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'I slipped a disc in my back once'

Outdoor life: Averil Milligan, head gardener at the National Trust’s Rowallane property
Outdoor life: Averil Milligan, head gardener at the National Trust’s Rowallane property

Averil Milligan, head gardener for the National Trust's Rowallane property, admits she was a late developer when it came to horticulture and didn't go to train at Greenmount until she was 24 or 25. However, she has always been in a physically demanding job - and at one point she slipped a disc in her back.

"I had no interest when I was leaving school but by the time I was about 21 I was fascinated with horticulture," she says.

"Before that I worked with racehorses which is a very physical outside job, so it's similar in some respects but not in others.

"Unfortunately, my job is less physical now because of how the nature of the job and the responsibilities have changed, but 10 years ago it was probably quite a bit more physical. Still, thankfully in my own garden I am very much the gardener!

"I slipped a disc in my back at one stage and I still would experience the repercussions of that. I have to be careful because I know there is a weakness there.

"When I go to lift things I have to be careful not to lift and twist. You can go back into bad habits very easily."

Averil says the small of her back remains very stiff as a result of the injury.

"I do yoga and go to the gym in order to keep up my strength and agility, but in the gym I find I can't do box jumps - my legs won't go up far enough because of my back. That stiffness is built into the protection of your lower back."

Averil says there is much greater awareness now of protecting yourself against injury.

She says: "In the good old days when health and safety was hardly mentioned, there was more chance of injuring yourself through the expectation of getting jobs done quickly. Now there's much more lifting by machinery."

She notes that people often end up with injuries when they launch too enthusiastically into the gardening after the winter lull.

"Quite often what happens is that people haven't been physically active over the winter months and then the grass gets going in spring. It's the lifting that can affect the back and the legs, and people run the risk of overstretching themselves," she says.

"People don't realise how thick the grass is until they go to cut it for the first time in spring. It's not the walking behind the mower that takes the time - it's the emptying of the grass box."

Averil's advice is to lift the height of the mower blades for the first cut in March, then lower it slightly for the next. Only when you carry out the third cut should you lower the blades to where they were at the height of summer last year. This way, you won't stress your back - or your grass.

"Try to get a good day when it's not too damp," Averil advises.

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