Safety first when you are out in the garden

An estimated three million people in the UK took up gardening for the first time during the past year.

Saturday, 12th June 2021, 12:20 pm
Updated Saturday, 12th June 2021, 1:18 pm
Alnwick Garden guides John and Ray with giant hogweed. Picture by Tom Pattinson

Whether they were encouraged by thoughts of growing their own fruits, vegetables, colourful ornamental plants or, remaining safe and active under lockdown, it’s time for a heads up on safety.

Gardens are seen as places where people feel they can relax in safety. By and large this is true, but according to figures published by The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), danger can lurk in many forms as we lower our guard in familiar surroundings. All gardeners beware!

Circa 300,000 people each year visit hospital with injuries that occurred in the garden. Almost one third of these happen while gardening or pursuing related DIY projects. Most alarmingly, children account for approximately one third of the total injuries.

Aquilegia is poisonous. Picture by Tom Pattinson

Safety in the garden for me begins with tidiness. Falls occur when heaps of debris, uncoiled hoses, timber, or garden tools are left lying around. Minor cuts and bruises are guaranteed if you fail to wear gloves for general activities. Wearing protective items relevant to the job in hand is essential. Strong footwear is called for when mowing a lawn not flipflops. And when cutting a hedge, don headgear, visor and gloves. If the blades are electrically driven, always know where the supply cable is. Mine goes around the back of my neck, down under an arm and remains clear of the cutting mechanism. You can use electric tools with confidence when a residual current device (RCD) is fitted to the outlet socket.

ROSPA publish a top ten list of the most dangerous garden tools, and lawnmowers top it with 6,500 accidents a year in the UK. Garden canes and sticks are tenth with 1,800 mishaps (ouch!). Spades, forks and secateurs account for 10,000 injuries collectively, and surprisingly, flowerpots are the second most dangerous hazard in a garden (5,300 hospital visits per annum). Falling over them and back problems through lifting being the key causes.

Consider the children. Any chemicals should be stored in a safe, inaccessible place. This includes liquid and powder forms of plant food, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Consider ornamental ponds as a danger area. Summer barbecues with family gatherings can be hazardous too. Above all, if a youngster plays there regularly and alone, know your plant properties!

Appearances can be deceptive

Gerard the 17th Herbalist was spot on with his observation that ‘Appearances are not always to be trusted’. Ornamental plants are indeed an important aspect of garden safety checks. Whenever a group of blooms catch the eye, the natural impulse is to approach, touch and sniff. Children at the hand-to-mouth stage of development take this a step further and taste.

However, several of our common or garden plants carry poisonous substances in either the flowers, seeds, leaves, stems or roots. In certain cases, the whole plant is lethal. This is a defence against animal pests that nibble leaves and suck sap. It really does make sense to wear gloves when gardening and wash your hands thoroughly after every session.

Beautiful flowers of granny’s bonnets (aquilegia, pictured) dangling from a stem, look so innocent, but they carry a dark secret of intent. The plant family Ranunculaceae has several high-profile poisoners, in monkshood, delphinium, buttercup and foxglove for example.

Ancient Greeks saw monkshood (aconitum) as the queen of poisons when used on arrow tips. It’s later inclusion in a poisonous bait for animals led to the common name wolfs bane. Even in today’s world it claims lives both accidentally and intentionally.

For more information on circa 100 of these dangerous plants visit The Alnwick Garden Poison Garden which is open daily. Staff guides such as John, Ray and Dean, assisted by trained volunteers, QR posts and plaques, are there to offer details/answer your questions. I’ve been a voluntary guide since it opened in 2005 and can vouch for the wonderful interaction between the team and visitors. This important educational facility delivers information relating to poisonous plants and addictive drugs, across the age demographic., some visitors expressing alarm with `But I have that plant in my garden!`