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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

Gardening Safety Tips

As I work with gardeners and garden railroaders, I find myself cautioning them about all sorts of things, including safety. In fact I wrote a whole article about Electrical Safety and Garden Railroading. However, the gardens we love also present risks that are more prosaic than electrocution, including poisonous or irritating plants, accidents with tools or heavy objects, and wasp and bee stings.

This doesn't mean that your garden is unsafe--an afternoon in the garden is thousands of times safer than a trip to the garden store, after all. And I certainly don't want to scare any of you into staying indoors--people who have hobbies and spend time working outside tend to be more healthy and far more interesting than people who don't. But a few simple precautions will reduce the chance of unnecessary injury or illness from remote to virtually nonexistent.

A Note about Power Tools, Lawnmowers, Ladders, and Chemicals: Most injuries in the back yard are the result of disregarding safety warnings about power equipment, tools, and the like. We hope you know to be careful with such things, not to use them at all when there are children nearby, and to put them away properly when you are not using them. In addition, this article does not have enough room for all that needs to be said for using and storing chemicals safely. Please read and heed all of the warnings that come with your power tools and with any chemicals you buy.

That said, this article focuses on safety when you're getting "down and dirty:" weeding, planting, pruning, and all those "hands-on" activities that have more to do with gardening than landscaping, lawnmowing, hedgetrimming, and spraying. These are the things that, frankly, are both the "fun" and the "hard work" part of gardening. While they are "healthy" activities overall, they do pose a few risks that hardly anyone ever writes about in a gardening context.

General Precautions

  1. Learn about natural dangers in your area. We don't have pumas or scorpions in Ohio, and most of our garden spiders are relatively harmless, but we do have poison ivy, bumblebees, and wasps. Learning about the appearance and behavior of such potential dangers has helped me avoid some nasty situations. Some of the things I do to reduce risks associated with those threats are described below, but you need to learn about threats that are unique to your area as well. Often observation and common sense are the only defense you need to reduce a risk, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions.
  2. Call before you dig. Most parts of the country have phone numbers you can call to make certain you are not going to hit a natural gas pipeline or a high-voltage line feed with a shovel. You don't want to have to pay to fix a cable or telephone trunk line either. You will probably only have to make the call once ever, but it's worth making, especially in newer areas where more phone lines, power lines, etc., tend to be buried. Even the yard of my 73-year old house has buried gas lines, and the folks across the street have SBC fiberoptic trunk lines running through their front yards.
  3. Know where every wire in your garden or garden railroad goes, and whether it is high or low voltage. (For a detailed description of other precautions you should take with electricity in the garden, please see my article on the subject.)
  4. Don't pick up heavy stuff you don't need to. I took some silly risks with my back when I built the first part of my garden railroad, dragging railroad ties on and off of the truck by myself, lugging boulders around, etc. Then I learned that a friend who had build a magnificent rock wall in his youth had suffered debilitating back pain for most of his adult life. I determined to use materials I could lift without risk and to get help with any heavy lifting that was unavoidable.
  5. Use the right tool for the task. Using a trowel when you should be using a shovel, or using scissors when you should be using a pruner increases your risk that the tool will break or mis-perform, causing injury.
  6. Keep all tools put away properly when not in use. This is especially important for folks with small children or grandchildren.
  7. Use sunscreen and a hat. Yes, I know that folks are now saying we need a little bit of sunshine. But the truth is that if you spend any time to speak of in the garden, you'll get all the UV you need right through your shirt. Anything beyond that is a potential danger. In addition, remember that the danger is multipled between 11:30 AM and 2:30 PM in most parts of the country and plan your day or your protection accordingly.
  8. Stay hydrated. If you're working outside on really hot days, make certain to drink plenty of water and take occasional breaks.
  9. Keep plant bulbs away from small children Small bulbs pose a choking hazard, and some bulbs are actually poisonous. Remind me to tell you how my grandmother once mistook a daffodil bulb for an onion and sent her whole family to the hospital to get their stomachs pumped. Then again, maybe you don't want to know.
  10. Be cautious about unusual physical activity. If you haven't stayed really active over the winter, don't try to "get back into shape" in one spring afternoon. Do something to "warm up" or "loosen up" before attacking anything particularly strenuous, and take breaks when you start to feel less than 100%. Also, plan activities so that you're not literally "overreaching," such as reaching too far to weed or trimming branches that are over your head. Even a simple activity that is repeated a few too many times at the edge of your reach can cause rapid fatigue, unnecessary muscle strain, and possible loss of balance.
Noxious Plant Risks
  1. Never wipe your face or eyes with your hands while you are in the garden. The chances of inadvertently transferring some noxious substance (even one that wouldn't cause problems on your hands or arms) to your face are too great. If you've ever had poison ivy in the eyes, you won't need my reminder to know this. "Wait, Paul," you may say, "I've never had poison ivy or the like in my garden." The answer to that is that the birds just haven't pooped the right seed into your garden yet. You may take a clean bandana or some such with you to wipe the sweat off your brow, but never use your hands, gloved or not.
  2. Wash any exposed skin thoroughly when you come in from the garden. If you know you have been exposed to poison ivy, don't wait; make a special trip. I always tell my children after a walk in the woods to assume they've gotten into poison ivy and wash up accordingly. Note: Poison ivy "attacks" you through oils that get onto your skin. The more oil and the longer it stays on your skin, the worse the reaction. Most so-called "spreading" poison ivy is the result of your hands carrying the oil to your face or some other part of your body before the oil is scrubbed off your skin. Poison ivy can not "spread" after you've properly cleaned up, but it may seem that way, since the secondary contamination, which is usually lighter, takes longer to cause problems. In the same way, you can't spread poison ivy to another person--even if you're breaking out--if you've properly decontaminated yourself since your last contact with the plant. For all of the above reasons, my first stop in from the garden, especially when I know I've contacted poison ivy, is to scrub my hands thoroughly using a dishwashing detergent that cuts oil, such as Palmolive. Only after my hands are decontaminated, do I wash my forearms, face, and any other exposed skin. This may seem like a silly ritual if you've never been exposed to poison ivy and you aren't allergic to anything else in the yard, but if this habit saves you one good "bout" with the stuff in your lifetime, it's worth it.
  3. Use common sense when removing noxious plants I'm only moderately allergic to poison ivy, so if I see a small plant that I figure could be pulled out by the roots, I will do so, perhaps wrapping one of those cheap grocery bags around my hand first (if I do it wearing gloves, then the gloves are contaminated from that point forward). In any case, I wash my hands immediately afterward with dishwashing detergent. But if the plant has sent runners underground, pulling out the part you can see only hides the problem. Also, more than one person who's tried to pull out a well-rooted poison ivy plant has hit himself or herself in the face with it when it finally snapped loose, and poison ivy on the face is no joke. In other words, If you can count more than three leaves on the whole plant, or if there seem to be a number of "plants" close to each other (which signifies underground runners), consider reaching for the "brush killer," a chemical something like Roundup on steroids. But use the product carefully and on days without a breeze, or you will find you have killed plants you treasure along with the nuisance.
  4. Don't burn noxious plants around anyone who might be allergic. Even if you're used to burning weeds, don't burn poison ivy or other noxious plants unless you know for a fact that no one in the viscinity is hyper-allergic to the stuff--the poisons released by the fire can cause some folks to break out or become ill.
Bug Risks
  1. Be aware of bee and wasp activity and flight paths. There are all kinds of bees, some of which aren't much larger than gnats, as you will learn when your thyme comes into bloom. I'm not particularly allergic to bee stings, but I don't take silly risks, like trying to pull a dandelion out of a patch of flowering Creeping Thyme while it is swarming with bees (unless I take precautions first, such as wearing gloves and a long-sleeved jacket). In the same vein, wasps love water, so if you have a pond, you will see wasps and yellow-jackets visiting it to collect moisture. Usually wasps on a moisture-gathering mission won't bother you unless you bother them, but make certain you look carefully before you kneel or sit down on a ledge next to your pond to do some weeding.
  2. Dead-head ugly and spent flowers Two groundcovers that I grow for the foliage--Blue Spruce Sedum and Lambs' Ear--have less-than-inspiring flowers that attract bees of all kinds. In dry weather, bees will keep coming back to those flowers, even when they are quite spent, as well. Such situations unnecessarily increase the risk of bee stings. Again, you may want to temporarily don gloves and a long-sleeved windbreaker while you are solving the problem, but a few minutes clipping can significantly reduce the amount of bee activity in an area without reducing the attractiveness of your garden or even particularly inconveniencing the bees.
  3. Eliminate mosquito habitats. Avoid standing water anywhere on your property. This includes buckets or even toys left out in the rain, as well as planned water features such as ponds. If you don't have a pump that circulates the water fairly vigorously or goldfish that can eat the mosquito larvae or both, you are offering a haven for mosquitoes.
  4. Avoid working where and when mosquitoes are on the prowl. Believe it or not, most mosquitoes never travel more than a few yards in their entire lifetime. Some parts of my yard are almost free of mosquitoes until after well after dark, but the parts where heavy foliage gives them extra shelter become thick with mosquitoes by twilight. Yes I could spray the bushes, hostas, and other places where adult mosquitoes take refuge with a "fogger." But those chemicals kill butterflies, honeybees, and lightning bugs as well, and the runoff can kill your fish if it finds its way into your pond. Besides, the effects are temporary, usually not lasting more than a few days, or until the next rainstorm, whichever comes first. So I've learned to plan my work time to work in certain parts of the yard only while the sun is still shining brightly.
  5. Reduce wasp and yellow jacket habitats. In my part of Ohio, we have yellow jackets, "paper wasps" and "mud-daubers." All of them need moisture to build their nests, which you may have already kindly provided by installing a pond or fountain. Being industrious and productivity-minded, wasps may try to save time by building their nests as close to your water feature as possible, which means that there may be a disproportionately high number of wasp nests in your garden unless you stay on the lookout. Paper wasps and mud daubers prefer to build under something that keeps the water off their nest, such as under the roof overhang on your house, under the floor of your deck, under the rim around your above-ground swimming pool, or inside your train tunnel. And though they generally casual about human interruption when they are on a "moisture run," paper wasps and yellow jackets will defend their homes ferociously, even from children who don't realize they're playing near a wasp nest. So it helps if you check possible "hangouts" several times a summer to make certain a large nest hasn't been established. If you find a nest, and you know you're not allergic, getting rid of it can be as simple as using a power washer from a distance and getting ready to run when the wasps make the connection between their house exploding and the guy on the ground holding the hose, or it may involve chemicals and/or exterminators.

    Note: Hornets don't care if there's a connection between their nest being attacked and the guy on the ground with the hose. They prefer to attack anything they think might be a threat, in large numbers and without warning. So if you have a hornets' nest that people are likely to pass near, consider getting professional help, or at least buying the strongest stuff you can buy and using it strictly according the the label. (Drawings showing the difference between paper wasp nests and hornet nests are posted at the University of Missouri Extension web site.)

    Ohio's yellow jackets also like dry holes in the ground, such as abandoned chipmunk or vole tunnels. Colonies in such places are harder to drive out, as they frequently have several access points, so spraying $40 worth of insecticides or 200 gallons of water into one hole may simply cause them to use another exit when they swarm out to deal with whatever's causing the problem. I have killed underground yellow jacket colonies by plugging all the holes I saw but one, then spraying a mess of insecticide into that one and plugging it, but when you do this you run the risk that there are enough other holes to give them ventilation and access. In addition, a yellow jacket colony might have hundreds, if not thousands of members, so you don't want to make them mad unless you're also pretty sure you're going to be making them dead at the same time.

    One more wasp habitat that garden railroaders frequently provide bears special mention: structures with openings in them. This includes plastic "houses" and "stations" that don't have Lucite or something over every window, as well as those painted wooden "bird houses" that you see at Wal-Mart and craft stores. At the moment I have a brown paperwasp colony in a wooden bird house near the pond, and earlier this year I had a dandy yellow jacket colony in a plastic building that isn't entirely sealed. Now it is possible to rectify the latter situation by sneaking up on the building, throwing it into the pond, and running like blazes (don't ask me how I know this), but that isn't optimum. Far better to get some scrap Lucite or screen door material and head off that problem before it starts.

Animal Poop Risks Be careful cleaning and disposing of animal waste. Only a few people a year actually contract diseases as a result of coming into contact with animal waste, but some of those diseases are pretty nasty. A few simple precautions, combined with remembering not to touch your face while you're working in the garden, and washing up with soap and hot water as soon as you come in reduce your risks to something approaching absolute zero.

Conclusion Once again, I hope I haven't scared you into staying indoors; the point was to reduce miniscule risks to virtually nonexistent risks. If you've been gardening a while, I doubt that anything on the above list is new to you, but each item is something to keep in mind. And remember that there may be risks in your garden that I don't even think about in mine.

In the meantime, we should all try to remember what the writer for the Australian Broadcast Network Gardening Page says about safety in the garden:

The fact that neither you nor I have a clue what that quote means shouldn't keep us from thinking about safety the next time we plan a project or venture out for a quick weeding or operating session.

If you would like to add anything or correct anything in this article, please contact me. Thanks to fellow Miami Valley resident Wil Davis and to Walker Kennedy III for reminding me of a few topics I hadn't addressed properly.

In the meantime, best of luck, all,


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