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Therapist Q&A: Let’s Talk About Gardening!


As the weather warms up, many of us are eager to get back out in our gardens to enjoy some fresh air, sunshine, and exercise! Whether you are planting new flowers or a vegetable garden, here are some tips from  physical therapist Jared Scoville, PT, DPT (who happens to be an avid gardener himself) to help you have a pain-free gardening experience this year.

How can I avoid knee pain while gardening?

foam knee pad and gardening toolsThere are several positions that can exacerbate knee pain when working in the garden. One is when kneeling down, which puts extra pressure over the knee cap and surrounding area. To remedy this problem, an easy modification you can make is to use a foam kneeling pad. It seems simple, but I know so many gardeners who have gotten relief from using one. I even know gardeners who keep an old yoga mat in their car, which comes out every time they garden at our community garden plot.

Another position that can sometimes worsen knee pain is squatting down to reach the garden. If squatting down bothers your knees you can also consider using what’s called a deep seat garden kneeler. Basically it is a small, padded stool that will allow you to sit right next to your garden without constantly squatting down to reach the plants.

Back pain is keeping me out of my garden. Do you have any tips that could help?

Yes! My first suggestion is always to consider the position you are in when gardening. If you are bending forward from your low back to reach the garden then consider bending from your knees to squat down instead.

One of my other favorite tips is to be mindful of your sequence of activities. I know a lot of folks who were at their desk throughout their work day, or were at home sitting at the couch before then deciding to jump right into some gardening. This quick jump from a prolonged posture of sitting to then bending forward or squatting down in the garden can result in extra stress on the tissues of the low back and hips. I recommend incorporating some gentle stretches (like a hamstring, low back, and quadricep stretch – more information to come on these!) before gardening, or going for a little walk first. This allows the tissues in the low back to become better prepared for the more dynamic positions seen in gardening.

Raised bed for vegetable gardeningIf you are experiencing significant pain and any bending down, squatting, or kneeling worsens low back pain then it may be wise to consider use of a raised planter. This way you can stand up or sit in a regular sized chair without the additional strain of bending down to a lower garden that is in the ground.

 

What is the most common gardening injury you treat?

The most common injury is low back pain. I really do think that a lot of people would benefit from incorporating walking for 5-10 minutes, or a gentle stretching routine prior to gardening to prepare the back for the garden. One of my favorite ways to do this is to go for a little walk around my community garden plots before starting. If you have low back pain or knee pain, and the modifications discussed so far have not seemed to be enough, consider scheduling a physical therapy appointment to better evaluate the pain you are having. We see garden & outdoor activity related injuries all the time.

What preventive measures can I take to avoid injury while gardening?

One of my favorite tips to avoid injury, outside of the ones already mentioned, would definitely be taking breaks. The mind of a gardener is one that likes to get a lot done every time you go out there. Many of us are on a time crunch, so that 30 minutes in the garden has to be productive. My recommendation is this: every 10 minutes that you are in the garden make a mental note to stand up and walk around. You can even set an alarm on your phone or smartwatch to alert you. Use that time to drink some water and admire the work you have done and the plant growth so far.

As a gardener it is very easy to end up staying in the same position for a very long time. Taking frequent breaks, and also changing your position on a regular basis will go a long way towards saving your back and your knees while you are out there. The best gardening season you can have is not only a productive crop, but a pain free back and knees!

How do you grow healthy and high yielding tomato plants?

ripe red tomatoes on plantThis is another one of the frequent and fun questions I receive. There is a very important step that I take every single year since I realized this 3 years ago: mulching my tomato plants. I personally use leaf compost that has not fully broken down yet. After planting my tomatoes (around Memorial Day), I lay down about an inch of leaf compost all around the plants. This is effective because it helps prevent rainfall and general watering of your garden beds from splashing the bacteria that cause diseases back onto the tomato plants’ foliage. By preventing some of that splashing I find that my tomato plants develop significantly less disease than when I don’t mulch. This also allows my tomato plants to live longer into the garden season, which results in better yields in my garden as well. If you don’t have leaf compost you could also use wood chips instead.

If pain or injury is preventing you from enjoying the beautiful spring weather, call your local ACCESS PT office. We’d love to help!