Gardening is generally considered to be good for our health and wellbeing. But, as Richard Thompson discovered, when challenged to consider the potential risks from gardening, there are plenty of dangers lurking in the shrubbery….
When I wrote a review article on the mental and physical health benefits of gardening, I was taken to task for not mentioning the dangers of this popular leisure activity. [1,2]
So, I thought that I would oblige.
According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), in 2002, 87,000 people attended Accident and Emergency departments in the UK for treatment of the complications of gardening or DIY, and one in ten gardeners have had to attend at some time in their lives. The risks are therefore frequent and expensive. Lawnmowers, flowerpots (sic), secateurs, spades, and electric hedge trimmers were the most frequent culprits. Indeed, apparently 300,000 injuries occurred while in gardens, but most of these were not related to gardening itself.
From gory electric saw injuries to injuries of the eye, to penetration of the foot by garden tools or from below by nails; from foot injuries from unruly electric mowers, to falling pots or troughs. Falls in the garden make up 115,000 accidents in the garden, of which 19,000 occur when gardening, causing hip and upper arm fractures and concussion, especially from high and badly footed ladders. The faintly ridiculous treading on the tines of a rake that causes the long wooden handle to whip up to inflict facial bruises, broken noses and concussion, or there is tripping on uneven paving stones or steps, or over those annoying hoses and electric cords.
The largest organ in the body, namely the skin, can be nastily affected by sunburn and blistering, predisposing to carcinoma and melanoma, contact dermatitis from at least a hundred cultivated plants, including tomatoes, photosensitive reactions to plants, dangerous cuts from razor sharp secateurs that introduce bacterial infections, such as tetanus, small black foreign bodies from the tips of thorns, and painful insect and arachnid stings and bites, which can cause either an immediate IgE mediated weal, or a delayed reaction with pruritus, urticaria, and blistering. Caterpillars, such as the new oak processionary moth, irritate the skin. Stings may also induce cellulitis, lymphangitis, and abscesses, or allergy and life-threatening anaphylaxis, particularly from bees and wasps. Tick bites may introduce the wide spectrum of Lyme disease, or more rarely babesiosis, while in tropical gardens mosquitoes spread malaria and dengue, among other diseases. Bonfires can cause skin burns, which are notoriously slow to heal, and in dry weather can so easily escape to burn down fences or worse, especially when petrol in added. Sunshine can exacerbate some skin diseases, such as lupus and pemphigoid.
The delicate cornea is vulnerable to stones thrown up by mowers, to the sap of Euphorbia and to garden chemicals, or agonisingly abraded by whipping twigs; it can be easily penetrated by sharp canes and wires.
If rats are enjoying the comfort of the warm compost heap, they can transmit Weil’s disease and Legionella.
Sudden irregular exercise in the garden can precipitate angina, congestive cardiac failure, or dysrhythmia and fatal myocardial infarction. Similarly, electrocution from inadvertently severing an electrical cord in the garden without using a circuit breaker or rubber shod feet, can also cause sudden death. However, some may say that a garden is no bad place from which to join the eternal gardener of souls. Cold gardens in inadequate clothing can induce Raynaud’s vasoconstriction, angina, cold injury chilblains and hypothermia, although some say that there is never bad weather, only bad clothing. Warm gardens can cause hyperthermia, dehydration, and heat stress.
In addition to smoke inhalation from bonfires and barbecue stoves, the respiratory tract is vulnerable to hay fever allergens and induction of bronchospasm, and especially in the Spring the irritant trichomes of the London plane tree. Garden ponds cause many problems for young children; drowning can occur in shallow water.
The inadvertent or deliberate ingestion of the many poisons used by gardeners is a hazard, most strikingly by paraquat with the risk of organ failure, but also less obviously eating the many poisonous berries attractive to children, such as yew or deadly nightshade, as well as mushrooms. Neurotoxic insecticides used in the garden can potentially cause acute and chronic toxicity, as well as knocking out our precious bees.
And finally, there are the universal back problems that plague gardeners. Having evolved from being on all fours, the lumbar spine is easily strained when gardening, lifting badly, digging, raking, starting petrol motors or bending, causing lumbago, vertebral fractures, spinal canal stenosis, sciatica and foot drop.
The lot of the industrious gardener is not always a happy one. Is it worth the risks of all these annoying and sometimes life-threatening dangers? Many of us would definitely say yes, but as Punch magazine said fifty years ago, it is often better to sit indoors with a gin and tonic and admire the garden outside and one’s family members working in it, remembering the adage: I love work; I can sit and watch it for ever. After all, there are health benefits from simply viewing nature.
So, as Hunt warned, the garden is not always a place of relaxation and serenity. 
Richard Thompson, emeritus consultant.
Competing interests: RT is a trustee of the National Garden Scheme, and past trustee, now patron, of the charity Thrive. He is a member of the Royal Horticulture Society’s Health and Horticulture Forum, and he gardens in London.
- Thompson. R. Gardening for health: a regular dose of gardening. Clin Med 2018; 18(3), 201-5. doi:10.7861/clinmedicine.18-3-201
- Hunt.T. Gardening injuries. Clin Med 2018;18(5), 440. doi:10.7861/clinmedicine.18-5-440a