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Marin IJ Articles

Watch Out for That Ladder—Oh, the Agonies of Gardening

  • Diane Lynch
  • by Diane Lynch
    Chatting with some gardener types awhile back we concluded that someone needed to write an article about safety issues in the garden. I surveyed the Marin Master Gardeners and received some good feedback, a couple of funny stories, and many cautionary tales. The proverbial “step on a hoe or rake and get bopped in the head” story popped up several times.
    Those beautiful flowers we all love, roses, turned out to be problematic for several gardeners. One local gardener, pruning without gloves, was pricked by a thorn. The resulting infection required three rounds of antibiotics, an x-ray, visits to a rheumatologist and several months to heal. She feels there may also be some connection to handling fertilizers, such as chicken manure. Needless to say, she recommends wearing gloves for gardening especially around roses and thorough hand washing after finishing. Another gardener has added welding gloves to her gardening arsenal to prevent painful joint infections from rose pricks.
    Cutting fingers with pruners sounds like a stupid thing to do, but some of us really have. I have cut many leather finger tips on gloves and each time I reflect on how happy I am to still have my own fingertips . . . One person told me about disturbing a yellowjacket nest while weeding and it reminded me of the time my husband Leslie walked through a nest at our farm. As he ran away yelling I ran up and tried to swat them away so we were both stung multiple times. I keep an adrenaline kit at the farm since I sometimes swell up.
    Poison oak is good for an itchy week or two. One fellow was sawing a willow in the winter and inadvertently sawed poison oak overhead. The sawdust spread the rash everywhere. Years ago, in another state, we bought a house in November and I cleaned out vines behind the shed only to realize the next day that those bare vines were poison ivy. By the following day I couldn't get my eyes open which earned me a cortisone shot. Keep Tech-nu on hand and use it whenever you might have been exposed, and remember the adage “leaves of three, let it be.”
    A local master gardener rubbed her eyes while cutting euphorbia. The excruciating burning sent her to the emergency room where they treated her briefly and released her. Later in the day the pain was so intense she returned to the ER where they did an industrial washout procedure on her eyes, patched them for two days, and sent her home with painkillers. Turns out that any plant that oozes white sap can be potentially irritating. This includes the ubiquitous poinsettia, gopher plant, and the rest of the 2000 Euphorbia species.
    Some miscellaneous other tips: Be sure to have a tetanus shot every 10 years. Spray paint tool handles a bright color that allows you to spot them. Use a hiking pole for balance on hillsides. Keep wood tool handles in good repair by painting or taping them to avoid splinters. Wear shoes in the garden to avoid damage to feet—duh! Watch out picking up bugs—Jerusalem crickets bite. Keep your shirt tucked in to avoid painful sunburn to very white regions of the body.
    It turns out that ladders may be the most dangerous tool we use in the garden. The mother of a Marin gardener got impatient to get some tree branches pruned. She tied off a 30-foot ladder and climbed to the top. When her chainsaw bound up in a branch, she lost her balance and fell off backward. She was helicoptered to Stanford where she spent 206 days in intensive care with a gash to her heart and several fractured vertebrae. Over the time she was in the hospital there were eleven other people in ICU who had had ladder accidents.
    Years ago, a friend was on a ladder pruning. He fell off and coughed up a little blood requiring his very pregnant wife to take him to the emergency room. Turned out he was gazing over the fence at a scantily clad neighbor sunbathing next door . . . Moral, no daydreaming while on a ladder! And stay off the top couple of steps for added safety.