Safe Gardening Tips: Injuries, Soils, Insect Repellent

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A Gardener with a hoe.g
Safety first! Image Credit: Ivan Radic. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Like the proverbial thorn rose, a backyard garden can bring both beauty and danger into your life. Learn how to enjoy and work in it safely, protecting yourself from accidents, injuries, infections, heat, repetitive strains, contaminated soils and toxic insect repellents.

Avoid These Common Hazards

Before she moved it to build a chicken coop, Sally Chandler had to navigate a four-foot fence just to reach her raised garden bed.

“I can’t tell you how many times I tried to step over it and got my foot caught and went flat on my face,” says Chandler, who lives and gardens in Tucson, Arizona. “Ouch. Get or make a gate.”

While working in your garden on a fine spring day offers many rewards to the body and soul, it can also prove hazardous if you fail to take basic precautions.

For instance, approximately 400,000 people per year are treated in emergency rooms for injuries involving lawn and garden tools, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

When finished for the day, store your tools in a shed or other safe place, so that nobody steps or trips on them.

Cuts, Scrapes and Infections

A prick from a thorn isn’t the same as a paper cut in the office. Nature hosts all manner of bacteria — such as tetanus, which lives in soil, dust and manure, enters the human body via breaks in your skin and is potentially fatal. Get a tetanus booster shot every ten years, says the Centers for Disease Control.

Rocks, glass, roots and other sharp objects can lurk just beneath the soil’s surface. When digging, use a proper tool, not your hands. When kneeling, place a soft cushion under you knees, so that they don’t scrape on rough ground.

Always wear appropriate gloves. Gardener’s gloves, or thick leather or suede gloves, will help to protect you from thorns, other sharp objects, and bacteria.

Keep your arms and legs covered and tuck your pants into your socks. This protects you, not only sharp objects, but also insect bites and toxic plants, like poison ivy.

Repetitive Strain Injuries

Gardening often requires performing the same body movements over and over. This puts you at risk of developing a repetitive strain injury. Common among gardeners is DeQuervain’s syndrome, where excessive weeding, planting or hammering injures the thumb side of the wrist, according to Cayuga.

“With osteoarthritis, I have to pace myself to not get cramped and painful hands with too much repetitive motion,” says Janie Morey, who weeds flower beds at her home in Payette, Idaho. “I am learning to use a hoe and claw rake standing up, to do less pulling with my hands crouched down.”

Before you begin, warm up your muscles by walking, stretching and taking a look around the garden. Take periodic breaks and don’t perform the same repetitive movement for more than two hours at a time or four hours in a day.

Use the right kind of tool for the job, preferably with a non-slip padded handle that is thick enough for a comfortable grip, and keep your cutting and pruning tools sharp and in good working condition.

When working in soil that doesn’t contain sharp objects, wearing latex-coated or rubber gloves will give you a good grip while protecting you from bacteria.

Squat or kneel instead of bending over. Use a wheelbarrow to transport soil, rocks and other heavy substances. Loading the front of the bin first makes it easier to move. Your back will thank you every day.

Heat Related Injuries

On hot, sunny days, dress like a farmhand with a wide-brimmed straw hat, sunglasses, a long-sleeved shirt and sunscreen. “I pick berries in a long-sleeved blouse early in the day before it is too hot and the bees get active,” says Morey.

Count on drinking more fluids that you’re used to, but avoid alcohol and excessive amounts of sugar. Even then, if you find yourself with any of these symptoms, stop work, drink water and get into the shade:

  • rapid pulse
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • confusion
  • high body temperature

Garden Power Equipment

Do you use gas or electrical power equipment in your garden? Even the smallest machine requires special care when used outdoors.

If you haven’t used your gasoline-driven equipment for a few months, drain and replace the fuel tank. Any leftover fuel may have deteriorated, which can the damage the fuel system.

To prevent your weed wacker from turning into a missile launcher, first inspect the area for loose rocks, sticks, can, bottles other objects.

Tie your long hair back and wear safety goggles, close-fitting clothes and long pants. Hold the wacker in both hands, maintain a firm footing don’t let anyone get within thirty feet of you.

A hedge trimmer require similar precautions. In addition, don’t trim anything above your head, too far out of reach, or thicker than three-eighths of an inch.

Accidents from walk-behind power mowers send an estimated 35,000 people per year to emergency rooms, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

This is especially important when mowing on a slope, where obstacles can tip the mower over onto it’s side.

Know where your children are at all times. They often run too fast for your mower to dodge and are often attracted to them. Don’t let them “take a ride” and teach them to stay clear of it.

Are You Growing Produce in Contaminated Soil?

Do you enjoy sunny afternoons working in your backyard or community garden? Take precautions, because soil in urban areas can be contaminated with toxic chemicals or metals, such as arsenic, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (called PAHs), according to the CDC.

Inspect Your Property

To find out what might reside in your soil, learn as much as you can about the history of your property and community. Ask your state or local environmental agency for guidance on performing a “Phase 1” assessment, where a trained expert investigates history, conducts interviews and visually inspects your property.

If believe that your site might be contaminated, they can perform “Phase 2” assessment, which includes conducting soil tests, usually for a fee.

“In a neighborhood such as mine, where the plots are fairly small, you could consider taking a sample from each yard and submitting them together, as soil tests usually require several samples,” says Melissa Hoskins, who lives and gardens in the East Bayside neighborhood of Portland, Maine, which has a long history of contaminated soil.

Protect Yourself

When gardening, don’t ingest the soil into your body, such as by putting dirty fingers in your mouth (which kids often do) or inhaling dust. “I try to make sure conditions are damp, early in the day or after rain to reduce dust” before doing any work, says Hoskins.

  • Wear gloves, masks and protective clothing as needed, then wash your hands when finished.
  • Clean gloves and tools before bringing indoors. Bag dirty clothes and wash separately from regular laundry.
  • Watch the kids to make sure that they stay clean. “I am much more careful with my one and half year old son,” says Hoskins, who lets him play on raised beds before planting, or in areas with established ground cover.

While not as dangerous as ingesting soil directly, don’t eat crops that are likely to be contaminated.

  • Wash your harvest, throwing away outer or bottom leaves that may have come into contact with soil.
  • Try to grow crops that are less likely to absorb contamination, such as tomatoes, squash, berries and fruit trees. Avoid root crops, such as carrots, onions and potatoes.
  • If you do grow root crops, peel them — and any vegetable that may have come into contact with the soil — outside before bringing them into the kitchen.

Improve your Soil

Short of digging up your backyard and replacing it with new soil, several options exist for reducing garden contamination:

  • Add a thick layer of mulch or other organic matter. It controls dust, keeps dirt away from the kids, and might reduce your crop’s exposure to contaminants. It also adds nutrients, which contaminated soil may lack.
  • Plant cover crops, which have a similar effect as mulch. Hoskins keeps a bed of clover, for instance. “I have cultivated ground cover crops that require low maintenance and whenever possible support local pollinators,” she says.
  • Build a raised bed on the ground and fill it with new, uncontaminated soil. “I have also put in several raised beds to accommodate leafy greens and root veggies,” says Hoskins.
  • Start a container garden. By growing plants in pots and boxes filled with uncontaminated soil, you also have the option of keeping your garden on the patio or indoors.

One particularly interesting strategy is called phytotechnology,” defined by the International Phytotechnology Society as “the use of plants to remedy environmental problems.” For instance, you can deliberately plant non-food crops that gradually cleanse the soil by absorbing the contaminants, although it can take years to show results.

Community Working Together

Federal or state funds may be available to help the neighborhood as a whole. The US EPA issued a $200,000 grant to help East Bayside identify and repair soil contamination caused by decades of lead paint use, tannery and railroad chemical waste, and general refuse dumping.

Past remediation projects have been good for East Bayside, “which now offers opportunities for residents to grow veggies right in the ground, along with nearby fruit trees and berry bushes,” says Hoskins, who is also a spokesperson for the East Bayside Neighborhood Organization.

Despite the challenges, she finds gardening to be emotionally and spiritually rewarding. “This is a tiny patch of the wonderful earth we all share,” she says. “It is my endeavor to leave it better than I found it through ongoing education, discussion and hard but fun work.”

How to Use Insect Repellents Safely

Don’t let bug sprays and lotions do to you what they’re designed to do to bugs. Before you break out the insect repellent, keep in mind that it is a kind of pesticide, potentially dangerous to humans, and should be used only after reading the instructions on the bottle.

Know Your Chemicals

Most insect repellents use one of three active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. All three are generally considered safe for humans if you follow directions, according to the Mayo Clinic.

However, people who wear it for too long, get it into their eyes or other body openings, or inhale or ingest it can suffer adverse reactions, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. Depending upon the product and how it gets onto or into you, it can cause irritation, redness, swelling, rash, nausea, vomiting or other symptoms.

Apply It Carefully

When possible, cover up with clothing, such as long sleeves, to reduce the amount of skin that needs a repellent. Then apply it only on exposed skin or on the top of — but not under — your clothing.

Don’t spray it directly onto your face or near food, to protect mouth and eyes. Use it sparingly around ears. Avoid cuts, wounds or irritated skin.

Apply only a small amount to your skin. It won’t work any better if you slather it on thickly like makeup on a clown.

Avoid products that combine insect repellent and sunscreen in the same bottle. You would need to keep reapplying it so that the sunscreen remains effective, which could overdose you on the repellent.

If a rash or other negative reaction develops, wash the repellent off with soap and water, call a poison control center for further guidance, and keep the bottle handy in case a doctor needs to examine it. The agency also advises that, even if there is no reaction, always wash or bathe after using repellent, especially if you have been using it repeatedly.

Select the Right Repellent

Choose the right concentration of DEET which can range from 4% to over 100%. Products with a lower concentration may be appropriate you’re outdoors only briefly, plus you can always apply more later if it wears off.

In addition, studies indicate that DEET concentrations over 50% don’t last longer than lower concentrations, according to the CDC. Picaridin is currently available in concentrations only as high as 20%.

Take extra precautions when applying repellents on children:

  • When applying DEET, select a product with a concentration of between ten and thirty percent, and don’t use DEET on children under two months of age, according to the American Acadamy of Pediatrics.
  • The CDC recommends against applying oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or para-menthane-diol (PMD) on children under the age of three.
  • Never let young kids handle any repellent. Apply it to them yourself. When doing so, keep it off their hands, because later on they might put their hands in their mouths and eyes.

To keep bugs away from your clothing, use a different type of repellent called permethrin; just don’t apply it directly to your skin. Permethrin stays active on treated surfaces for at least two weeks, so after use either wash the affected clothing or store it in plastics bags, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health.

When buying any insect repellent, check the label for a registration number from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which will probably look like “EPA Reg. No.” followed by a series of numbers. The CDC recommends using products that have a registration number.

The EPA has an online search tool that helps you to find the right type and brand for your specific needs.


David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.