The dangers, and health benefits, of gardening

Dr Muiris Houston: You can pick up serious injuries and ailments from horticultural activity, but some risk assessment will mean you enjoy only the advantages

I’ve always thought of gardening as a relaxing pastime. It certainly became a bigger part of my life – as it did for many of us – during lockdown. I’ve never thought of it as anything other than a fairly harmless hobby until I came across a recent piece in the Conversation by Anglia Ruskin University emergency medicine specialist, Dr Stephen Hughes.

“I deal with all manner of medical emergencies and injuries arising from what may appear to be a harmless hobby,” he writes. “Over the years, I have seen hand wounds from cutting implements and foot wounds from lawn mowers and garden forks. In recent weeks, I have seen falls from ladders, head wounds from falls on concrete – and, sadly, confirmed the death of a person in their later years whose enthusiastic shovelling proved too much.”

He goes on to warn of the risk of tetanus in the garden. An unpleasant disease in which muscles go into spasm due to the effects of toxin from the bacteria, Clostridium tetani, tetanus isn’t just a risk from scratches from rusty nails. (Earlier this year, I got too close to a piece of rusted barbed wire in our garden, and was glad my tetanus jab was up to date.)

“But this surprisingly common organism is also found in soil, particularly if manured, because clostridia are found in the gut. Roses like soil with manure, so this could turn these beloved flowers deadly if you get cut by contaminated thorns or if the soil gets into a cut,” Hughes notes.


Another danger he flags is Leptospira – a bacterium that may be found in water contaminated with rat urine. Leptospira can cause leptospirosis, an infection that causes headaches, fevers, chills, vomiting, jaundice and then later, liver failure, kidney failure and meningitis.

Gardening routines, such as watering and weeding, can create a soothing rhythm to ease stress

Garden may be an anagram of danger, but I do think the health benefits of gardening far outweigh the risks, particularly if you pay due attention to those risks (wear gloves and boots for a start). Dr Hughes’s concerns are real, but not that common. So let’s take a look at the health-boosting characteristics of spending time in your garden.

A busy day in the garden is a good form of exercise. While tending a garden, you perform functional movement that mimics whole-body exercise. You perform squats and lunges while weeding. Carrying bags of mulch works large muscle groups. Digging, raking and using a push mower can be physically intense. Gardening is rated as moderate-intensity exercise equivalent to playing doubles tennis or walking at a speed of 5.6km/h, and gardening also can improve our balance, strength and flexibility.

Spending time outdoors has been shown to reduce heart rate and muscle tension. Sunlight lowers blood pressure and increases vitamin D levels. An Australian study showed that gardening was more effective than walking, education or maintaining alcohol intake at moderate levels in protecting against dementia. Overall, gardening exercise may reduce the risk of diabetes, cardiac disease and cancer of the colon and breast.

Routines provide structure to our day and are linked to improved mental health. Gardening routines, such as watering and weeding, can create a soothing rhythm to ease stress. I find that pulling weeds can be therapeutic and calming. Research has shown that gardeners generally have greater life satisfaction and fewer feelings of depression and fatigue than non-gardeners.

I’ll finish up with a valuable piece of advice from Hughes: “Every year the burns unit at my hospital sees a number of people who have tried to speed up the process of lighting their barbecue or bonfire by using petrol. Not all survive. So if you are planning to cook the fruits of your (garden) labours on a barbecue in your garden, make sure you don’t use inflammable liquids to get the flame started, and have a fire extinguisher on hand just in case.”

Excellent advice if you’re planning a cookout – weather permitting, of course – in the weeks ahead.