuchsias, ivy-leafed geraniums, trailing lobelias and busy Lizzies thrive in these conditions. A hanging-basket sprayer is useful for watering a basket too high to reach with a watering-can. You can buy special hanging-basket compost containing moisture-retentive crystals so you don’t have to water so often. These crystals, such as ‘SwellGel’, are also available separately for mixing in standard compost.


The CK ratchet pruner requires less effort to cut through twigs than most other secateurs. Instead of one big squeeze it takes up to four ‘bites’ to make the cut, considerably reducing the strain on the knuckles. It has a sharp blade and makes a very clean cut.

A two-handed lopper will give good leverage without much effort and can be held lightly against the palms and wrists, protecting the finger joints from strain. A long-handled lopper enables you to cut out branches low down in the centre of rose bushes without scratching your hands and arms. Fiskars UK makes a very lightweight plastic pruner, but there are other models available.

The ‘Baronet’ flower gatherer is good for light pruning where you have to reach a long way. It has a long handle and the cut stem is gripped in the jaws so that it does not fall to the ground. This ‘cut and hold’ action is also a feature of some Wolf secateurs.

Light trimming after flowering of heathers and lavender can conveniently be done with English trimming shears, developed from sheep shears. This very sharp, lightweight implement is operated one-handed with a gentle squeezing action and requires minimal finger movement.

Prolonged gripping and squeezing of all these pruning tools hurts finger joints and wrists and should therefore be practised only briefly.

Mowing and clipping

There are still a few manual lawnmowers made (e.g. Qualcast) and these have pram-type handles enabling you to do most of the pushing with your stomach, thereby protecting your arms and wrists.

Most mowers now have power-driven blades and include mains-electric models (e.g. Black & Decker, Atco-Qualcast) which are fairly light to push. You should always use a circuit-breaker with electrical equipment in the garden to guard against serious accident. Cordless battery-operated mowers are now available; these can be easier to manoeuvre, but some models have heavy batteries. Petrol-engined mowers are not recommended for people with arthritis because they are so heavy. Mowers with petrol engines are also sometimes difficult to start.

It is not essential to collect the grass cuttings. In dry weather especially it is better to leave them on the lawn. So why not reduce the weight you have to push by leaving off the grassbox?

The appearance of the lawn is improved if the edges are neatly trimmed with edging shears. CK Tools makes lightweight shears with aluminium handles which are generously padded to give a comfortable grip and absorb jarring. Their long handles make it unnecessary to stoop. If you prefer to use a nylon cord trimmer, Allen Power Equipment has a model which operates vertically for lawn edging. You simply walk along holding it against the edge of the lawn.

Keep it tidy

Annual weeds, leaves and soft prunings should be picked up regularly to keep the garden tidy. They should be properly composted and eventually returned to the soil to restore its nutrient content. The composting of garden refuse is greatly accelerated by feeding it through an electric shredder. The shredded material is then stacked in a compost bin where, in just a few weeks, it heats up rapidly and breaks down to produce valuable compost. There are several makes of shredder and a supplier is given below.

You can easily collect small quantities of weeds in a bucket or bag but if you have a large garden you may need a wheelbarrow.

A barrow with two wheels and a single handle can be helpful. The weight of the contents is borne mainly by the axle rather than on your arms. This type of barrow can be manoeuvrable and easy to empty without the need to bend down or twist. There are new barrows coming on the market all the time. An increasing number are made of plastic and are easy to use.

A rake can be fitted with a smaller head for raking between plants in the border. Leaves and weeds can be picked up without bending by using the ‘Anita’ garden grab.

Stay seated

Sitting down to garden really is worth a try. There are several advantages to gardening while sitting; in particular, the weight on load-bearing joints is reduced. It is not as tiring, so you can work longer without discomfort. If your balance is not good, sitting provides stability. If you normally walk with a stick, sitting leaves both hands free; and because you are near the ground you can use shorter, and lighter, tools.

Sitting does, of course, limit your mobility and reach, but it is surprising how big an area can be tended from one position. However, you are restricted to whatever you can comfortably reach from the edge of the lawn or path; it is risky to place a stool on uneven ground. The width of the border should be carefully considered when planning your garden layout. The border should not be wider than 4 feet (1.2 m) and considerably less if your reach is restricted. A very wide border will be made more accessible by putting in an extra path on the other side.

There are several good garden stools available. Some are made of lightweight plastic, and don’t go rusty if left out in the rain. There is also a tubular steel model available – this has a higher seat making it easier to get up from. They all have runners along the base, rather than four separate feet, so are less likely to sink in soft ground. They come with padded comfortable seats.

Whether you sit down or stand up to garden, the important thing is to enjoy yourself. Gardening should be a pleasure, not a pain. If you keep that perspective and help yourself, you can still reap a tremendous amount of enjoyment. Happy gardening!

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