NEW MARKET, Va., May 1, 2002 (AP) - Maybe they should print this warning on seed packets: "Gardening can be hazardous to your health."

Heresy? An unwarranted attack on one of the nation's favorite leisure time activities?


  • Sunburn and sunstroke
  • Ticks, bee stings, mosquito and snake bites
  • Nettles and poison ivy
  • Scrapes and abrasions
  • Aching muscles and joints

Pull out the sunblock, insect repellent and antivenin, calamine lotion and iodine.
But for aching muscles and joints, a growing group of opportunistic manufacturers is rushing loads of "ergonomic tools" to help you survive digging and planting and weeding and generally too much of a good thing.

Ergonomics, for those of you who haven't heard the buzz, is defined as "the study of the problems of people in adjusting to their environment, especially the science that seeks to adapt work or working conditions to suit the worker."

Most of the innovators hang their product recognition on a recognizable feature. Some promote the use of longer handles. Others push space age materials. Still others fill a niche with kneeling stools that save you from stooping over, or cushioned hand tools requiring a softer squeeze.

All are cultivating a vast and potentially lucrative market.

"The average lawn and garden expenditure is $450 per year," says Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association. "About one of every two households has a flower or vegetable garden. That's about 100 million households.

"There are about as many gardeners in this country as there are people who go skiing or walk for exercise," Butterfield says.

It doesn't take 20-20 vision to see that the nation's population is aging and that gardening is one of the group's treasured activities. It also doesn't require a blue-ribbon panel to figure mature gardeners suffer the most aches and pains from carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, tendinitis or years of repetitive motions.

So buzz, buzz: Ergonomics. Enter the body friendly world of lawn and garden products.

Some simply are timely variations on a theme: a curve here, an extension there.

"We see a lot of people calling their tools ergonomic, but they're just putting fat handles on them," says Jim Wolf, vice president of marketing for Fiskar Brands Inc., in Madison, Wis. "That and other add-ons simply add weight."

Wolf should know. Fiskars has been a visible leader in the ergonomics business since introducing its famous orange-handled scissors in 1967.

Fiskars prides itself on "extending hand power." And the Helsinki, Finland-based company, which traces its origins to 1649, has funded years of research into the process.

"We use lightweight, high-strength materials," Wolf says. "Some have a strong gearing mechanism that enhance power through the cut and boosts the strength of the person using it. Our products are a combination of design, light weight and strength."

Earth Bud-Eze is at the opposite side of the chart, corporate age wise. It began selling its new-look products as recently as last August at the Minnesota State Fair. The three-product launch proved so successful that the line has been expanded to a half-dozen products distributed nationwide.

"Some tools haven't been changed in hundreds of years and now you see a tool out there with a vertical handle and cuff," says Pat Greene, a former educator who is the company's president and chief executive officer. "People are probably shaking their heads. Our challenge is to get it to people who don't get it."

The "it" Greene refers to is an assortment of "leverage enhanced" hand tools -- trowel, cultivator, v-hoe, pruning saw, carpenter saw and shrub rake designed to "isolate the arms and allow gardeners to use the strength of the upper arm and shoulders rather than the smaller, weaker muscles of the hands, wrist or arm."

Greene and her partners are looking far beyond the ache-and-pain market, however. The earth buddies also claim their products cut work time nearly in half.

"Earth Bud-Eze's ergonomically designed hand tools have an innovative design that reduces hand, wrist and arm strain for serious and weekend gardeners alike and offers substantially more power, so gardeners can do the same work in less time," the company's promotional literature says.

The unlikely looking tools are being used for everything from moving rocks and digging clams to, in our case, making an easier job of cleaning a chicken house.

But if all that newfangled gadgetry isn't for you, then think smart and work smarter. Reach into your child's (or grandchild's) toy box and pull out a short-handled tool that should serve well for sit-down gardening.

Or wrap pieces of inexpensive foam rubber -- the kind you might use to fill holes around window air conditioners -- on the handles of your shovels or rakes to make them more comfortable to grip.

Ambulance crews know rolling patients into emergency rooms is far easier than lifting, so consider using Johnny's little red wagon if you want to haul something heavy around your yard.

Consider going to above-bed gardening. You won't have as far to bend. You also might buy a cheap pair of basketball knee pads to cushion your, uh, load.

If the pains persist, get out of the yard and hire a robot. Several manufacturers, including Friendly Robotics and Toro, have introduced hands-free outdoor products. Toro's new mower, for example, features 360-degree safety bumpers, a tilt sensor and audio warnings. "You just sit back in your hammock sipping lemonade as the iMow Robotic Mower makes your tall grass short," Toro says.

A thirst-quenching concept, ergonomics.

Copyright 2002, The Associated Press