Gardeners are passionate about their pastime. Many look on gardening as not just a hobby, but a calling. As the body ages, however, the gardening chores can take their toll. Joints rebel. It becomes harder to get down in the dirt—or back up again.
It's harder still on gardeners with disabilities. Access to the garden becomes increasingly difficult. This is especially true for those who rely on wheelchairs for mobility.
But the garden experience can be made more user-friendly. By adopting these accessible, work-saving gardening techniques, physically challenged gardeners can play in the dirt for years to come.
1. Construct Raised Beds
Raised beds bring the garden up to the gardener’s level. No more stooping and bending with bad backs and aching joints.
Linear raised beds from 18” to 32” high bring the garden within easy reach of a wheelchair. Keep the beds about 3’ wide if there’s access to both sides. Otherwise, a more narrow bed will work better. A “U” shaped bed with a 2’ to 3’ width and enough room in the opening of the “U” for a wheelchair is another option.
For the ultimate in wheelchair access, raise the bed high enough to allow for knee space under it. Raised beds have other practical uses. They solve the problem of bad soil, can be used to grow edible plants as well as ornamentals, and bring the garden within easy reach of everyone.
2. Install user-friendly garden paths
Paved paths are essential for wheelchair access. Paths should be at least 4’ wide for ease in turning and maneuvering. Make sure the path is accessible—and connected—to both the garden and the house. If your path needs ramps or landings, railings may be needed for safety purposes.
Good materials for accessible garden paths are stamped concrete pavers, brick pavers, or stone. Joints should be flush and even. For smooth travel, try to keep paved areas as level as possible, while allowing for a 1% minimum slope for drainage purposes.
3. Build trellises for growing vegetables
Trellises at the edge of garden paths can bring crops like beans and tomatoes within easy reach of disabled gardeners. Trellises can even be fitted with hinges, allowing them to be lowered for gathering the harvest. For a less expensive solution, wire supports or frames can stand in for trellises.
4. Install an Irrigation System
Soaker or ooze hoses are perfect for applying water to raised beds or small garden plots. These hoses come in 50 or 100 foot lengths, and distribute water through small pinholes, as either a fine spray or small droplets. Ooze tubing is perfect for watering larger beds. Lay it in rows spaces 2 to 3 feet apart.
An automatic drip irrigation system is the most efficient watering solution. Designed right, it distributes water only where needed, and uses just enough water to meet the plant’s requirements. Drip systems can be hooked into an electronic timer for truly automated operation and hands-free watering.
5. Garden tools
Disabled gardeners can purchase specialized tools that make working in the garden a breeze.
For reaching into the depths of a raised bed from a wheelchair, choose tools with extra long handles. Stroke victims or those with limited use of their hands will find that some tools come with ergonomically formed grips, making pruning, digging and clipping chores much easier.
Adding mulch—whether pine straw, hardwood shavings, or landscape fabric—will keep weeds under control and reduce the need for watering.
7. Plan for Low Maintenance
When designing an easy-access garden, think about the amount of work that needs to be done to maintain it. Cut down the size of the lawn. Select trees that don’t drop a lot of litter. Choose trees and shrubs that are sized appropriately and look good without needing constant pruning.
Pest and disease control can take a lot of time and effort. Choose disease and pest resistant varieties. And cut back on perennials that must be divided every 2 to 3 years.
8. Garden in Containers
For a really care-free, flexible garden, plant ornamentals, herbs and vegetables in pots. Container gardening allows disabled gardeners easy access to their plants. Containers can be moved and re-arranged to change the look of the garden, or to take advantage of sun and shade.
Containers can also be staged at various heights on pedestals, wire stands, stacked concrete blocks, benches or inverted pots to bring them within easy reach of wheelchairs. And watering containers is easy when they’re fitted with the aforementioned drip irrigation system.
With a little forethought, a garden can be laid out that is perfectly accessible to older or disabled gardeners and is comfortable and safe to work in—all without sacrificing aesthetic appeal. Gardening can truly be a life-long passion.