MMy earliest memory of an accident in the garden came when my parents rented an electric scythe to mow the lawn we rented from the church next door when I was four or five years old. When my father stopped for a second, the rickety old engine coughed, released the brake and the scythe lurched towards a disobedient child standing where he had been told not to. I remember my dad yelling at me to move, but my little legs were frozen. When it hit I fell in a fog until he pulled me out of danger. I am forever grateful to him for saving all the parts of me that I may not have now.
But not all garden injuries are this dramatic. In my 30 years of gardening, I’ve had my fair share of cuts and falls. I’m not particularly clumsy – it’s just that lush gardens carry a great risk, as the 300,000 people who are hospitalized every year for garden injuries can attest. But we have to persevere because gardening is good for us, physically and mentally. With that in mind, here are the most common garden injuries — and how to avoid them.
Power tool injuries
It’s lawn mowers and hedge trimmers that cause the most injuries, sending 9,600 people to the hospital every year. Strimmers too. I hit a rock once, causing the blades to bounce dangerously close to my toes. Luckily, I always wear metal-toed boots.
Many injuries come from people ignoring instructions or not maintaining machines, resulting in worn bits breaking off or requiring you to exert more effort, which can result in unpredictable slips.
Always clean, sharpen and inspect after each use and oil parts that need lubrication. I always wear eye protection and gloves when using the trimmers and hedge trimmers and gloves when working with the blades. Also, it should be a matter of course to turn off machinery before going near moving parts.
Cuts from sharp tools
Regular sharpening of cutting tools, such as secateurs, scissors and knives, actually reduces the number of accidents by minimizing the effort required to use them. Accidents do happen, however, as I found out when I cut myself while actually sharpening my pruning shears, nearly joining the 6,500 people who are hospitalized with pruning shears, scissors and pruning shears each year. Most cuts can be avoided or reduced by wearing strong protective gardening gloves. When it comes to sharp tools, carry them around the garden like grenades.
thorns and splinters
I’m not a fan of roses, also because of their thorns, which are inevitable in the annual struggle for stubborn bushes. Other prickly plants include holly, barberry, and the deadly pyracantha, all beautiful burglar deterrents that have marked my forearms. Thorns not only cause a painful puncture wound, but can also cause infection. If you have been stabbed, wash the cut with soap as soon as possible. See a doctor if the redness spreads or the sore is particularly sore—both signs of infection. Wear thick gardening gloves when pruning and work slowly. If the inevitable happens and you’re still getting scratched, channel Ripley in the final scene of Aliens – I Do It and Always Win, Eventually.
With all the blades around, damaging your hearing probably isn’t top of your list of concerns, but loud noises can lead to long-term hearing loss and tinnitus. Exposure to mowers, drills and brush cutters can be reduced with hearing protection with a noise reduction level between 25 and 35 decibels, the higher the better. Limiting the duration of exposure also helps. Of course, the quietest technique is to use traditional hand tools wherever you can to provide a more peaceful experience for your ears and your neighbors.
Every vegetable grower knows the unlikely danger posed by a bamboo cane – unseen they can easily catch you in the eye when you bend over the grass. I should know after doing this twice and luckily closing my eyes just in time. Hedges also regularly toss their branches at me, no doubt in revenge for pruning them. Consider wearing safety goggles or hardened gardening goggles, and placing inverted plant pots or rubber caps on sticks to reduce damage and make them more visible. Old terracotta pots look particularly shabby chic.
Slips and falls
It may sound trite, but falls in gardens are the most common risk, affecting 115,000 people annually. I’ve tripped over carelessly placed hoses and rakes, down ill-planned slopes, up equally bad steps, and stumbled face-first over flower pots.
Of course, storing away tools helps, as does illuminating paths and steps at night. Tripping on slopes and steps occurs when differences in elevation are not clear, steps are too high or too short, or slopes are not at the right slope. If possible, hire a professional landscaper who knows the right sizes and pitch angles to avoid accidents.
Falling from ladders is also a major risk. Always use them on a firm, level surface when someone is with you at all times. When working above certain heights you may need PPE such as a proper helmet – or better leave that to the professionals.
Back pain from bad technique
A common gardening injury that I know well is back pain, which is usually caused by lifting heavy pots and sacks of compost with poor technique, or by long periods of weeding. There’s an easy way to avoid this: if something feels too heavy to lift, stop and get help. Always weed or dig standing up with long-handled spades, forks and hoes, or crouch or kneel for short periods of time to use hand tools. Take regular breaks and warm up with simple back stretches. Many professional gardeners swear by yoga and Pilates; you’ll often find me doing cat-cow among the compost.
Repeated strain injuries
After digging up elderberry very energetically with the hand fork, I am currently suffering from a painful tennis elbow. Despite its name, it is gardeners who suffer most; it should be renamed. Excessive repetitive digging and pruning can cause tiny tears or inflammation in the tendons that connect your forearm muscle to your elbow joint – similar injuries can occur in knees and wrists. It should heal in time provided you rest – easier said than done during the growing season – and avoid the activity that caused it, but always seek advice from a physical therapist.
reactions to plant sap
Everyone knows that giant hogweed sap can cause blisters in sunlight (photosensitivity), but few are aware of the other plants we pass by every day that can cause even worse reactions. At 3-4m tall, the giant hogweed is the easiest to avoid, but the common wild parsnip is easily overlooked.
Euphorbia, which can be found in almost every UK garden, also causes skin blisters – my ear once felt like bubble wrap after an encounter with her. Many garden plants are poisonous if eaten, with the common ornamental flower aconite (also known as wolfweed) being one of the deadliest. Common ivy can cause skin rashes and breathing difficulties when handled by some people.
A little research to see what the riskier plants look like is all that is needed. If you develop a rash after exposure to a certain juice or realize you’ve accidentally eaten a poisonous plant, seek immediate medical attention.
I’m used to my friends cracking lobster jokes about my skin on holiday, but when I started spending more time gardening in my early 30s, I wasn’t used to my skin burning on mild British spring days. Always have a high factor sunscreen on hand, even on days when you wouldn’t expect it, because time flies faster when you’re lost in emptiness.