Gardening is rough without the right tools

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Tourists walked through the vegetable gardens April 30, 2004, at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson and a major tourist attraction, at Monticello, Va. Keeping up an impressive garden an be tough, especially when the tools being used are just as difficult. (Andrew Shurtleff ~ The Daily Progress)

Gardeners with painful disabilities needn't have such a tough row to hoe.

Nearly one in five U.S. adults -- some 46 million people -- has arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So it's not surprising that scores of ergonomic toolmakers target this sizable group.

Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association, said most gardeners are over 55, and "looking for garden tools that are easier to use and help prevent aches and pain."

A great many garden tools are marketed with the word "ergonomic" in bold type on the labels, meaning they're intended to maximize the efficiency and quality of someone's work.

But claims are one thing and performance is quite another, said Bob Denman, a blacksmith, tool designer and consultant from Boring, Ore.

"Some garden tools are being developed without a great deal of study," Denman said. "The manufacturer builds in a bend here and incorporates a twist there and calls it ergonomic. But then other tools are extremely well thought out."

There are several factors to consider in choosing a proper tool. First, it's important to know that grip strength declines an average of 15 percent by a person's early 50s, said Jeffrey Hoyle, an ergonomist with The Ergonomics Center of North Carolina, a research and consulting arm of North Carolina State University.

And while women are about two-thirds as strong as men in general, studies indicate that their grip strength is about half that of men.

It might seem logical, then, to focus on the tool's grip. But it's weight and power that make a tool truly ergonomic, said Olavi Linden, chief designer for Finland-based Fiskars Garden & Outdoor Living.

"Handles are actually a very small part of the equation," Linden said. "More power is what helps you avoid tendinitis. Extra-long, lightweight handles help prevent back pain."

Gardeners shopping for the right kind of ergonomic tool can weed out a large amount of discomfort and expense by "feel testing" in stores before they buy.

"I've spent a lot of time watching people shopping for garden tools, and most are bewildered," said Denman, who does new product consulting for Corona Clipper Inc., a tool manufacturer in Corona, Calif. He said most make choices based on cost, not quality or feel. "Most people just don't know how to buy ergonomically."

Here are some suggestions from Corona Clipper:

* Check for weight. Any tool that feels heavy may become tiring with hard and repetitive use. Conversely, any tool that feels too light may be too flimsy to last. Look for tools that feel sturdy while providing control and reducing effort.

* Test for balance and sensitivity. Tools should distribute their weight evenly or toward the working end, such as at the head of an ax or the point of a shovel.

* Study grip size. Find something soft and comfortable. Overlarge grips can tire muscles and strain nerves in fingers and wrists over time. Non-slip grips generally are safer and help prevent blisters.

* Tools should be easy to maintain. Look for quality materials and practical, proven designs.

Once you've gotten the tools home, trust your instincts, said the Ergonomic Center's Hoyle. Just taking breaks can make a big difference.

"If it hurts, don't do it," he said. "If you are using a tool incorrectly, it is not ergonomic."

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