I began running barefoot a year and a half ago. Yep – on asphalt roads without shoes for miles. This lead to being barefooted in the garden as much as possible. At first, it was just a way to increase the exposure of my soles to make running go better. However, soon I realized that bare feet in the garden benefited my garden experience as well.
It will probably help to go over basics about bare feet before getting into the specifics about bare feet in the garden. Ask yourself: Why do you wear shoes, aside from extreme conditions and social pressure? What about shoes is beneficial? Take notice that when we need gloves, we always look for something that will be most like the feel and flexibility of the fingers and hand while still giving the protection desired. If we can perform a task without gloves, it is preferred because of the advantage of sensory feedback and range of motion.
We may use our feet differently than our hands, but the design of the foot still includes lots of little bones, muscles and TOES. This seems to indicate that freedom for those parts to move, bend, and spread would be on purpose and useful. Keeping those parts in confining, oddly shaped containers not only hinders them, but weakens them, not to mention leading to stress on other body parts.
The transition to being barefooted more, and in various environments, should be carried out patiently.
– Begin gradually, increasing the time and/or distance spent on bare feet each day. This will allow the muscles and tendons to stretch and adapt after so much dormancy.
– Walk on a variety of surfaces, but especially include gravel and asphalt. The soles of the feet will become leather like, but not unsightly. Limiting your feet to the grass won’t do much to toughen the bottoms. Also, walking on rougher surfaces stimulates proper form
– Avoid areas where the ground is covered in things, like lots of leaves or tall grass,especially when you are still tender footed. in walking.
– Don’t push the process. If the feet get over stimulated, give them time between bare foot episodes.
– At first, limit yourself to going out in moderate temperatures. As the soles develop, you will find your feet are naturally insulated up to a point. This made for a “warmer” winter for me last year!
There are several good books available for a more complete discussion of going bare footed, but the pointers above should get you started. The Barefoot Runners Society is a good website, too. But, really, it’s not that complicated. You just have to filter some of the marketing and propaganda that’s so prevalent.
So, why go barefooted in the garden and is it safe?
Having bare feet gives you an almost intuitive connection to the ground. I know that may sound a little mystic, but it’s just a result of letting your feet feel. You automatically become aware of soil conditions. It is much easier than going around trying to stick your finger in the ground all over to check moisture! The friability of the soil is also noted.
You begin to reflexively evaluate weeds and insects because you are training yourself to watch where you walk. Once you have seasoned your soles, you won’t need to be very concerned about burrs or gravel, since the leathery surface resists puncture. However, it’s still best to know where you are putting your feet.
Active garden work becomes more enjoyable because bare feet are so much easier to balance with. Squatting up and down goes more smoothly because of that, and because more of the lower leg muscles can be fully engaged. The knees are less prone to torquing from an uneven surface or from fighting to keep balance because of the shoe platform and inactivated toes. This all leads to a happier back, too
Sometimes I even use the spading fork or shovel while barefooted. A bare foot objects to sudden jerky force, so I end up using the tools with more care. I wear flip-flops if the ground is particularly hard.
Its not too late to start bare foot gardening this year. You will lose some of your conditioning over the winter, but not all. It partly depends on how much you take advantage of pleasant winter days to try out the warmth absorbing asphalt. Bare foot gardening is one technique that actually requires LESS gardening equipment than you already have!