Helen Aristar-Dry likes to garden, but she doesn’t want the aches and pains that could follow an enjoyable time spent out at her 1-acre property in Dripping Springs.
“I’ve always been interested in easier ways to garden,” said Aristar-Dry, 73, who has had rheumatoid arthritis for about 50 years. For someone like herself, she said, “You’re always looking for ways to lessen the strain on your joints.”
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease that often affects hands, wrists, knees and ankles. Symptoms can include swelling, pain and stiffness in more than one joint, as well as fatigue and weakness.
Over the years — having had several surgeries and used a wheelchair at times — she has learned tactics to help her out. Sitting alongside her raised bed gardens — used for growing Swiss chard and kale, along with other things — she is glad she can still relish working with flowers, vegetables and dirt.
“It’s just really a good pastime,” she said.
Aristar-Dry has a doctorate in linguistics, and after she retired in 2013, she had more time for a favorite hobby. She became a Hays County master gardener in 2015, and she has researched a variety of ways to make it easier for her in the garden.
Evaluating her resources and careful planning have helped, Aristar-Dry said. In addition to finding assistance for heavy jobs, she divides up large tasks into shorter chunks.
“I rarely work more than 30 minutes at a time,” she said. “By then my hands will be hurting, so it’s time to quit.”
“If I overdo it, I’m going to feel bad,” she said. She also keeps a to-do list, so “I can see what’s a good job that fits the time I have. … I don’t do big projects.”
In addition, she opts to use equipment that isn’t weighty. “I use a children’s rake” with a long handle, “because it’s much lighter,” she said. “It’s less stress on the joints if you don’t have to carry heavy stuff around.” She uses a cart, rather than a wheelbarrow, to move large items such as bags of dirt.
She needs to be more vigilant about keeping her tools sharpened so they don’t require as much strength to use, she said. “That’s one I need to work on, but it makes a big difference.”
Effective use of logistics has also aided her, and that can be as simple as storing her tools near the garden. She’s a big advocate of raised beds — of all kinds — where she can even sit down to work.
“They’re less demanding physically,” she said. As well, she wishes she had more space between garden beds to allow more room for a bench or a cart to get through the path.
She carefully selects plants that are easier to care for, such as drought-tolerant natives, she said. As well, she likes to use plants that have been designated as “Texas Superstars,” which perform well “under Texas’ tough growing conditions,” according to texassuperstar.com.
Aristar-Dry prefers to use perennial plants rather than annuals, because “with perennials, you put them in once and they come back,” she said. “Perennials are just much easier.”
She keeps in mind some ergonomic principles, such as using her joints in a neutral position, which she described as “about midpoint of their range,” and other basics. In addition, she helps limit discomfort through the selection of ergonomically designed gardening tools. These tools help the user reduce stress and injuries from overuse of the body.
She has some long-handled tools that can help let her back remain straight. Some tools — such as a waist-high weeder — have an O-shaped handle that offers more grip surface, and “it’s easy to use two hands with,” she said.
Along with other selection criteria, she picks various tools that can let her keep her wrist straight, she said. (Often, she said, many tools require users to bend their wrists.)
Other implements can also help; she uses a special “faucet turner” to make it easier to turn on and off the water outside so she doesn’t have to use as much strength. She uses a garden kneeler that can serve as a seat, she said. “When I sit down and keep my back straight, I can work a whole lot longer.”
Putting together information on the tactics she uses, as well as including more details about ergonomics and such, she has given a presentation on called Ergonomic Gardening: Gardening to Avoid Aches and Pains about a half-dozen times at the Hays County Master Gardeners Association’s In the Garden series. Emphasizing that she doesn’t have any medical training but that she has found these methods useful to her.
The talk is popular, said Phyllis Janowski, past president of the Hays County Master Gardeners Association.
“People found it helpful” to learn about some measures they could take, even for those who don’t usually get aches and pains from gardening, she said.
Now that Aristar-Dry has found workarounds to help her, she still gets to take joy in the garden, she said. “I think it’s really just rewarding to be out there with growing things.”