Gardening When You Have a Bad Back

Is your bad back a real pain when you garden? If so, you’ve faced the reality that there are certain gardening methods that are easier on the back than others, such as gardening in containers or planting in waist-high beds.

But what if you want to embrace traditional gardening methods and plant straight in the ground, but can’t—or don’t want to—double dig?

Summer: Bake the Soil to Kill Grass and Weeds

In this video, Marjory shows you how to turn a patch of grass into bare soil using a simplified version of a technique called “solarizing.”

By laying a tarp or 2 mil black plastic on the would-be garden bed, weighing it down with rocks, and letting the plot bake for a few months in the summer sun, you can effectively kill grass, weed seeds, and even unwelcome soil diseases. Some research has shown that using a clear plastic does an even better job killing unwanted grass, weed seeds, and soil-borne diseases.

If you live in a hot area and get a lot of sunny days, you’ll usually need to wait a few summer months before removing the black plastic.

In places where the summers are mild, wait even longer.

(Shorten this timeframe by tilling and re-leveling the soil before laying down the plastic, but it’s certainly more back-friendly to just lay down a tarp and wait!)

Autumn, Part 1: Reintroduce the Good Microbes

For solarizing to be really effective, your soil needs to reach about 150°F (66°C).

That’s hot enough to also kill some of the good microbes in the soil. In late autumn, top dress the soil with about 4 to 6 inches (10 cm to 15 cm) of good organic matter—compost, composted manure, or green manures.

We’re going for no more bad backs. So, spread the top dressing and let irrigation and earthworms pull the nutrients down into the subsoil.

(Do this each autumn to increase soil fertility.)

Autumn, Part 2: Use a Garden Fork in Rocky Soil

Preparing garden beds with a disability like a bad back.

A note here for those of you with rocky soil: Once you remove the plastic covering, apply a garden fork to soil to remove the bigger rocks.

If you must do this yourself, be sure to use a garden fork with a long, lightweight handle. Try to keep your back straight by bending at the knees instead of the waist.

Alternately, ask a relative or friend to do it for you, or hire someone to help with this task.

Trade with fellow gardeners—the work you can’t do for the work you can. Perhaps you could provide compost in exchange for help tilling rocky soil, or seedlings in exchange for help weeding

Spring: Strategic Planning and Garden Planting

When it’s time to plant in Spring, some folks with bad backs like to use a simple, homemade seed-sowing tool.

  1. Simply take a four-foot length of 2.5 inch PVC pipe and cut a 45° angle on one end. (If you buy your PVC at one of the larger home improvement stores, they will often cut it for you at no charge.)
  2. Use the sharp end of your seed-sowing tool to make holes or furrows.
  3. Hold the pipe upright. Drop the seeds in the top hole, and let them fall through to the soil.
  4. Then, use the tool to cover the seeds with soil.

When deciding what and how to plant, consider reducing the need to weed by using companion planting methods, mulch, a block-style layout—or a combination of the three.

Achieve Gardening Success—Even With a Bad Back!

It’s well-known that converting a plot of sod into a fertile garden is backbreaking work.

But, through pre-planning and gardening smarter, not harder, you can work your beds successfully—without overworking your back!

Now let’s hear from you. What tips and tricks do you use to keep your back in tip-top shape?

Tell us in the comments below.

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Marjory Wildcraft is an Expedition Leader and Bioneer Blogger with The [Grow] Network, which is an online community that recognizes the wisdom of “homegrown food on every table.” Marjory has been featured as an expert on sustainable living by National Geographic, she is a speaker at Mother Earth News fairs, and is a returning guest on Coast to Coast AM. She is an author of several books, but is best known for her “Grow Your Own Groceries” video series, which is used by more than 300,000 homesteaders, survivalists, universities, and missionary organizations around the world.

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  • Katherine says:

    Dear Marjory, thanks a lot for the great ideas, especially the “planting pipe” – it will be my new addition to the garden tools !
    I too have back problems, AND rigid knees, so I miss having more agility in the garden.
    By sheer coincidence, my recent busy schedule hasn’t given me free time for weeding, BUT my row of tomato bushes seems to be magically flourishing this year – despite the assorted “other edible greens” that have sprung up among them. They probably shaded the ground and held back weeds – from what you said in your video?
    The tomato blossoms have given way to green fruits at the moment and I am thrilled!
    Thank you again,
    a faithful fan,
    Katherine (from Greece)

  • Eric Schoenfeld says:

    I am growing a key lime tree and a orange tree .
    My problem is the leaves are getting chewed up by an insect and the new growth looks burned?
    I spray and organic fungicide for fruit and vegetable bought at local Home Depot
    What should I do to make them healthy?

    1. G-MAN says:

      My wife has a citrus tree that was experiencing the same thing. I suggested she dust it periodically with food grade DE and now there are new growth leaves sprouting out and the chewed up leaves has been abated.

  • Patty says:

    A month ago I fell and broke 2 vertebrae. I am an avid gardener and it’s just so hard not being able to bend my back (I’m in a brace) or lift anything over 4 pounds. Any other tips you have would be most appreciated! Can’t wait until the summit next week!

  • Terry Nixon says:

    Great idea on using the plastic pipe for planting. with some adapters and a ball valve, you could also use it for watering just the plant.

  • Richard Pimpo says:

    Thank You for the information

  • JJM says:

    Clear Plastic?? Black absorbs the most heat and seems to me would be most effective to bake the soil.
    Also good to warm the soil in early spring.

    1. Clear plastic germinates the seed and then kills them by overheating. If you do not disturb the surface afterwards there are no seeds to sprout. If you plan to cultivate the soil afterwards than the black plastic will work beter in the winter. Clear plastic on a prepared bed will warm the soil first instead of the plastic in the spring then hold the heat in like a greenhouse.


    the soil in my garden is so poor rocks roots red clay the only thing that grows there is grass and weeds i use 5 gal. buckets filled with a good potting soil my garden is fantastic the best tomatoes in town egg plants cukes. peppers etc. you should do an article on this sometime for people with the same problem

  • Marilyn says:

    My sowing tube is an old scrap of PVC slightly less than waist high on me. I cut a 2 liter plastic bottle at the point where it begins to narrow into the neck, inverted it and duct taped the open neck to the inside of the PVC. The funnel thus created catches the seed and doesn’t require accuracy to place it into the tube . I left the open end flat because occasionally a seed would flip out of the furrow so I would have to stop and set it in the furrow by hand. I find it just as quick to make a second pass with a narrow hoe to close and gently tamp the furrow rather than use the angled tip. Surely does save my back and knees.

  • Bonnie Krause-Gams says:

    I always do stretching and energy routine before I go to the garden. All winter when I am house bound, I do yoga and I use an infra red sauna. Also eating right and moving keeps your back healthy. My son who is over 6 foot wears a support belt. If I have been out there a long time, I use a stool and sit for weeding. To me, you have to keep your back strong all year long.

  • Anita says:

    I find that if I switch tasks every 30-60 minutes I am less sore and my back is actually getting stronger for varying the muscles I use! Example, I might hoe for 30 minutes, rake up what I hoed for 10-20 minutes, Bend down to place a few seeds for 10-15 minutes then stand up for next 10-15 minutes and walk down row gently covering the seeds. Resting and stretching helps as does just sitting in the hot sun and letting the rays penetrate my lower back!! Lots of water/hydration. I get a better garden workout if I can stay cool — wet head covering/kerchief, even misting my shirt.

  • billie gonzalez says:

    I’m going to try Lasagna Gardening (get the book by the same title), which is just layers of soaked cardboard to block light from any weeds, then layering as for a compost pile. When it is as high as you want it, add topsoil and plant your seeds or plants. By the time the roots are reaching down into the layers, the materials have begun to compost. No digging required, so the quality of your natural soil doesn’t matter. This similar to the straw bale gardening method, but finding and hauling bales can be back breaking, plus sometimes the bales harbor mold. Instead, if you have straw (not hay which has weed seeds), just add it to the layers along with garden trimmings, kitchen (vegetable) waste, leaves, grass clippings, winery pomice, brewery waste, coffee grounds from coffee houses, eggshells from all the breakfast restaurants, etc.

    I also use a shower bench when needing to bend longer than I can manage.

  • I cut grass with a scythe [ the motion helps my back] and pile it on the garden bed and cover it with carpet. All the soil creatures including moles cultivate the ground for me. I have 3 acres of field to mow so noshortiage of material. and carpet torn out of several houses so I can make large gardens.

  • Pati says:

    1) Please don’t ever tell any part of your body that it is “bad”. You can say that it is hurting, or painful but better yet to say something like “this is my healing knee” or this is my wonderful back that I am protecting. Always give your body, every part of your body, love and positive attention.

    2) Please do not use PVC. Poly vinyl chloride is one of the most toxic substances on the planet! We should stop making this stuff. It’s okay to use already existing PVC but not new because when we buy it new we are creating the market for it. There are other materials.

    Thank you.

    1. Karen says:

      Thank you, Pati, for calling our attention to these important considerations! I fully agree with both comments.

  • Debbie says:

    I do not do much direct seeding, due to the short growing season here, and the tendency to get stuck in a weather pattern with too many consecutive days that are either too rainy or too dry for good germination. I start seeds in small containers, usually re-purposed from store bought food or other things. I can do this easily sitting in a chair or kneeling on the ground, with the pots resting on a covered tote box or whatever I have handy.

    When it is time to put the plants in the ground, I use a low stool to sit on whenever possible, and have found a short-handled shovel and rake that work fairly well when I am close to the ground. I also do a fair amount of gardening on my hands and knees. I know it doesn’t look pretty to be crawling around in the mud, but it is a lot easier on the back.

    I know many people advise against this, but I use hay for keeping down the weeds between my plants. It is a lot less expensive than straw, and can just be turned into the soil before the next planting season. I try to get the bales early and bake them in the sun under plastic to kill whatever seeds are in the hay, so they will not sprout. I can re-use the plastic later to protect my plants from frost.

    When I am working in the garden, I try to switch tasks often, so I am not stuck for too long in the same position, doing the same repetitive movements. I also take frequent short breaks to loosen up the muscles with gentle stretching. I find that as the season progresses, I am gradually able to work for longer periods of time without stressing my back.

  • Mark says:

    Last year I used a similar technique for planting my garlic. I used a garden apron to hold the garlic bulbs, a pointed 3/4″ fiberglass rod to make holes through the 4″ of leaf and horse manure which had been aging on top of the garden bed for several months and a 4 foot piece of 3/4″ pvc pipe to place the bulbs (into the holes). The pipe is small enough to prevent the bulbs from turning on the way down – so that they are deposited into the soil the correct way up. I put in 200 bulbs in much less time than it took the prior year and with no back pain when I was done. BIG improvement. We finished harvesting and eating all the scapes a week or two ago. Garlic is doing very well this year. Thank you for the tips.

  • Lorelle Denham says:

    Will this work for blackberries?

  • Dianne says:

    Would be nice if you could put your ideas on Pintrest so people could save them and look them up later when they need them. 🙂

    1. Marjory says:

      We actually have just started to use Pinterest. We are new to it, but we are definitely out there! 🙂

  • ann says:

    My garden is some below waist high and measures 5 feet by 40 feet so with a bad back, it’s a piece of cake.
    I can actually sit on the side of the cement blocks which it is made of, weed, pick and do whatever
    I need to do. Heavy mesh is on the bottom and it’s filled with organic soil. I have hoops if I need them
    with a white cover protecting the newly laid seeds…. Later I take the white cover off. Cover is held down
    by 2 x 4’s which lay on the concrete blocks. The other thing one can use are cow troughs.

  • Debbie Schulte says:

    Great info! I use layers of cardboard, newspaper, compost and mulch, not only to kill grass and weeds for new planting areas, but also in the fall after frost to build soil over the winter. Much easier than digging, and the worms like it, too! One thing I found that helped relax my back is making sure I’m getting enough calcium/magnesium, without that muscles can contract but can’t relax, just two weeks on a quality supplement I started taking a few years ago made me realize that it wasn’t a bad mattress that kept me tossing and turning all night. Also, I started using CBD oil (the non-psychoactive cannabidiol from hemp, lol) a little over a month ago and wow, what a difference it has made with the spasms in my lower back that I used to get from gardening or certain household chores. I use a CBD salve as well, that works quickly to relieve any extra tension or soreness. I love my essential oils, but for me the CBD works much better for this sort of thing.

  • Maria Rose says:

    Now I know why my landlord told me to plant in an area he had removed the tarp from but he did it the wrong way. ( He put the tarp down for the winter and removed it right after the frost). That’s alright, I can tell he didn’t remove the good microbes in the area he gave me because I still had to weed it and will have to re-weed over the summer. They constantly planted tomatoes, squash but never did much to the soil. Since the area gets full sun, I am only planting peppers (hot) and potatoes and will sprinkle a coating on ground to hold water from rainfall so soil doesn’t dry to dust during the full sun exposure. I am more concerned this year in getting soil to full nutrient level than elimination of all the weeds as some of them are clover which adds nutrient to soil.

  • Beth says:

    Thank you Marjory, Thank you for this most interesting article. I don´t have any rocks so I use old car tyres to hold my plastic/tarps down. I very much like the pipe sowing trick maybe I could use a larger plpe to plant out my seedlings in there paper pots. My poultry do most of my gardening as they are in a circular dome house that gets moved every 3-4 weeks onto the next garden which leaves me with a garden with no bugs and well turned over and manured and I get to eat the eggs as well. For my back I have tilted a bed 12-18″ just by putting a board under the matress and raising the toe end with what ever is available. When I lay on it after gardening I can feel where my back is hurting then I stretch one leg at a time and within a few minutes the pain is all gone. I hang my heels over the end of the matress to stop slipping head first into the wall. Happy gardening everyone.

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