How To Garden Without Getting Gardener's Hands

Being a gardener is no excuse for ooky hands!
Publish date:
April 6, 2012
nails, skin care, gardening, hand care

So I’ve been working in the garden a lot lately, and on the production farm, which is great because yay flowers and vegetables! I have really missed grubbing around in the dirt over the last few years and I am glad to have a chance to get outdoors more, and to get off the computer for a few hours every day.

However, there is a downside: Gardening tends to completely trash your hands.

It’s not just that your hands can start to look like crap after extensive gardening, with large cracks, embedded dirt, splitting nails and calluses. They also feel really unpleasant; your skin feels dry and stretched. It’s uncomfortable. You start to become reluctant about shaking hands with people.

I think people expect my hands to feel soft and smooth, because I’m a writer, so I don’t do that much outdoor work. But I garden enough that my hands roughen up fast, compounded by chronic eczema which takes advantage of any and all opportunities to blossom across my hands, spreading the gospel of cracked, flaking skin with red, raw, irritated edges.

Which means that I’ve had to develop an aggressive hand care routine to keep my hands in reasonably good shape, both for personal comfort and social reasons. Seeing as how no one likes to shake hands when the proffered paw looks like it’s just been partially dissolved in a vat of acid, with oozing, pitted, deeply unhappy skin, and the alternative is developing a reputation as an eccentric who wears gloves all the time.

The important thing with gardening hand care is consistency, which is something I am really bad at. There’s a reason I don’t have a beauty regimen. Part of it is just because that’s not how I roll, and part of it is because I have a really hard time remembering to do things on a regular basis. I can barely remember my medications, and that’s mainly because my phone reminds me to take them.

So I have sort of a multi-pronged approach to keeping my hands reasonably smooth and soft despite the fact that I’m constantly gardening. And I keep my tools in easy reach to make sure I remember to keep up with hand care.

Wear Gloves

This is key. Wear gloves when you garden. All the time. And make sure they fit properly. I am totally guilty of “just doing a quick little thing” without gloves, and my hands hate me later. Don’t be me, kids.

Get a couple of pairs for different kinds of projects. I have a thin pair of Atlas Nitrile Touch gloves I really like for tasks where I want to be able to feel what I am doing:

Just like being naked! Only not.

They are totally great for things like weeding, transplanting and harvesting greens because it’s almost like being bare-skinned, except your hands are protected.

They are not so great for whacking shrubs, dealing with brambles, and other heavy-duty tasks, so I have a set of suede gardening gloves with wrist guards too:

See the mud caked on these? This is an object lesson in how not to care for suede gloves, people.

Take care of your gloves and keep pairs stashed in several locations so you have no excuse not to use them. I have a set in my car for the Food Forest and another pair at home for my own garden, for example.

Use A Nail Brush

Nail brushes were invented for a reason, and that reason is cleaning your nails. Scrub under those little puppies when you’re done gardening. You can also totally use the brush to buff off dirt if you have some ingrained in your skin. If you’re consistent with it, crap won’t build up under your nails, which makes them less likely to dry out and crack.

Speaking Of Nails...

Keep them short, because it’s way easier to clean them and they’re less likely to snag. Short doesn’t have to mean clipped to the quick or anything, but definitely...short. I tend to leave them unpolished just because polish chips so quickly, but I’d love recommendations on a heavy-duty topcoat to help protect my nails so please hit me up in comments.

Take care of your nails and they'll take care of you. Fun fact: I bought those clippers in Ireland over 10 years ago as an emergency purchase and they're still going strong!

If you are leaving your nails naked, use nail and cuticle oil. Even if you aren’t, use it between nail polish applications. Please.

Gardening dries your hands, cuticles and nails out something fierce, between all the dirt and the constant wetness1. This means that you, in turn, need to be consistent about oiling your nails and cuticles regularly to keep them in good shape.

I use Dr. Hauschka, and to illustrate what a hand care flake I am, I’m all out and need to reorder.

Dry Brushes and Pumice Stones Are Your Friends

Before you shower, use a dry brush, people. Follow with a pumice stone to gently buff your hands. If you do this regularly, you can keep dry, flaking skin to a minimum and stimulate circulation in your hands. More circulation means happier hands with smoother skin, which is what we want.

Pumice, oh pumice!

If you do start to develop cracks, which can happen to the best of us, give them some extra attention with the pumice stone. It may take a week or so to invisibilize them: don’t try to do it all at once or you will end up with an angry red sore. Ask me how I know this.

Hand Salve Like You’ve Never Salved Before

I love this Burt’s Bees hand salve because it’s goopy, messy, oily and delicious.

Tip: Keep your salve next to the sink to glare balefully at you as a reminder to use it.

Ideally, you should apply hand salve before bed and wear clean cotton gloves to help your hands soften overnight. This also helps limit the amount of hand salve you will smear all over your house. You should also apply it before you start gardening, to keep your hands moisturized, soft and flexible while you work. When you’re done gardening and you’ve washed your hands and thoroughly patted them dry, salve them up again.

You may find it helpful to try a couple of salves or body butters to find one that works for you. Above all, remember to use it regularly, and again, consider keeping a few containers around so there’s always one handy.

Being a gardener is no excuse for ooky hands!

P.S. Don't forget SPF protection on your way out the door! Skin cancer sucks.

1. Isn’t it weird that having your hands constantly wet dries them out? I know, it’s weird. Return