Making gardening accessible

Container plantings on display at Cornell University’s Agriculture Experiment Station’s Bluegrass Lane Turf and Landscape Research Center. (Photo provided — Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station)

Is it possible to garden with compromised mobility or limited upper body strength or when in a wheelchair or using a walker? Absolutely!

As we grow older, we experience decreasing physical stamina and/or the development of other limitations in our physical abilities, forcing us to reduce the magnitude of tasks that we take on. We learn to slow down, but we don’t have to give up.

In my lifetime, I’ve worked with several dedicated direct care providers to introduce, or reintroduce, youth, the elderly and disadvantaged, disabled and special needs clients and friends to the satisfaction and tranquility of gardening. Cornell Cooperative Extension provided training, informational materials, and limited funding, while local farm and garden centers provided seeds, starter plants and assorted building and gardening materials.

I’ve also had the good fortune of knowing several devoted gardeners with limitations, who crafted and tended remarkable gardens, cultivating their own food and ornamental plants for years — even decades. They remain an inspiration.

Eliminating physical boundaries

The key to gardening with a disability lies in eliminating the physical boundaries that would otherwise make gardening burdensome or impossible. Achieving this often necessitates modifying basic garden structures to make them more accessible.

This is best accomplished by bringing the soil up to a comfortable, workable height through the use of containers, hanging baskets, raised beds, planter tables, vertical gardens, and trellises. Choosing plants that you, the gardener, enjoy growing and eating, but that don’t require a tremendous amount of upkeep, should be a consideration, as well.

Container gardening

Container gardens can be very readily placed at appropriate heights in suitable locations. They’re easily moved from one place to another and can even be positioned on wheeled stands or decorative carts. They’re perfect for backyards, small patios, decks, or balconies. And, container gardens are easily taken indoors, allowing committed gardeners to continue enjoying their hobby, even long after the growing season ends.

Window boxes

Window boxes offer an excellent container gardening alternative, especially for individuals who are unable to work outside. Gardeners can plant directly into soil in planter boxes, but a better option might be to place plants already growing in pots directly into the boxes. The reason, once again, is that plants in pots can be easily moved, removed, or brought inside during a cold snap or when potentially season-ending cold weather arrives.

Hanging baskets

Properly-planted, well-cared-for hanging baskets can brighten up any dooryard or add color to a backyard patio. They provide easy access for those with limited mobility or strength when watering, pruning, deadheading, and harvesting. And, since hanging baskets are completely off the ground, they’re relatively safe from many, but not all, leaf- and flower-eating animals and pests.

Vertical gardens

Vertical gardens are an often overlooked accessibility option. They can utilize existing walls and fences, or arbors and trellises constructed from wood, plastic, metals, wire, or rope. They’re easily adapted to different heights, depending upon need, and are excellent places to grow climbing ivy, flowers, fruit, and vegetables. Beans, peas, cucumbers, zucchini and other small squash and melons can all deliver sizeable yields when grown vertically, on a trellis or arbor.

Growing plants vertically also enhances airflow, reducing the risk of fungal disease. And vertical gardening also reduces the likelihood of pressure from ground-dwelling insect pests.

Vertical gardens can be designed to offer privacy too, while creating visual interest. And growing up, instead of out, helps keep floors and ground space free of clutter, which is particularly important for folks with limited mobility, especially those reliant upon wheelchairs.

Raised beds

Raised beds offer gardeners with physical limitations the opportunity to have aesthetically pleasing, easily accessible, highly productive garden plots. They can be designed and developed to meet the specific needs and desires of any gardener. For example, they can be fabricated with seating built into the walls, allowing the gardener to sit while gardening. And table gardens, which are built completely above ground, will provide legroom for those who use walkers or wheelchairs, to sit comfortably and even socialize while easily tending their gardens.

Raised beds also make it possible to garden on top of pavement or on a patio, turning otherwise unusable sites into an abundance of nourishing, flavorful vegetables and/or beautiful, vigorous flowers, adding both beauty and value. And raised bed structures make it easy to integrate trellises into the design, as well; helping to maximize the use of garden space.

Part of a happy, healthy lifestyle

While millions of gardeners live with some sort of physical disability, gardening remains one of the nation’s most practiced leisure activities. Many people continue to garden even in the face of arthritis, an accident, a back injury, or an aggressive health condition. They adhere to a few basic techniques and, in doing so, enjoy a better quality of life. They look forward to the harvest and they continue to reap the health benefits that only gardening can bring. They’re proof positive that there’s no reason to give up the pleasures of a favorite pastime just because a disability has come into the picture.


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