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In literary criticism class at university, I once learned about “close reading” of a text. This often meant ignoring the story for the sake of deconstructing the book through a political or cultural lens.

What they should have taught me was a truly important life skill. Let’s call it “close weeding.” It’s a key component of garden gymnastics.

Who needs a personal trainer when you can drag your body through the motions of close weeding – and a variety of other exercises – in the safety of your own garden? I learned that lesson over many years at one of Toronto’s oldest community gardens in the Thorncliffe Park neighborhood.

“Close weeding” means strapping on kneepads and crawling inch by inch through your garden rows, plucking away competitors such as crabgrass, unwanted raspberry roots, pretty-but-intrusive wild violets or rampaging bindweed.

Each weed needs a different strategy. In the case of crabgrass, a sharp tug may break the grass from the roots, so you need a slow, steady pull to get the root bundle to release from the soil.

By contrast, eliminating bindweed required a 10-year strategic plan and multipronged tactical assaults. Bindweed gave me nightmares. The elusive weed would easily give up its slender shoots and pretty blossoms to preserve itself, like a lizard gives up its tail to a predator. My persistent weeding of the shoots sapped the strength of the plant, but I needed to tackle the roots as well. They bundled into tight white masses under my garden pathways and in forgotten corners of the garden. The roots sometimes ran several feet deep and required slow coaxing to the get them out.

I learned that close weeding promotes ambidexterity. After 30 minutes of bindweed pulling, the wrist of my right hand was screaming in protest, and it was time to switch. To count down the transition, I recalled the “four more, three more, two more” method – a technique I learned in the 1980s while sitting on the couch watching the 20 Minute Workout on TV.

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The beauty of close weeding? At the end of the day, I could stand back to see the big-picture story of my garden. Its vegetable and flower protagonists advanced the plot, now unencumbered by their weedy, villainous competitors.

Did I mention the fringe benefit of Popeye-like forearms?

I also learned that the rock garden presents a special opportunity for athleticism. You could call it Rock Garden Tai Chi. Many of my fellow gardeners use rocks to demarcate areas of their plots – I have a few surrounding my peony shrub and irises.

Let’s face it, I’m a late middle-aged gardener now. Given that my balance isn’t what it used to be, I often garden by assuming the position of a hermit crab, scuttling on all fours from rock to rock. Sometimes I ground myself near a patch of plants and initiate weeding, watering and mulching. The only thing missing is my hermit crab shell, which would save on the cost of sunscreen and my Tilley hat.

If you are practising this kind of Rock Garden Thai Chi, be careful to avoid spontaneous celebrations of your gardening, such as lurching to your feet and twisting your ankle as your foot slips off a rock. Trust me. Instead, scuttle over to the next plant cluster.

Be sure to crank your neck around and check for nosy neighbors, who may be laughing at your garden gymnastics. Let them laugh. You know that if you weren’t feeling so mellow from the meditative benefits of Rock Garden Tai Chi, the martial arts acumen you’ve since developed would allow you to defend your gardening reputation.

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To relieve your sore back, quads, knees and neck the morning after, ask your family physician about the benefits of a proactive dose of ibuprofen and a pint of stout.

And who said gardening can’t provide a good workout for your heart and lungs, in addition to your muscles? A few of the gardening cardio strategies I’ve tested over the years include:

  • Sheep manure medicine ball: As the gardening season matures, good quality composted sheep manure can be found at your local grocer or gardening store. The blood starts to flow when you see the “blow out” price, but you can really get your heart beating hauling those bags from the store to your car. As an added workout, bring your spouse and use each sheep manure bag as a medicine ball. The workout resumes when you must haul each bag from your car to your garden.
  • The five-kilometre worm run: Like sheep manure, worms enrich your garden. They produce nutrient-rich castings, with the added bonus of aeration as they bore tunnels through the soil. Wait for a light rain on a spring day. Strap on your track pants and running shoes. Poke holes in the plastic lid of a tin coffee can and place a small amount of moist earth in the can. Take the can along on your 5-K run and scan for big moist earthworms on the sidewalk. Pick them up, pop them in your coffee tin and fasten the lid, as worms are escape artists. Run fast so you can beat the robins and commercial worm-pickers! The excitement of finding a juicy earthworm has sometimes moved the dial on my heart rate from “maintenance” to “fat burner” mode. Plus, I saved the cost of live worms – now topping $3 a dozen. During my cool-down phase, I’ve been known to reward myself with an Iced Capp at the Tim Horton’s drive-through.
  • The dreaded double-dig: This soil-preparation method involves two stages of deep digging, wrestling with a sharpened spade and much grunting. It’s said to be the cardio equivalent to the Iron Man competition. I’ve used this method as a last resort when other gardening-cardio methods were not available.

So lose the personal trainer and reap the benefits of meditation, self-defence techniques, cardio and close weeding – all in the safety and beauty of your garden gymnasium. Your flower and vegetable protagonists will thank you.

Ian Kinross lives in Toronto.

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