Using gardening hand tools

Using a hand trowel or fork when planting out or weeding can cause strain or be a major source of discomfort for many gardeners.

The wrist joint is quite a complex structure, containing a group of eight tiny bones (carpals), which offer a great range of flexibility but this level of movement leaves such joints vulnerable to injury and degenerative conditions, resulting in pain, reduced mobility and strength.

Using hand garden tools

Picture of garden fork being used to "lever" soil

The "levering" action can place undue stress on the wrist joint

Although garden hand trowels and forks are primarily designed to be used by gripping the handle over the top and flexing the wrist to lift the soil, from a practitioner point of view, the best method is the one which is the most comfortable technique for the user.

Whilst for many, the digging action does not cause a problem, there are some who find this technique painful or difficult.

For those who repeatedly use their wrists at work or use trowels or garden forks on a regular basis, a repeated motion like this can cause degeneration and injury to the ligaments and tendons of the wrist, resulting in conditions like Carpal tunnel syndrome and an increased risk of Osteoarthritis.

If the wrist is weak or painful when using this technique, the body adapts by levering incorrectly from the shoulder joint, placing great strain on this joint too.

Pulling the soil

Gripping the trowel handle from behind and using it to pull the soil toward you, places less strain on the wrist and harnesses the mechanical advantage of the stronger muscles and

Picture of garden fork being used with a pulling action

Less strain and greater strength can be achieved by this grip

joints of the arm and shoulder.  It also allows better alignment of these joints which means that faulty adaptation techniques are less likely.

Anybody who has been watching “The Edible Garden” may have noticed that Alys Fowler often uses this technique.  Whether she is doing this consciously or not, it is a method of which I as a practitioner both use and approve.

Selecting garden hand tools.

Garden trowels and hand tools come in many shapes and sizes and selecting the right tool for you is important.  Whilst we will all have different requirements, there are a few important factors to consider;

  • The neck and blade of the tool should be strong and unbendable.  Stainless steel is usually best as cheaper alloy metals and plastics bend and distort easily causing strain to be placed through the wrist and hand.
  • Stainless steel will generally glide through the soil more effectively, reducing the effort required
  • Tools with an S shaped curve at the neck, making the blade lower than handle, offer greater leverage and reduce strain on the user.
  • The joint where the handle meets the blade needs to be well constructed and fixed firmly.
  • Handles should suit your grip and technique.  A wider grip places less strain on the hand and wrist than a narrow one.

Specially adapted tools

There are specialist tools on the market which offer an adapted handle, allowing the user to adopt the stronger grip but still offer the levering action to lift the soil.

As a practitioner, I would certainly be interested to know what adaptations people make to their own garden tools and indeed, if anybody has adopted a particular technique or has a favourite brand of tool.  You can let us know by using the comments box at the end of this article.



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