Your Healthy Gardening Guide
Simple tips for avoiding tick bites, back pain, and other common yard-work hazards.
Getty ImagesThere's nothing like heading into your yard on a warm spring day and getting your hands dirty—in a good way. "Gardening can be great for reducing stress," says Alexis Chiang Colvin, MD, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. "You're out in the fresh air and sunshine, getting your daily dose of moderate exercise."
But you want to do it safely, without bug bites and back pain. Follow these ground rules to enjoy the growing season in good health.
Get more from your patch of green by planting these easy-to-grow, healthful herbs in your garden, suggests Brian Hetrich, ND, of the Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Fla.:
Basil. This highly fragrant plant packs vitamins A and K, and its essential oil has been shown to have antibacterial properties.
Grow tip: An annual, basil can thrive inside or out (plant after the danger of frost passes). It prefers sun and moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil combined with compost. Space about 12 inches apart, water at least every other day and harvest select leaves when the plant is about 10 inches tall.
Rosemary. These leaves have compounds that might help boost the immune system and improve digestion and memory.
Grow tip: Plant this tender perennial in the ground in warm climates or in pots you can move indoors during winter. It prefers slightly alkaline soil and lots of sun. Space at least 24 inches apart, and keep soil moist until the herb is established, which may take a year.
Mint. Great in tea and even in savory dishes, mint can aid digestion, and it also provides vitamins A and C.
Grow tip: Plant seedlings in moist, well-drained soil in a sunny spot, spaced about 15 inches apart. (Mint spreads rampantly, so consider using pots.) Keep well hydrated, watering at least every other day. Removing the leaves from the top of the plant will encourage new growth down the stem.
Using your body properly will help you avoid aches later. While standing, keep your back straight with your knees bent slightly, neck and shoulders relaxed.
Get low. Don't bend from the waist. Instead, kneel on a cushion or sit on a stool (or an overturned bucket), as long as it's low enough for you to maintain a straight back. Make access even easier by planting a raised bed (about 10 inches high) and using tools with longer handles.
Lift smart. For heavy items, squat down and engage the muscles in your thighs and butt when you stand up, keeping your knees bent and back straight. Hug heavy pots or bags of soil close to your body as you straighten.
Switch it up. To avoid repetitive stress injury, rotate tasks that involve doing the same motions again and again (raking, digging) every 15 to 20 minutes and briefly rest or stretch in between.
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Infection might not seem like a big gardening hazard, but the soil in your yard might be, well, soiled with lead and other toxic chemicals from old paint and plumbing, contaminants from pesticides and parasites from pet or wild-animal droppings (hello, giardia and toxoplasmosis), not to mention tetanus and E. coli.
The best defense is to invest in a quality pair of gardening gloves—either thin and fitted for tasks that require dexterity, or leather ones in a gauntlet style for when you're clearing brambles or thorny bushes. If you do get a cut, nick or scrape, wash it thoroughly with soap and warm water to keep the risky stuff from getting into your bloodstream and potentially causing an infection.
Avoid these plants and bugs
Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac can be tricky to spot. Generally, poison ivy climbs or creeps. Its leaves come in threes and can be shiny green or reddish, with smooth or jagged edges. Poison oak also grows in clusters of three, with leaves that resemble true oak leaves. You'll know poison sumac as a rangy shrub, with smooth-edged green leaves with red stems. If you brush up against these plants, immediately wash with cool water to remove the oils from your skin, and wash clothes in hot water.
Ticks. To steer clear of Lyme disease, wear long pants tucked into socks. Check yourself and pets when coming inside. Find a critter? Use tweezers to pull it up and out; wash with soap and water. See a doctor if you get a rash or fever within a few weeks, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Bees. Bees want nectar-filled flowers, so don't resemble one: Avoid bright floral clothes and scented lotions. And always wear shoes—many stings happen from stepping on bees. If you get stung, wash with soap and water; remove the stinger by wiping with gauze, says the CDC.
Mosquitoes. They mostly just cause itchy welts, but mosquitoes can carry disease. To keep them out of your yard, remove breeding grounds, like buckets, empty pots and anywhere else water collects. They tend to bite at dawn and dusk, so if you're out, wear a repellent with DEET.
Whenever you're outdoors, the sun can damage your skin, so slather on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30. Don a wide-brim hat, as well as long sleeves and pants, all in lightweight materials—you don't want to get overheated! Head indoors midday, when the sun is strongest. And don't neglect hydration: Sip from a water bottle every 15 minutes.