In the world of professional gardening, winter brings on different tasks. Hopefully, most of these jobs will be indoors when the weather is at its worst, as snow-shoveling and ice-chipping rank near the very bottom of our favorite jobs list. About the only things lower on that list are cleaning up the bird messes under the seed feeders, mucking out the pond on a cold spring day or spreading ripe manure in the heat of the summer. Gardeners usually use the winter season to plan future plantings, research new materials, order specialty items and peruse plant catalogs.

Health Benefits of Being a Gardener

Most active gardeners are healthier than their non-gardening friends. With good core strength built from raking leaves and turning compost and strong backs from careful lifting, toting and spading, managing a garden beats working out in a gym any day. Fresh air, sunshine and the beauty of the landscape surrounding us can put us in a good mental space, as well. Add to that the great nutritional value of the fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs our gardens produce, and the end result is healthier living that can translate into longer lifespans.

People who have been active gardeners throughout their lives, I believe, are happier. That may not be a statistically accurate measure, since I tend to hang around with the ‘green thumb’ set, nor is it backed up with any hard data. It is just a note from personal observation. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that just two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week can reduce the pain and stiffness of arthritis and raise overall energy levels.

Sure, the weeding gets harder as we age, but the engagement with nature helps to keep us young. I’ve just spent time over the holidays with my mom (now in her mid-80s), and the thing she was most eager to do was to walk in her garden and show me both Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica in bloom at the same time! And not a moment was lost in fetching a spade when I admired a small, colorful, misplaced Nandina seedling: It was in my suitcase in a flash, dug by my mother’s nimble hands.


A Special Note on Sunshine Safety

With my ancestry traced to Scotland, England and Ireland, I am not blessed with a single speck of excess melanin. Sunscreen is a daily ritual for me, no matter what time of year it is. As a contact lens wearer, I prefer tear-free options so that when I sweat, it doesn’t burn my eyes. The tops of your ears are especially vulnerable to UV rays, as are the backs of your neck and hands. Don’t forget your forearms when they are exposed during warmer weather.

The most important thing you need for skin cancer prevention is a good dermatologist. Learn the warning signs for melanoma--- the ABCDEs (Asymmetry, Borders, Color, Diameter, Evolving). Some of the symptoms of precancerous growths are much more subtle. I was actually looking through a supply catalog at work, shopping for tools, when I came across the page of hats with a column of pictures showing the various types of skin cancers with their symptoms. A sudden realization shook me: the spots on my forehead that I had mistaken for eczema were really precancerous growths. A visit to the dermatologist confirmed that the pink, scaly, itchy spots were actinic keratosis and needed to be removed promptly. After a little zap with liquid nitrogen, they were gone and I’ve been getting checked twice a year ever since. About half of all squamous cell carcinomas, the second most common type of skin cancer, begin as actinic keratosis. If left untreated, some squamous cell carcinomas will metastasize and may become life-threatening. The most frequent type of skin cancer—basal cell carcinoma—rarely metastasizes, but if left untreated can cause disfigurement and damage to surrounding tissues. If you have any questions at all, you should seek the advice of a professional. Anyone who works or plays in the sun often—gardener, jogger, golfer or skier—should be checked out on a regular basis. Better safe than sorry.         --Julie Hess                                                                                                                  


A Very Short Course on Home Garden Safety

The longevity of a home gardener may be better than average, but the statistics from a worker’s compensation source put professional gardeners in a high-risk group because we routinely handle sharp tools, noisy power equipment with cutting blades, caustic chemicals and pesticides. Occupational exposures also include daily UV dosing, regular contact with rusty implements and soils filled with decay organisms. All gardeners enjoy the benefits of good humus for soil conditioning, but take a moment to think about how it gets made. The same fungi and bacteria that break down organic matter can affect our tissues, as well. Always treat even minor wounds that happen when gardening as serious. And if you think that Julie’s note on sun protection is too grave, think again. We have both lost loved ones to malignant melanoma and hope, through a little education, to spare others that grief. We take our winter safety classes seriously and hope you will, too.

Protect Yourself

• Keep your tetanus vaccination current.

• Use the best gardening gloves you can afford.

• If you grow roses, get rose gauntlets.

• Reduce exposure to nail fungus by rubbing soap under your fingernails before digging in soil bare-handed.

• Always wear a hat.

• Use sun protection from clothing or sunscreen with high SPF year-round.

• Prevent Lyme disease, St. Louis Encephalitis and West Nile Virus by using DEET for tick and mosquito prevention.

Learn to Identify Hazards

• Call 1-800-DIG-RITE for utility location marking three days before you dig anything deeper than one spade depth to avoid damaging utility lines.

• Learn to recognize poison ivy by sight and wash well with grease-removing dish soap if exposed.

• Familiarize yourself with copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlers with pocket field guides.

• Check your trees frequently for dead branches that may pose a risk.

Safe Chemical Handling

• Store all pesticides in locking cabinets.

• Never pour chemicals into unlabeled bottles.

• Don’t reuse a pesticide container for any other purpose.

• Always follow label directions for application and disposal.

• With pesticides, more is not better.

• Keep a well-charged fire extinguisher at hand when fueling equipment.

Tool Safety

• Clean tools after every use and oil regularly to prevent corrosion or rust.

• Put tools away or safely position them when not in use to avoid tripping hazards.

• Dull tools, like dull knives, are more dangerous than sharp ones.

• Learn how to properly sharpen blades on hand and power tools.

• Never use a tool that is too heavy for you to control.

• If you have arthritis, buy new ergonomic tools with cushioned handles.

Know Your Limits

• Ask your doctor if you should have any limitations for garden activities.

• Work up gradually to tasks in the spring to avoid sore muscles.

• Vary your activities to limit fatigue and work all muscle groups to build broad exercise benefits.

• Learn what your lifting capacity is and do not exceed it.

• Wear a back brace when lifting heavy items or for any strenuous activity.

• Keep your fluid intake up in the summer to prevent dehydration.

• Follow the shade and work in the coolest location of the moment.

• If you need to work from a ladder more than two steps high, have a buddy near, in case of a fall.

• Ask for help when you need it.