Sometimes, you just have one of those weeks. I didn’t intend to share a podcast on garden safety this week, but a series of accidents – and shared experiences of our team – inspired a conversation about all the shortcuts which can put us at risk in the garden. I hope some of these reminders will keep you just a little more safe out there.
The first injuries I sustained during this event-filled week were just the price I sometimes pay for keeping beehives.
My team and I were filming a segment of our show, Growing a Greener World®, and I was standing in front of one of my five hives. Unfortunately, it was early in the morning, as the bees were taking off for a day of pollen hunting.
For this particular scene, I wasn’t wearing protective gear, and actually, I rarely have a run-in with the bees when I’m in their proximity. However on this day, I got too close for their comfort and, within seconds, received two bee stings – one on my nose and another on my cheek. My week of mishaps had begun.
As we dive into this topic of garden safety, I’ll start with a few of the obvious but nevertheless important. First, take steps to protect your skin from sun damage every time you work in your landscape.
Long sleeves and pants are the most effective barrier against sun exposure, and hats are always a good idea to protect you from sun and heat.
Whether or not you opt to protect yourself with a layer of clothing, never overlook the sunscreen either. I’ve learned the hard way, through cancer scares and treatment, that it doesn’t take much exposure to cause damage. Even if you only intend to spend a few minutes outside to check things over, don’t forget the sunscreen.
Long pants also save you from scrapes and cuts when you’re working on your hands and knees.
Have you ever worn knee pads as an extra layer of protection? If so, you know that the straps can dig into your skin and tend to be uncomfortable, but I’m not a fan of hauling kneeling pads or stools around the garden either.
I found a great solution several years ago when I discovered GreenJeans, invented by Dan Vorhis. These garden chaps can be worn over long pants or shorts and are made of denier textured nylon. The durable fabric offers protection in its own right, but these chaps also feature built-in knee pads, which have saved me on more than one occasion.
Once while using a chainsaw, I didn’t take my finger off the trigger quickly enough, so the moving blade struck my knee. Fortunately, I was wearing GreenJeans, and the material is so tough that my knee was unscathed. One trip to the ER averted, thanks to quality gear.
Long pants or GreenJeans also offer protection from poison ivy. I am very allergic to this toxic plant. In fact, my first exposure was so extreme that, when I finally took myself to a nearby Atlanta hospital, doctors told me I had the worst case seen all year – and this was in late summer. Needless to say, I am now diligent when it comes to poison ivy.
After that event, I began using one of the many products that you can apply to your skin to repel the oil of poison ivy. I don’t always think to apply this pre-treatment when I head outdoors, but one step I never overlook is applying a post-treatment.
Tecnu is a lotion which dissolves poison ivy oil, causing it to wash off easily in the shower. If you don’t have Tecnu, no problem. Simple Dawn soap can do a great job to dissolve oil too. If you apply the soap all over your exposed skin and jump in the shower, the oil of poison ivy washes down the drain.
As long as you use one of these options within two hours of exposure, you can circumvent an outbreak. I encounter poison ivy often, but I haven’t experienced an outbreak since taking these precautions.
Do you wear gloves while gardening? I used to be turned off by gloves because they interfered with my ability to feel what I was working with.
Several years ago, I discovered Atlas gloves, and now, I’m a devoted glove-wearer. Atlas gloves are so comfortable that it’s almost as if I’m not wearing anything at all. They provide the tactile sensitivity I want, but they’re also durable.
These gloves have saved me from plenty of scrapes and cuts, but they aren’t the right glove for every job. Some tasks require heavy duty protection. Take for example, the recent incident that sent me to the ER. Had I been wearing appropriate protective gloves, well – more on that in a minute.
When you purchase heavier protective work gloves, look for those designed with a Velcro wrist enclosure or some other way to secure the wide opening there. That will protect you from bugs or sharp objects which can enter at the wrist and cause injury under the glove.
A durable, well-designed pair of protective gloves may cost a little more, but if they save you a few sutures, trust me – it’s worth the expense.
See No Evil
The second injury of the weekend leads me to my next subject – eye protection. There are plenty of opportunities for eye injuries when we’re working in our landscape. Power tools – like chainsaws and even string trimmers – can cause flying debris, but sometimes, even benign tasks put our eyes at risk.
I love to weed, and when I’m weeding, I really get after it. I’m crawling on the ground, or I’m sitting in one area and reaching in all directions. I get so into the task, that for me, it’s meditative.
Late this past week, I was so “in the zone” that I reached for a weed without noticing a protruding branch. I wasn’t wearing any eye protection, so the tip of the branch impaled my eye.
I probably don’t need to tell you how painful that was, but it also turned into a real scare. Two days later, my eye was still swollen and sore. Fortunately, when it was examined as part of my unrelated ER visit, the doctor determined that my eye was fine. I had gotten lucky.
Eye injuries are a real risk in the garden, so have good eye protection on hand – and use it. Protective goggles are best. They’re made of shatterproof material, and some options fit against your face to shield your eyes from objects which can cause injury from the side. This may sound excessive – until the day you find yourself staring down the sharp end of a hidden garden dagger.
At a minimum, wear sunglasses to provide some protection against the unexpected, It’s easy to get so engrossed in our work that we lose sight of our surroundings – putting our actual sight at risk.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Many of us, at one time or another, are working in the garden alone. That can present some added risk.
My friend, Margaret Roach, cares for her 2.3-acre property in upstate New York on her own. When she plans to work with equipment, like her tractor, she implements a “buddy system” she established with a neighbor years ago. Before she begins work, she notifies the neighbor of her project. He then knows to expect a call from Margaret every hour. If he doesn’t hear from her, he visits her property to make sure nothing has gone wrong.
Does that strike you as an extreme measure? In the event of a problem, someone looking in on your welfare can make all the difference.
True confession time: I need to do better when it comes to this safety approach. It isn’t uncommon for me to climb high into the trees canopies while pruning, and more often than not, I’m working alone.
It’s not usually my plan to ascend so far. I just get involved in the task, and before I know it, I’m 30 feet up with no safety precautions.
So, here’s my promise: Next time, I find myself scaling a tree at the GardenFarm™, I’ll keep a friend or family member updated on my safety status. I hope you’ll do the same.
No matter what you’re working on or if you have company, never tackle a project without your cell phone close at hand. Things happen out there, and your phone can become a lifeline. In fact, there are safety features in phones that many users don’t know about.
I wasn’t aware of what was built into my iPhone until recently. One day, I was aggressively shaking my phone to get soil out of the power jack (can you relate?). Suddenly, it lit up and began to announce that it would be connecting with 911 in a few seconds. It turns out, my phone model is designed to sense a shake-up as a potential trauma, which triggers a call to 911. Hopefully, that won’t ever come in handy, but it’s nice to know it’s there.
Check the safety features built into your phone. Who knows? You just might find yourself in need someday.
Have you ever had a run in with a ladder? They are so useful for projects around the home, but they present so many opportunities for serious injury.
Some basic ladder safety tips which bear repeating:
- Always work with someone who can hold and help stabilize the ladder on the ground.
- Always be certain the footing of the ladder is secure and stable before you climb up.
- Avoid using the top two rungs or steps.
Whenever you use a ladder while tree pruning, consider your surroundings before you make the cut. Is the ladder leaning on the area being cut? That’s not a good idea. Will the weight of the ladder support a shift once the branch you cut gives way – or worse, will you be leaning out to reach for the limb and lose balance as the cut is made?
These sound so obvious, and yet, it can be really easy to lose sight of these basics in our commitment to finish the project. So, I encourage you to consider your surroundings and the implications of your actions before you get into pruning position.
If the area needing to be trimmed is out of safe reach, call in the professionals. A certified arborist will have the equipment – and knowledge – to do the job right.
Before Someone Gets Hurt
Let’s shift this conversation back to terra firma and address all those moments when we overestimate our abilities. Do you ever overload your wheelbarrow or garden cart? It’s so tempting to keep adding to a load in order to save yourself a trip or two, but that can actually cost you in the long run.
If you use a single-wheeled wheelbarrow, you’ve probably experienced how easily the balance can shift. When it’s loaded down with more material than you can comfortably maneuver, you set yourself up for some serious muscle strain when the load gets away from you.
I’ve made this mistake while hauling loads downhill. I’ve misjudged my ability to keep the weight under control as gravity kicks in. The result? In my case, the front tire support dug into the hill, abruptly stopping the progress of the wheelbarrow and sending me flying through the air. I was okay, but that mistake could easily have turned into a visit to the ER.
Know your limitations when moving heavy equipment too. Once again, we gardeners often find ourselves alone but eager to begin a project with a tiller, mower or other heavy device which needs to be moved before we can put it to use. Rather than wait for help, we press on and attempt the move on our own.
My friend, Paul James, made that mistake. He attempted to unload a tiller from a truck bed. By the time he realized he wasn’t up to the task, it was too late. Rather than beginning work on his tilling project, he spent a few hours in the hospital and several weeks recovering from a broken thumb, wrist, two fingers, and arm.
So often our injuries come from taking shortcuts just like these. Mistakes we make in the interest of saving time. But these errors in judgment can wind up costing us more time – and a few medical bills.
What Lies Beneath
Here’s another one you’ve heard many times before, but in the “heat” of the moment and our passion for crossing another project off the list, it’s easy to forget the basics. Whenever you’re digging – a new landscape bed or removing an established plant, for example – call 811 to request that your utility company come mark the location of your utility lines.
I’ll freely admit that I speak from experience on this issue too. When a hole for a new fence post needed to be dug at the GardenFarm, it didn’t occur to me to call 811 before I began the work. I reached a certain depth and struck what I assumed was a tree root. I continued to try to dig around the root and work my sharp shovel blade around the impediment when I finally realized that I was actually chopping and pulling against the main power supply to my home. Yikes.
Please – just make the call. It may cost you a day or two, but utility companies are great about responding quickly. It can save you money (cut utility lines can be an expensive repair), not to mention your life.
Blade (and in this instance, Scream)
Time to bring this joe gardener safety message home with the story behind what finally resulted in a trip to the ER.
Pruners. I love to prune almost as much as I love to weed. I also have a great lineup of pruning tools, because having the right tool for the job makes all the difference.
Having the right tool can also prevent injury. On this occasion, I was pruning lower limbs of a tree, but one branch was just out of reach. I own an extended reach pruner – a great one by Corona®, actually – but I didn’t have it by my side. So, I decided to take a shortcut.
I managed to reach the branch to pull it down with my left hand. As I held the branch in place, I began the cut with my pruning saw – right in the same area I was holding the branch. Do you see where I’m going with this?
As I was feeling good about nearly having this little job done, I took what I knew would be the final pass with my saw. With a full stroke down, the branch gave way – and the blade of the saw continued its path into my left thumb. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t pretty.
In fact, it cut right down through the crotch of my thumb to the bone. I’m fortunate that it didn’t cut into the bone itself.
Here’s another important tip: Make sure you have a well-stocked first aid kit on hand. I did not. My first aid kit had been put to plenty of use around the farm, without the benefit of the necessary restocking. As a result, I found myself bleeding heavily without a bandage or gauze or any sterile material to triage the wound.
Once again, I had been working alone, so I had to get creative to stop the bleeding. I discovered a new use for garden Velcro tape. I love that stuff, but I never thought I would need to put it to use as a tourniquet.
All the time I lost – and the expense of medical bills – could have been avoided if I had simply taken an extra minute or two to grab the proper tool. It might also have been avoided if I had been wearing the appropriate protective gloves, rather than lightweight Atlas gloves.
Most importantly, I knew better than to ever make a blind cut.
I often share my mistakes in hopes other gardeners will learn from them, and this is certainly no exception. Hopefully, my trip to the ER will ensure that you will never make any pruning cut without a clear line of sight to your fingers in relation to the blade.
I was lucky. My thumb will be fine. A friend of mine was not as fortunate. She made a blind cut once too. She positioned her pruners around what she thought was a branch and wound up cutting off the top of her finger.
Never make a blind cut.
Also, it may seem counterintuitive, but keep the blades of your tools sharp. Just like knives, a sharp tool works properly and, so, is safer than a tool with a dull blade.
When a Stranger Calls
I hope this podcast has served as a reminder to you that shortcuts can have consequences. If you haven’t listened to the podcast recording, you can scroll to the top of the page and click the Play button in the green bar under the page title.
In the podcast, you can listen in as Erin, my Director of Online Media, joins me to swap garden injury stories. Next, it’s your turn. Do you have a story to share? It may help others too. Share in the Comments section below – or call in and describe what happened to you in the voice mailbox at 470-242-1982. We may choose to share your story in a Part 2 podcast on garden safety. Stay safe out there!
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – my newest online course! Just $47 for lifetime access.