Accessible Garden Design: Tips For Creating An Enabled Garden

While gardening is regarded as a peaceful pursuit, it can be difficult to enjoy for those who suffer from mobility issues. Bending, reaching, and twisting, when done repetitively, can cause us a great deal of pain, and standard gardening is the very definition of all three of those actions. Fortunately, there is a growing movement of clever folks finding ways to make gardening more accessible to those who must pay close attention to how they move their bodies.

Bring the Ground to YOU

The biggest barrier to gardening for those who must move carefully is the need to bend. Getting your hands down to the ground is the easy part; coming back up is an entirely different proposal. While it’s one of the more significant barriers, it’s also the simplest one to solve. We merely need to bring the soil to us.

Raised beds are an easy and relatively inexpensive way to take the most challenging part of gardening out of the equation. There is a multitude of options from which to choose for your raised beds. You can purchase them, build them, or upcycle items such as old kiddie pools, tires, gutters, or even hay bales. Tabletops are another simple way to create a base for your raised garden.

Proper Dimensions

Height

Whenever possible, customize the height of your raised bed to fit your most comfortable position. For some, that may even mean a standing position because sitting upright for long periods is uncomfortable. Others are more comfortable working while seated. Whatever your situation, position your raised bed to allow you the most comfort for the longest amount of time.

Width

It’s important to make sure that you can comfortably reach all parts of the raised bed. The bed should either be accessible from all sides or be narrow enough. Reaching too far too often can be uncomfortable or have a bad result. The goal of raised beds is to increase comfort while also increasing your activity, not the reverse.

Other Considerations

Make sure to prepare and place your new raised gardening beds properly. It’s never fun to only discover after you’ve finished planting that your raised bed needs to be two feet closer to be in reach of the garden hose. 

You can avoid some common pitfalls by considering your own needs as well as those of your plants’. When thinking about where and how you’ll create your raised bed, make sure that:

  • Your garden bed is on a stable surface (it must hold up if you need to use it to support your weight) in case you have a fall.
  • You have drainage holes in your raised bed.
  • Any water draining from your raised bed is directed away from your walkway to prevent slipping hazards.
  • You have a system for watering the plants that you can handle (this could be soak hoses, water wands, or even a watering can) even on your bad days.

You can also shape your beds to your situation, as you see here. There’s no requirement for a garden bed to be a perfect rectangle. Creating a custom U-shape is a great way to maximize your use of space while minimizing your need to reach and twist. Building your beds from scratch allows you to customize around your physical realities so you can enjoy your gardening with little if any discomfort.

Clearing the Path

Pain and mobility issues often go hand in hand, and each makes taking a tumble far more likely than it would if your health were otherwise. This reality makes the shape and formation of the paths in your garden the most important safety aspect in your garden.

Size and Shape of Pathways

Your garden path needs to conform to your needs. If you use a wheelchair or walker, even if only occasionally, you need to make the width of your path at least the government standard of 36 inches. 

Keep in mind that you’ll want to expand the width beyond the minimum so you can comfortably make turns as you move from one path to the next.  Give yourself at least 60 inches to turn around and 36 inches for each entry into a crossing pathway.

If you walk freely at all times, you can make your aisles more narrow and may even find comfort in having narrow aisles. Having a narrow path between raised beds means you’ll always have a safe place grip if you ever have a dizzy spell or your balance fails you.

Do your due diligence before plotting the width of your path, and always plan around the realities of your worst days, not your best.

Surfacing Your Garden Path

Choose the surface of your garden path carefully, with an eye firmly on safety at all times. The surface must be stable and not prone to slipperiness when wet. Also, avoid using materials that can shift under your weight, such as small tiles or fieldstones. 

While it may be tempting to choose a softer material to mitigate the damage from a fall, not falling at all is your most straightforward path to safety. 

Those who use a wheelchair or a walker will also want to be careful with how the material they choose is installed. Avoid placing any seams that might trap the wheels. Keep the seams perpendicular to your direction of travel. 

While paving the pathways is your best bet, that can be expensive. The next best surface is large tiles, at least ¾ of an inch thick, that cover the entire path and extend a few inches below your raised beds to prevent your wheels or your feet from sliding off the surface. Interlocking exercise mats are also a reliable surface so long as the ground has been firmly packed before you lay them down. 

There are other options available, including firmly packed earth for those who have limited issues with walking. When picking on the right path for your garden, make sure that the material you pick:

  • Is not prone to shifting under your weight (such as crushed stone or wood chips)
  • Doesn’t create an uneven surface
  • Won’t buckle and create a tripping hazard
  • Isn’t slippery when wet
  • Isn’t susceptible to the elements

When designing your pathways and picking your surface material, always err on the side of caution. Ensure that your garden is a comfortable and safe haven on both the easy and the more challenging days.

Hay Bale Gardening

One of the easiest methods for enabled gardening is hay bale gardening. The steps are simple, and upkeep is a snap!

Hay bales give you a raised surface from which to grow and require almost no weeding. The hay bales themselves provide all the nutrition your plants will need due to the natural microbes already in the bales. The microbes turn the bales into a slow-motion composting factory with a constant flow of nutrients that your plants absorb as they grow. 

Grow Anything You Want

Virtually anything you can grow in the ground, you can grow in a bale of hay. The only thing you might encounter is the need to push stakes through the bale to support tall-growing plants like tomatoes. Root vegetables, like potatoes, do extremely well in a hay bale setting.

The planting process could not be simpler. All you have to do is cut a slit in the top of the bale and drop in a seed or seedling. You can toss in a little topsoil if you’d like, but it isn’t really necessary. Then, you water the plants as you normally would to get incredible results without a ton of work.

Picking and Preparing Your Bales

Bales are made with either straw or hay. Straw bales are free of seeds, while hay bales are not, but don’t worry; the seeds in hay bales generally don’t cause any problems for your garden. 

Whether straw or hay, only select bales that are tied tightly together to get the most life from each bale. The looser the hay bale, the faster it breaks down and becomes less usable for gardening. 

A tightly bound hay bale should last you two years, while a straw one will get you three. When the bales break down and need to be replaced, their remnants can be used to make excellent compost for your garden.

Before you begin planting, your hay bales need to be soaked with water, ideally for several weeks before you plant. Setting up your bales in the fall preceding your planned planting season, you can let winter do the work of prepping your bales for you. 

Be sure to have your bales exactly where you want them before you begin preparing them for planting. Once they are waterlogged, they will be too heavy to move and may break apart if you try.

Adapting Your Tools

There is an increasing number of ergonomic gardening tools available on today’s market, with some of them exhibiting true ingenuity. However, not everyone can afford such expensive tools, or they may be attached to the tools they’ve used for decades. Happily, there are ways to adapt your old tools and make them easier to use.

Adding Reach and Leverage

Most long-handled gardening tools assume a certain amount of reaching and bending in their designs. For those who find bending or reaching a problem, the handles are too short for them to use these tools effectively.

The easiest way to extend the length of a tool handle is to attach an old broomstick to the shaft. Be sure to place the broomstick so it’s halfway down the original handle and then bind it to the shaft. Tape is not your friend in this endeavor. Instead, use hose clamps at the top, bottom, and middle points where the two handles meet. The new extension should provide you with the reach you need.

To add leverage, adapt anything with an ‘L’ shape (shelf bracket, modified handle) and is made of sturdy material to create a perpendicular grip on the original handle. Once again, use hose clamps to secure it in place. If the item is narrow or otherwise uncomfortable to use, add some foam to the area you will be gripping and secure it with a combination of epoxy and weatherproof tape.

Improving Your Grip

The narrow grips on standard tools can be difficult for those with impaired hands. Widening these grips can make it easier to make full use of these tools.

One way to widen the grips on your tools is to add foam to the handles. The sharp edges of hose clamps won’t do in this instance, so it is best to cut foam strips and use epoxy to attach them to your handles. You can then wrap them in weatherproof tape for a wider grip that also cushions your hands.

There are also wrist braces available that you can adapt to work with your tools or replace your old tools with one of the many available lines of ergonomic gardening tools on the market.

Gardening For The Visually Impaired

All of the above will apply to those with vision issues as well. Tripping remains a hazard when you can’t see well, and having garden beds at waist level is a boon for those without or with impaired sight.

Including plants with lots of texture or strong scents can enhance the pleasure of gardening for the visually impaired. You can also create row labels printed in braille.

General Rules

Certain rules run through every enabled garden, regardless of type. They are:

  • Never allow hoses to cross pathways – if you need to create an irrigation system, run everything either high above or alongside the pathways. Never allow anything to cross a pathway where it could trip someone.
  • Provide plenty of seating opportunities – you never know where or when the sudden need to sit might strike, so have plenty of seats available. You can also purchase sturdy, big-wheeled portable garden seats so you can keep your chair with you at all times.
  • Avoid plants with long thorns and prickly edges – falls are always a possibility when your mobility is impaired, so make sure that whatever you land on won’t cause further injury.
  • Always err on the side of caution – this is worth repeating. Never plan based on your best day. Plan instead to make the best of your worst day.

Final Thoughts

Gardening is a peaceful pursuit with the added benefits of being out in the fresh air, giving you something that depends on your attention, and getting you a little more active each day throughout the growing season.

Adapting your garden to your physical needs removes the negatives and leaves only the positive effects for you to enjoy. That said, you need to fully understand your physical limitations and give them the respect they deserve when designing your garden.

Whatever your limitations, address them completely with your design, so your hobby doesn’t become a burden rather than a joy.

Gardening can be a wonderful hobby to add to your life. The results of your efforts are right there for you to see as they grow and develop throughout the year. Whether you plant flowers, shrubs, vegetables, or fruits in your garden (or a mixture of all of the above!), gardening is a fun and rewarding endeavor.

Sources and More Information:

https://www.ada.gov/reg3a.html#anchor33

https://www.flowerpotman.com/gardening-for-the-elderly-and-disabled/

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/special/accessible/gardening-with-disabilities.htm