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CURES FOR WHAT AILS GARDENING HANDS

Gardening is hard on skin and hands, but creams and cleansers formulated to help are sprouting up all over.

HARTFORD, Conn. - Gardeners wield rakes, trowels and shovels to tend lawns, veggies and flowers. But all that outdoor work can lead to a bumper crop of muscle aches, insect bites and wrecked manicures.

Marci Martin, who oversees 15,000 rose bushes at Elizabeth Park, a horticultural park in Hartford, as well as 150 varieties at her Windsor, Conn., home, says such maladies can be hard to avoid.

"This time of year, I always have my hands in the dirt," she says. "Gloves are my first line of defense, followed by sunscreen and bug spray."

At the end of the day, Martin relies on a fingernail brush (she goes through three or four a season) and super-fatted soap to get her hands clean, often followed by Crabtree & Evelyn's Gardeners Hand Therapy to moisturize dry skin.

"Gardening takes a toll on your hands," Martin says. "It comes with the territory."

Although few face the same thorny situations as Martin, the National Gardening Association says there are 90 million households in the United States with a yard and/or garden, which means a big market for seasonal gardening remedies. In response, specialized toiletries and body products are sprouting like, well, crabgrass.

Take Butta Hand Cream for Gardeners, for example.

"Cream that's anti-itch, anti-bug and helps relieve the soreness from too much time lovin' up the yard," reads the label.

Lynne Killey, founder of Queen Bee Sauce, the company that produces the butter-yellow cream (the color comes from carrot oil), created the formula for her mother, an avid gardener.

"The cream is really viscous and creates a barrier to protect skin. It also has natural insect repellents such as oil of lemon grass, camphor and citronella," says Killey. "We recommend that people put it on before they put on their gardening gloves."

Another popular option, Bag Balm, has been protecting farmers' hands for more than a century. The salve, which contains lanolin and antiseptic, was originally developed by a Lyndonville, Vt., company to treat cows and other farm animals, company spokeswoman Shawna Wilkerson says.

"Farmers who applied Bag Balm to cows' udders saw how it healed their own hands," she says. "It didn't take long for the salve to make its way out of the barn and inside the farmhouse."

These days, Bag Balm is sold in drugstores and tack and feed stores and is popular with gardeners and quilters as well as farmers, says Wilkerson.

There's more:

- Crabtree & Evelyn markets an extensive line under its Gardeners label, including hand soap, nail and cuticle therapy, hand-repair and hand-recovery creams and hand scrub with pumice for grime-ridden hands.

- The new Weekend Gardener line from Dionis offers restorative hand and body treatments, including a Soothing Muscle Soak with vitamin E and aloe.

- Sunfeather offers its Bug Off Soap & Shampoo Bar, which helps deter insects, and a Gardener's Hand Balm.

- Chandler Soap offers a handcrafted Gardener's Helper soap with cornmeal for deep cleaning.

The weather may provide the best green-thumb therapy, according to Martin.

"My favorite moisturizer is humid summer air," she says. "You can't beat it for dry skin, and it's free."

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