Life

The Casual Gardener: Don't dig your way to an injury with poor spademanship

New research suggests the wrong digging technique can result in debilitating injuries. John Manley discovers a centuries old approach to gardening that will spare your back and save the Earth

The Royal Horticultural Society has warned that poor digging technique can have serious consequences for your back and joints

LAST week this column looked at how gardening can help improve both your physical and mental health. For the purposes of balance, this week is dedicated to looking at how one particular aspect of gardening – digging – can potentially have an adverse effect on your wellbeing.

The Royal Horticultural Society has warned that a poor digging technique can have serious consequences for your back and joints. The warning comes after a hi-tech study of this lo-tech, manual excavation method found that if carried out the wrong way, digging can double the load on the joints, leaving many gardeners susceptible to chronic injury.

The worst thing you can do, according to Coventry University biomechanics expert James Shippen, is reaching too far with the shovel.

“If you have got to move soil, it is so much better to take one step forward and offload the spade than to overreach,” he says.

The RHS and researchers from Coventry University used technology more commonly used in the production of animated films to map the movement of gardeners while digging, measuring the loads imposed on the body's joints, bones and muscles.

Reflective "ping pong" sized balls were attached to key points on the body before gardeners were surrounded with cameras to capture how they moved as they dug a patch of soil. The information was then fed into a computer programme that calculates the internal loads placed on the body by each movement.

It found that good gardening practice involves using a regular, repetitive technique with minimal back bend and large knee bend rather than erratic movements with large forward bending, stretching limbs and uncontrolled motion.

The lumbar region of the back and the shoulders were deemed the most sensitive if a bad posture was used.

Dr Paul Alexander, head of horticultural and environmental science at the RHS, said: “Digging is one of the more common gardening practices – whether it be for planting trees, shovelling soil or turning compost – yet we tend to rely upon common sense which can lead to gardeners complaining of aches and pains.”

The main reason gardeners dig is to create a good tilth by removing stones and debris before adding organic mater to condition and fertilise. The convention is to repeat this process every couple of years.

However, some would argue that once your ground is sufficiently prepped then there's no further need to dig – therefore you lessen the chances of injury.

The “no digging” – or “no tilling” – approach to plant cultivation has been around for centuries and in recent decades has enjoyed a renaissance among organic growers.

One of the ‘no dig' method's main exponents was Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese agricultural customs inspector turned lazy gardener's guru, who died in 2008 aged 95. He advocated an approach that lets nature, rather than the gardener, do the work.

Instead of digging-in organic matter, Fukuoka's approach was to put straw and poultry manure on the surface of the soil and allow nature to do the rest. His rice yields easily matched conventional and chemical-assisted methods.

The no dig acolytes believe turning over the ground damages rather than enhances the soil. By digging, we disturb the complex, symbiotic relationship that exists between the soil surface and micro-organisms below. Digging also allows nutrients and moisture to escape, causes soil compaction and erosion – and releases carbon into the atmosphere. The other apparent advantage of no digging is fewer weeds.

Successfully adopting the no dig approach won't automatically result in low maintenance but at least it carries lower risk of injury.

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