Forget the idea that the British are a nation of shopkeepers: everyone knows, of course, that actually we are a nation of gardeners. And much as we’d like to sit in our gardens and enjoy the fruits of our labours, in August, in reality we’re likely to be head-down, bum-up in the borders – with gardening taking its toll on our hands.
Having green fingers is a wonderful thing. But for many of us gardeners, those green fingers tend to be accessorised by rough, dry hands, ragged cuticles and even (dare I say it?) grimy fingernails. (I, for one, am regularly chastised by my manicurist who for nine months of the year, at least, has to put my hands into regular beauty rehab to undo the damage induced by my horticultural hobby.)
If I put my (slightly sandpapery) hand on my heart, then, the advice that follows has a touch of do-as-I-say rather than do-as-I-do about it. But I am at least familiar with the theory of how to have fabulous paws and a fabulous plot, even if I don’t always practice what I preach.
The No. 1 rule, of course, is to wear gloves at all times. The challenge is that you can kiss a lot of frogs in the glove department (and expensively so) before finding your prince. (Let alone your Prince Jardinier – a particularly pricy and fancy French brand of gardening accessories/www.artedona.com.) So I turned to my friend Stephanie Donaldson, Hastings-based Gardens Editor of Country Living and author of The Elements of Organic Gardening (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99), for her definitive wisdom on gloves which don’t make you feel like you’ve got a bunch of bananas dangling from either wrist. (She gets to trial all of them in the line of professional duty.) ‘The best brand I’ve found is Gold Leaf,’ she tells me, ‘because they’re made from very good leather and are really supple even after they’ve got wet – unlike many brands which go stiff as a board after you’ve used them once or twice.’ (Even the Royal Horticultural Society is now endorsing Gold Leaf.) Choose from the water-resistant Dry Touch, the even-more-supple-than-most Soft Touch, perfect-for-pruning Tough Touch and Thinsulate-lined Winter Touch options, and find them all on-line at www.crocus.co.uk.
Another brand that Stephanie recommends is Master Gardener, made from 100% cotton with a tough latex coating, and priced just £5.95 – ‘though they do look a bit like aliens’ hands!’, she notes. (Since when, however, did most of us care about what we looked like when we’re hacking back the clematis Armandii? Gone are the days, alas, of gardening in straw hats a la Valerie Finnis, who appears in her full eccentric gardening tog glory in Ursula Buchan’s Garden People, Thames & Hudson, £19.99). My personal gardening glove choice? I’ve always liked Lakeland’s disposable latex gloves, which allow for amazing dexterity but are really only suitable for gentle jobs in the greenhouse – sowing seeds, potting on – rather than serious soil work.
If you can’t bear to wear gloves, the best trick – which I do myself – is to scrape your nails over a bar of soap before you go out in the garden. When you come back in, scrub with a nail brush and the dirt lifts right off, along with the soap. Another tip is to rub a rich balm – or any lip balm, come to that – along the inner side of the index finger of your writing hand, which is the zone most likely to get grubby and rough; it acts like a barrier against the dirt, while softening the skin layers. Try applying a thick layer of hand cream all over your hands before you head for the herbaceous border, which will help to shield them. The bestselling Gloves In A Bottle (which you can find on VH, of course), certainly lives up to its name, here.
The beauty mantra, as ever: it is always easier to prevent damage than repair it. Which is easier said than remembered, when spring is bursting out all over and you are itching to get out there and prune/dig/divide, so let’s look at ways to reverse (or at least minimise) the ravages that can cause.
Quite a few brands make hand cleaners specifically for gardeners, but for a triple whammy – cleansing, exfoliating and nourishing in one – you can’t go wrong with the AMAZING Yes to Carrots Feel the C Pampering Hand & Nail Spa (which Beauty Bible testers also loved) – like an instant ‘makeover’ for hands, in a tub. If the dirt’s really ingrained, meanwhile, infuse a bowl of warm water with some dried or fresh herbs (try lavender, mint or rosemary), soak your hands for 5 minutes and then scrub with a nail brush. If hands are really stained from dirt/picking – in particular, from tomatoes – then rub them with a lemon, leave juice on for 5 minutes and wash off. or soak with the herbs.
Pat dry, then slather, slather, slather with the richest hand cream you can lay your – yes, hands on. For extremely dry hands, try an occasional mask whipped up from a couple of tablespoons of Greek yoghurt with a teaspoon of honey mixed in, and leave for 20 minutes while you soak in the bath to ease gardening-induced aches and pains.
As for nails? Talons and potagers certainly don’t mix. You can probably get away with longer nails if all you do is waft around with a pair of secateurs picking cut flowers, but anything tougher can be nail-breaking. (See gloves, above.) The secret is to keep nails relatively short – square oval (squoval) is the most gardening-friendly shape – so they can’t snap, and massage the cuticle nightly either with a rich oil (simple sweet almond oil is perfect, and can be prettily scented with a few drops of essential oil). (This is great for boosting nail growth, too.) I find that nail polish itself is the very best protection against breakages, but needs to be frequently reapplied in order to avoid looking like a complete slattern. (Tip: pale pinks and near-nude shades are obviously best, as chips will then be all but invisible. The same can certainly not be said for Chanel Vamp, for instance.)
And if all else fails…? Bring back lace gloves, I say. Gorgeous with a parasol, while sipping iced lemonade under the weeping willow. (And that, for all you other hard-working gardeners out there, was a joke…)