Caring for the gardener

Victoria County Master Gardener   
Thursday, June 8th, 2006

Editor's Note: This article begins an added feature to weekly The Gardeners' Dirt. Every so often there will be an article about an avid gardener, and this story is about one of our own. So get to know Master Gardener Nancy Kramer who, not only can often be found working at Victoria Educational Gardens, but who has headed up several master gardener plant sales and is Webmaster for all three Victoria County Master Gardener Web sites, which have been awarded best in Texas. Nancy is also a former middle school teacher and occasionally writes this column.

When I retired from teaching, I felt like I would be making lots of trips to the beach. But I have been doing something much more rewarding - working at the Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) with the Victoria County Master Gardeners.

To take care of yourself while working in the garden, especially in our hot Texas sun and humidity, sometimes it may feel like you're packing up to go to the beach. I hope to share with you some things that can help you feel better while gardening, such as wearing gloves, moisturizing your skin, covering up, using sunscreen properly, re-hydrating and even protecting your knees and back.  To become a certified master gardener, trainees must complete classroom curriculum plus at least 20 hours of working in the educational gardens. Once started, I couldn't stop. That 20 hours turned into about 200 hours. I soon learned I needed to learn special ways to take care of my hands and skin, and be able to prevent aches and pains and rejuvenate the old body.

Gloves The No. 1 rule is to wear gloves while working. There are all sorts of gloves and this whole article could be written about them. I love to just plunge my hands into the soil and work without gloves. But the older I've gotten, I've learned that little cuts and scrapes have turned into bigger problem, so I've invested in good gloves.

Fabric dipped in latex My favorite kind of glove is the kind that looks like knit gloves that have been dipped in latex. They allow flexible movement and help protect from rose thorns and other things that can wreak havoc on the hands.

They are also good for preventing blisters by cushioning against rubbing when using shears and other hand tools, or mowing the lawn. This particular kind can be put in the washing machine.

Leather I also have a great pair of leather gloves that can be used for working with heavy materials. We have quite a few building projects at VEG, and on occasion I have worked with Habitat for Humanity Women's Build.

My first VEG project was helping my buddy construct a water garden. We hauled lots of stones, and I couldn't have done that rough job without my heavy-duty leather gloves.

Latex Simple, tight-fitting latex gloves, such as surgical gloves, can also be helpful when working with seeds and soils, while potting or planting, when you need more feeling in the fingers.

Little lightweight gloves can be helpful for protection during small jobs, but most importantly, they help keep the sun off your hands. Get a good pair of chemical-resistant gloves (as well as other protective clothes) for handling chemicals when applying fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides.

. . .

When I attended my very first master gardener training class, one of the class members brought some gardeners' hand balm. Little did I know how much I would appreciate that gift. Even when using gloves, the hands take a beating in the garden. That special gift of the gardeners' hand balm does quite a good job quickly repairing the damage.

One of my master gardener and teacher friends always gives me gifts of hand creams and moisturizers. She introduced me to a brand called Earth Therapeutics. It is amazing how rejuvenating it is. I found some of the top brands of moisturizers while researching at

Click on and read for yourself.

The sun can be so damaging, especially when we work out in the yard for hours. The most important rule to remember is to try to avoid going out between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. We all know this is not always possible when there is a lot of work we just have to get done - and it won't get done unless we can spend all day at it.

Like I always told my students in health class when we studied skin cancer, remember to "slip, slap, slop" - slip on a shirt, slap on a hat and slop on the sunscreen.

Slip on a shirt

While working on this article I got suggestions from folks who spend a lot of time in the sun and needed to find ways to manage it. I never realized that just wearing long-sleeved shirts is not enough. It helps to buy special woven materials that keep the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays out. Most people are familiar with Columbia clothing with sun protection. These clothes are designed with light colors and lightweight materials with special ventilation to help you stay cool. I've invested in some cooler fishing shirts and pants that are designed to block the sun. Look for materials with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 50+. Oh! And be prepared to ruin these special outfits with stains and saps from working in the garden.

Slap on a hat

Speaking of hats - SLAP ONE ON! I always see guys wearing caps out in the sun. Caps don't do much for protecting the face, ears and neck from harmful sunburns, although they do help to protect you from the heat. Some of our straw hats don't keep the sun from filtering through. Get a good hat with at least a 2- 3-inch broad band. There are hundreds of stylish hats designed now for sun protection. I'm guilty of always wanting to wear my big ole straw hat, but lately my favorite has become the bucket hat. One of my friends swears the Tilley Hat is the best one ever made. While researching hats, Physician Endorsed products also caught my attention and you can check out their Web site at: to locate retailers like The San Antonio Botanical Gardens, Lady Bird Wildflower Center, and online retailers, such as

Slop on the sunscreen

If you're like me, you can stay in the sunscreen section of a store for quite a while deciding which ONE is the best. Generally, try to get one that has an SPF, or sun protection factor, of at least 30. One big problem is not using enough sunscreen. It's believed that most people use only 25-50 percent of the amount they should be using.

Cool down and re-hydrate

Suggestions from friends to beat the heat include frequent breaks in the shade or under an umbrella, using personal misters, placing cooling bandanas on the neck, and applying washcloths dipped in a cooler of ice to the face and neck. One fellow gardener actually brought a little popup beach tent for her kids to be able to get in the shade while she worked at VEG.

Remember, if you stop sweating, you are in trouble. Don't wait until you are thirsty to drink water. (And yes, water is the best way to re-hydrate, even if my neighbors have seen me have a 'cool one' in the swing after mowing the lawn.) Water is the best way to re-hydrate, instead of having soft drinks or alcoholic beverages.

Kneeling pads and protectors

There are things you can do to protect your knees and back while gardening. I found an inexpensive, rectangular kneeling pad while shopping locally. It is about 7 inches by 15 inches with a little handle and is made of foam with memory. Kneeling close to plants saves your back. I have a simple pair of kneepads that strap on with Velcro. While they cannot be cleaned in the washing machine and dryer, they can be sprayed off.

Another answer to saving the knees and back are specially designed garden benches that can be turned over and used for kneeling. There are also little rolling toolboxes or carts to sit on while working.

Whether going to the beach or working in the garden, I've learned to take care of myself so I'll feel well enough to keep on keepin' on and continue to enjoy my hobbies.