Modified from an article written by Shirley Pipitone for the RSI and Overuse Injury Association Newsletter.

The psychological benefits of gardening

Gardening does indeed have important psychological and spiritual benefits. Empirical evidence (e.g. Kaplan & Kaplan 1990) shows that the main benefits are simply in enjoying the experience of gardening: the desire to work in the soil, to see things grow, to be outside, and to learn about gardening. Gardeners with less experience were found to emphasise the tangible benefits such as producing some of their own food. However, with experience, gardeners tended to discover great satisfaction in the fascination offered by gardening, including tranquillity, sensory aspects (the beauty, colours, and smells of the garden) and involvement with nature.

Overall, gardening was found to provide a restorative experience similar to the benefits of being in a wilderness area: What was important for people was “getting away from it all”, being fascinated in a totally effortless way, exploring (this means having a big or varied enough space), understanding the garden (the garden needs coherence or connectedness), and having a garden which is compatible with their interests.

The theory is that the restorative experience helps us to recover from the everyday demands of living in the modern world.

“When I developed my occupational overuse injury in 1996, I had been planning a major redesign of my 24 year-old garden into an Australian woodland. In fact the major work had been done a few years before, so there was no turning back, and anyway I needed restoring too.”

Getting started

First, ask yourself how much do you want to do and how much can you do? You may want to pay someone to come in and do the heavy work, but if you want to feel that the garden is yours, you will probably want to do as much as possible yourself. The Forever Garden by Melbourne writer Cara Rosehope is an excellent source of information for people with disabilities or elderly people.

Rosehope points out the added benefits of gardening as physical exercise and provides comprehensive coverage of practical matters such as redesigning garden tasks, modifying your garden environment, finding the right tools, warm-up exercises, and tips on safe ways to do common gardening activities. This article draws heavily on The Forever Garden, tailoring it to the needs of people with RSI. However we are all different: read Rosehope’s book and decide for yourself whether to adopt any more of her helpful suggestions.

Gardening as physical exercise

Use it or lose it! Exercise is important to maintain our body’s functionality, strength and flexibility. Your cardiovascular system will improve with exercise and your joints will become more flexible. Ask your doctor or physiotherapist if you are concerned you might cause harm, but remember:

  • There is no need for great exertion.
  • Work at your own pace.
  • It is very important to enjoy your exercise.

Modify your garden

Before you consider tools and such details, it is worth giving thought to your garden as it is now, and whether any modifications would be helpful in the longer-term. If you want to modify your garden, some design work in the early stages will save time and money later by ensuring that the changes you make now are consistent with your plans.

Start by reading as widely as possible on garden styles, plants and design, and think about what you want your garden to do for you.Some of the ways a garden can be redesigned to be more friendly to gardeners with RSI/OOS are:

  • Turn over your lawn to mulched areas and paving to reduce or eliminate mowing, not to mention less water and fertiliser.
  • Remember that more paving means more leaves to sweep up.
  • Use a low-maintenance background plant that doesn’t need pruning or fussing over.
  • Remember to design for privacy, the feeling of being enclosed and at peace
  • Build raised garden beds to reduce bending or plant in containers on a raised surface.
  • Install permanent seating for rest breaks.
  • Plant to enjoy nature with fragrance near where you walk or sit, easy-care flowers for joy, and plants and birdbath to attract wildlife.
  • Make sure you have convenient access to garden tools and equipment.

Modify maintenance

Garden maintenance can also be reduced, partly by design changes and also by changing what you do and don’t do, for example:

  • Don’t cultivate the soil – according to Rosehope, you damage the soil every time you turn it over, and of course you can damage yourself too.
  • Learn about no-dig gardening (see Esther Dean’s book).
  • Use mulch, e.g. straw or lucerne in the vegie garden, pebbles where you want to be dry underfoot, pinefines for flower gardens, wood chips for large areas.
  • Choose low-maintenance and easy-access plants e.g. small-growing fruit tree varieties.
  • Don’t use power tools because they are heavy.


People work most effectively at the middle of their range of strength and movement. Therefore you should look for tools which are small and light, with long handles for use standing, or short handles if you use a kneeling frame.

Pacing and switching

It is essential to avoid reaching the point of pain and the best way to achieve this is to avoid staying at one task for very long and vary your activities continuously. If this means five minutes of weeding, five minutes of pruning, five minutes of digging, five minutes of resting, five minutes of sweeping, five minutes of …, then so be it. We also have to live with the frustration of never seeming to finish anything on one day. After a while the frustration will change into a warm feeling that you are looking after yourself well and yet you are still able to do quite a lot over time.

Working positions

People with RSI are affected differently and have different needs. You need to learn the working position that suits you best: e.g. bending, kneeling, sitting, standing, or a mixture. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, for example, kneeling brings you closer to your work but it can be a strain on your lower back. If you work sitting, it is easy to try to reach too far and get into a twisted position. When standing, it is a good idea to stand side-on to avoid bending, and use long handled tools.

Good habits

Some general dos and don’ts:

  • Remember to pace yourself.
  • Change your activities frequently.
  • Take regular rest breaks before you need them.
  • Never do anything to the point of pain.
  • Stretch when you change position.
  • Maintain good posture.
  • Never lift anything that you can’t carry — get help instead.
  • Get as close as possible when lifting things – even the handles of a wheelbarrow
  • Do your warm-up exercises.

Warm-up exercises

In addition to standard all-over stretches done to your level of comfort, the following warm-up exercises are useful for gardeners:

  • Shoulder rolls.
  • High-step marching up and down on the spot.
  • Lie on back and curl up both knees towards chest and hold for 5 seconds, repeat 5 times.
  • Stand against wall with feet about 50 cm apart, press lower back against wall, lower your body by bending knees, hold for 6 seconds and then straighten up; repeat 5 times; only go as low as it is comfortable to get up again.


Lightweight tools are available from mainstream suppliers often as “ladies” tools or children’s tools. Independent Living Centres often have garden tools on display, but other items there can suggest useful features to look for in garden tools. Eg. try out handles to see if you think any particular type would help you with gardening activities. Sometimes inventors come up with great ideas, e.g. a digging tool which requires no back bending and no lifting of soil which is perfect for preparing planting holes. If you see a tool which is no longer available commercially, TADACT may be able to make it for you or to modify conventional tools to suit your needs.

Examples of tools

Some examples of useful tools are:

  • The harpoon weeder — it has a T-shaped bar at the top of the handle which is used with both hands for extra strength.
  • Long handled tools are available with extendable handles and attached heads
  • Cultivators — but you won’t need them with the no-dig method.
  • For digging planting holes or moving mulch etc — use “ladies”  or “ergonomic” spades and forks, i.e. those with a bent handle.
  • Pistol-grip handles on small tools are good for people with weak wrists
  • Tools with thick handles which “give” e.g. the Oxo Goodgrips range.

Beware of shops which recommend particular items to you simply because they stock them. Generally they have absolutely no idea what might be best for you. Always try out tools in the shop as best you can. A good example of a gadget which is unlikely to be any use to people with RSI is the Universal Back-saver which is a double handle arrangement for fitting onto spades etc. It is reportedly excellent for people with strong arms but has been wrongly recommended to people with RSI!


For pruning, ratchet secateurs are excellent but can be difficult to find in the shops. For pruning of a slightly bigger branch, I use a pruning saw with a very sharp blade and I do a little over several days. If you have a lot of pruning to do, get someone else to do it. For pruning of high branches, pulley-operated pruners are available but require strength. Long-handled cut-and-hold secateurs are lightweight but difficult for people with RSI because you have to hold your arms up and tilt your head back while you use them. Long-handled ratchet loppers are available but can also be difficult to use. Get someone else to do it if you can and think of that as a treat for yourself.

Carrying things

Remember the wonderful invention of the wheel. Keep an old laundry trolley for garden use. Two-wheeled barrows are easier to use than those with a single wheel e.g. the Daytek wheeled cart. Make sure any cart or barrow is the right height for you. Some people like garden grippers for picking up leaves etc but they can require some strength and movement from the wrists. Lightweight leaf rakes are good (if you must have a lawn).


Hoses are heavy and difficult to manage. Using a hose reel helps, but watering by hose is ineffective and often not possible in Australia due to water restrictions. For deeper and less frequent watering, having a simple watering system laid under the mulch is a boon. There is no need for complex computerised systems because a simple two-hour timer will do the job. Alternatively, put a timer on your sprinkler.

Tap turners are also essential. Green plastic fittings that stay on the tap are cheap and readily available or you can use portable tap turners like those available for indoor use.

Gardening in containers

Use chunks of polystyrene foam in the bottom of containers instead of crocks, because they weigh less. Buy pot stands with wheels and keep the pots permanently on the stands for when you need to move them. No matter how big the pot, you will always want to move them even if only to sweep behind them or extract lost tools or toys.

Other useful equipment

A kneeling frame, or portable seat.

Choosing plants

Choose trees, background shrubs and climbers which need no pruning, spraying, or other pest control. For the foreground, use smaller shrubs, forget about trimming and go for natural good looks instead. Double-check the labels against other reliable sources to make sure of the mature size of shrubs. If they grow bigger than you wanted, you will always be wanting to trim them back. Remember that 2 metre wide shrubs grow to 2 metres in all directions. Also remember that fast-growing means more pruning unless you don’t mind a giant. Very fast-growing also usually means a shorter life.

Choose groundcovers that give solid cover for maximum weed suppression and choose perennials instead of annuals because they are much less work.

For more information take a look at Helping Hand sheet ‘In the Garden’.


(all available in the ACT Public Library)

Deans, E. (1991) Leaves of life: Creating therapy gardens for people with disabilities. CollinsAngus&Robertson Publishers Pty Limited, North Ryde, NSW.

Kaplan, R. and Kaplan, S. (1990). Restorative experience: The healing power of nearby nature. In Francis, M. and Hester, R, Jr. The Meaning of Gardens. MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts: pp 238-243.

Rosehope, C. (1996). The Forever Garden. Hyland Publishing, South Melbourne.

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