Knots and Contortions: Gardeners’ Skills and Abilities

Gardening is a “genteel” pastime only if you have someone doing it for you. It can be quite demanding physically, and I don’t mean only brute labour type activities such as stripping sod or digging new garden beds.

Zeke the Cat, exempt from all garden work, loafing in a perennial bed

Take the matter of tying up plants that are apt to slump, lean or break off in windstorms. This often involves climbing right into a perennial bed, feet and all. The gardener must insert bamboo or other stakes, wrap twine around them and secure it so it stays put — all without crushing or otherwise injuring plants. Well-organized gardeners place stepping-stones in their perennial beds for just this purpose, but more often than not, there is no stone where the foot must land, or if there is, it’s very likely invisible under a couple of inches of mulch and plant debris.

Lean-prone Thalictrum staked and tied

Lean-prone Thalictrum staked and tied

I’ve often thought how useful it would be to be able to hover above the ground while carrying out garden operations such as pruning, hedge trimming or staking and tying. Someone should invent a little jet pack for gardeners, painters, window-washers, etc. It wouldn’t get you anywhere, you understand — just get your feet off the ground and keep you suspended until the job is done.

Lacking that, gardeners need certain physical qualities and skills — for example, the ability to balance and hold an awkward position, to spend a long time bent over or to get down on the ground and back up again — repeatedly. Then there’s the ability to work a pruning saw while doubled over or on tiptoes with arms raised and sawdust falling into eyes.

As well as assuming complex contortions while balancing on one leg, a gardener must be capable of hoisting a lot of weight, e.g., 10 liter watering can (full of water), or moving a lot of material, e.g. compost, gravel and plain old dirt. Why bother going to the gym? You can get a full-body workout right in your own garden. The other day I shifted a ton of compost material, from last week’s iris stalks to last fall’s leaves, in varying stages of decomposition. I certainly didn’t need to hoist kettle bells or do squats after that.

Rebuilt compost pile

Rebuilt compost pile

Desirable physical features for a gardener: long arms, short legs (telescoping legs would be even better), a strong back, a good sense of balance. In preparing for a season of gardening, yoga might help, or working out with weights. Psychologically, a tolerance for the tedious and repetitive is an asset. Masochism might be a handy trait as well, and an infinite capacity to delay gratification (sometimes forever, depending on what you’re trying to grow).

Returning to the matter of staking and tying, it helps to be familiar with a few knots. The ones I use most often in the garden:  square (reef) knot, clove hitch, double half-hitch, overhand knot. The square knot is used to tie two pieces of twine together or to join the ends of a single piece, as when tying a plant stem to a stake. The clove hitch anchors a long piece of twine to a stake. The twine is then wrapped around other stakes, thus surrounding a slump- or lean-prone plant. The twine is secured to the final stake with two half-hitches (unless it proves too short to complete the job, in which case the handy square knot is used to attach another piece of twine).

Twine wrapped around bamboo stakes and tied to support delphinium

Twine wrapped around bamboo stakes and tied to support delphinium

The overhand knot, which is so basic I think of it as the “kid knot,” may be used to keep the ends of pieces of twine from fraying. I’ve done this for years, but in truth, those knotted ends are harder to pass through tight spots, thus making it harder to tie other knots. And in my experience, fraying ends aren’t really a problem. Standard natural-fiber garden twine tends to weaken all over after a season or two. Once it loses its green colour and starts looking thin and tired, I test it by pulling on it; if it snaps, it goes in the compost pile, usually with knotted ends intact.

It may be argued that knots aren’t that important in garden situations, unlike mountaineering, sailing or working with livestock, where disaster may ensue if the correct knot isn’t used. That may be, but in most cases the gardener eventually has to untie most of those knots, again holding awkward positions or balanced on one foot. A properly tied knot is easier and faster to undo than a carelessly tied “granny,” so it pays to do it right in the first place.

Rope adds a nautical touch to the improved dog fence around the back garden

Rope adds a nautical touch to the improved dog fence around the back garden


    1. It can be a good way to keep in shape — lots of different muscles get used. It could be argued that it’s a bit random and sporadic — not like a regular workout. I’d rather exert myself in the garden any day, though, than go to the gym. Thanks for the comment and reblog!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. My recommendation to anyone facing hefty gym membership fees: dig a pond in heavy clay soil. I’ve never sweated so much in all my life.

    Never been one for knots and usually end up tying my own inventions which are irreversible. And on the subject of hovering over the beds, an image of Tom Cruise in Mission:Impossible came to mind. Can you not suspend yourself on wires from a tree? Your knot knowledge could be used to lower yourself to the correct height and the spectacle would make the local press and you could promote your books at the same time.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Gardening keeps me sane. Sort of, anyway. Or is it the insanity that keeps me gardening? Either way, there is nothing like filling pots with pansies when summer waves goodbye. That was my weekend chore, and I am now able to face another week of balancing work and writing. Do send Zeke my best. He can come and work in my garden anytime 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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