Being able to produce food with minimal wear on the body has a number of advantages. One, it can keep more people gardening, allowing them to be producers within the family and group, not just babysitters and consumers, whether it’s age, injury or illness, now or something that develops later or during a crisis.
Avoiding those injuries by eliminating some of the wear and tear is another major benefit.
Many of the strategies also help save time, along with reducing the effort and exhaustion of producing. In times when stress is high and chores are piling up, that, too, has a lot of value.
Working upright, either sitting or standing, can reduce fatigue and pain all on its own. Particularly if we can avoid repetitive bending and straightening, and especially if there’s lifting involved, we can seriously reduce both the strain on our bodies and the potentials for injury. Maintaining a hip-to-shoulder work space is a big part of that, and applies to gardening along with other labors.
Choosing where we grow is also a factor in efficiency and how hard we have to work for our groceries. So are other methods that reduce the labor inputs for our gardens.
Happily, options abound for saving our backs and bodies.
Start at the Front Step
Our houses are the number-one source of inputs for our veggies. Roof lines for water catchment, kitchen sinks and outdoor spigots, preexisting structures we can piggyback off of for supports, waste products for composters of all times or surface amendments like used coffee grounds, and us (labor) all come from the house.
We’re also usually going to be hauling produce to the house.
Keeping at least some of our production and the tools we need most often close to us saves a lot of time and steps. If we can’t get it right by our doors and kitchens other excellent options are along our driveways or garages (or wherever we park), or near things we visit daily like birds, hares, or the mailbox.
Whether we stick our plants near the house or keep our gardens well out in the yard, elevation is a big time back saver.
In addition to small hanging or tower options that limit what we can grow, we can stack planters and pots of all sizes on block, pallets, or buckets to raise them to maintenance-easy heights.
We can also turn to all sorts of builds to gain height, from raw sticks and logs cobbled into beds, hugelkulture-style beds large or small, half-barrel garden trugs, and deep planters created out of things like filing cabinets.
Using fills from gardening methods like lasagna beds, African keyhole beds, or hügelkultur can reduce the amount of soil we need to start with, especially for large planters.
(Bonus: Those materials actually do all sorts of good things for our veggies, from drainage and aeration to moisture retention and slow feeding.)
Downsize the Orchard
Some fruit and nut trees will coppice into shrub forms, others take well to umbrella and inverse umbrella pruning, and there are dwarfs and super dwarfs and the option to espalier most fruit trees.
All of those options also give us perennial fruits we can harvest sitting or standing, with less effort even if we need kitchen tongs or actual harvesters.
Going small also eliminates ladders and long poles, decreasing the chances we injury ourselves or someone else. Risk mitigation is a good thing.
Container shrubs and trees are also an option.
On one hand, they exhaust soil fertility and water retention capabilities faster than a same-sized tree planted in the yard or a smaller plant in the same container, and thus need more care.
However, they allow us to further tailor heights to work at a comfortable level, and keep some of our perennials even indoors and on patios.
Simple Body-Saving Tools
To further save backs from bending, decrease steps, lower body wear, and evade numerous ladder-climbing risks, we can buy or DIY a couple of very handy tools.
Harvest baskets we wear free up a hand, which leaves one free for steadying ourselves or lets us work faster – which gets us finished and on to the next thing faster. It also lets us bear weight with our core and center of mass instead of with our fingers and increasing tilts as they get heavy.
Even with lightweight beans and lettuce, tied-up aprons and suspender-clipped pails keep us working in a smaller space and without dedicating a hand to holding our basket. We can even just clothespin supermarket bags to our belts.
Some string or tape, large-ish plastic bottles or PVC tubes or cans, and a tool handle can save us the cost of buying actual fruit picking poles.
Even if we can’t quite reach all of our trees or shrubs from the ground, it’s greatly increasing the number of people who can work the harvest, and decreasing the climbing we do.
We can make or buy some handy-dandy back-saving assists to limit bending and crouching in annual bed-prep and planting phases, too.
Personally, I’m into simple and inexpensive. I can use binder clips to attach sticks to a rake or slit tight PVC or stiff hose over the tines, then just drag planting lines.
We can also rig multiple triangle hoes (or screw hammer-shaped soup cans to a 1″ x 2” board) to more deeply furrow a whole bed at once.
Wheel hoes are expensive, but for walk-over gardens, they can make scooting mulch out of the way or furrowing seed rows fast and easy on the body.
Wheel hoes also let us fairly quickly and easily mound soil up around the base of crops. Make sure to get one with expansion options like seeders and stirrup hoes or weasel-like cultivators that aid in aeration.
To limit bent-over seeding time without the expense of drop seeders, just get a hollow tube – pipe, PVC, ABS, U-shaped electrical conduit taped together; anything goes. We can do more complicated builds, but mostly, a plain tube is sufficient to let us drop seed exactly where we want it from a comfortable height.
They’re not great when it’s muddy, and small seeds like lettuce and teff don’t work great, but it’s fantastic for beans, peas, most grains, beets, melons, and squash.
Once we’ve dropped our seed, just follow along with a broom or the back of a rake to close the holes back up.
Making seed tapes can also help decrease planting labor.
We use regular ol’ white glue and any tissue or paper that doesn’t run away fast enough, and handle all the spacing-out from the comfort of our favorite chair. It limits our crouched and bent time to dragging quick lines, unfurling it, and skimming soil back over it.
Buy/Build a Garden Cart
We can haul things by hand. We’ll usually take more trips to do it, and we’re usually putting more strain on our body than pulling a loaded cart.
Unless we’re regularly dumping loads, we’re better off with a cart than a wheelbarrow we have to lift or tip to roll and that takes work to keep level while in motion.
There are also a fair number of times we’ll be unloading as we go, or stopping to add to the load. A wheelbarrow requires crouching or bending to drop to its legs and then lifting again each time we do. Those kinds of motions are where accidents and overuse injuries occur.
They do make some nifty two-wheeled barrel trolleys and water bags for wheelbarrows now if you need a water solution. I still mostly prefer the many virtues of wagons.
Fast-fill, slow-release solutions such as olla and drip irrigators help reduce evaporation, runoff, and the time of standing around slowly soaking our gardens.
The simplest DIY method is just poking holes in the bottom of a bottle, sitting it beside our plant, filling, and moving on while the water slowly dribbles out. Other methods call for burying holey containers to soak root zones directly.
Other fast-fill options include using simple, inexpensive plumbing fixtures to attach holey garden hose or smaller drip/seep lines to elevated bottles or buckets. Water gets delivered exactly where we want, trickling out slowly enough to be absorbed.
Any of the variants are not only more efficient in water use – which lowers labor all on its own – but also the work it takes to water plants, and gets us on to the next task faster.
Even if we’re into tilling, by working only the space we’re going to plant in, we save labor – and thus, wear and tear on the body. Upping that into beds we only surface cultivate with no-till methods, we gain additional benefits that improve our labor-to-yield ratios.
Establishing those beds on contour to aid in natural water catchment and mulching walkways and-or our crops to decrease compaction, increase water retention, and decrease irrigation and weeding needs (and weeding effort) further improves the efficiency of those beds.
There are direct maintenance aspects, but there’s also a big boost in soil health that translates to healthier, happier, more productive plants that need fewer additional amendments throughout the season. Each factor in the equation saves our backs and bodies that much more.
Manual labor isn’t a bad thing. It keeps us nice and fit. However, lifetimes of labor can end up limiting us, too, and accidents happen. So do illnesses. We’re also largely busy people, even now, and most expect to be busier yet in any crisis, A-Z, personal or widespread.
From practices that “only” save time to those that create a more suitable work space for us, give some thought to how, where, and what we grow.
Whether we’re hauling infants in slings, dealing with bad joints or spines from an injury or birth defect, working around arthritis, or perching on canes or crutches, arranging our veggie gardens around the many possibilities and our changing lives is just one more type of preparedness.