Gardening is an excellent way to get outside and enjoy nature, and a spinal cord or brain injury doesn’t make home gardening impossible. There are many ways to make your garden more accessible so that you can continue gardening or adopt it as a new hobby post-injury. Susie Hall, a registered horticultural therapist on our Therapeutic Recreation team, has coordinated Craig’s Horticultural Therapy program for the last 26 years and has ten suggestions on how to make your home garden more accessible:
1. Start small
Whether you’re a first-time gardener or wanting to get back into gardening, ask yourself, “What would I really miss if I didn’t grow them myself? What plants do I most look forward to having in my garden?” Pick your top ten plants and then make a plan for how to grow just those ten. Don’t try to grow everything possible even if those seed catalogues are very tempting! Start with a more manageable plant selection knowing that you can always expand next year.
2. Create raised planters and containers
Raising the level of your garden is an excellent way to make soil and plants easier to reach. The most common question I get asked is what is the best height to choose, and there isn’t just one ideal height.
There are two things to consider when choosing the right planter height for you:
- Your reach—At what height are you most comfortable reaching into the planter?
- Plant height at maturity—Don’t forget that plants grow! Taller plants should be placed in lower beds so you’re able to reach them when it’s time to harvest. Place shorter plants in planters that allow you to reach directly into the planter without bending.
When selecting your planters and gardening from a wheelchair, choose materials with thinner walls, minimizing the space between you and the soil or plants. If you’d like to sit on the edge of the planter while gardening, consider a widened top edge of 8 to 12 inches that provides a more comfortable surface for a seat.
“Roll-under” or “table top planters” allow gardeners to access plants from a forward-facing position. This is beneficial for those with limited trunk balance and to avoid twisting which may be required when gardening to the side. Keep in mind that the shallow soil depth in this type of planter is better suited for smaller plants and will require more frequent watering.
There’s such a variety of container and raised planter bed options on the market. Containers may include whiskey barrels, livestock watering troughs or numerous plastic, ceramic and terra cotta choices from local garden centers and home stores. If you’re building your own, select materials that will not leach dangerous chemicals into the soil. DIY kits can be purchased from local and online sources. Enjoy exploring the multitude of choices to find the best fit for your setting.
3) Consider railing planters and hanging baskets
To maximize deck and patio space, keep walking and rolling surfaces clear of obstacles by using railing planters and hanging baskets. Pulley hanging systems or retractable plant pulley hangers (also used to raise and lower bird feeders) can be used to lower hanging baskets for watering and maintenance before raising back up to the desired height. A variety of railing planters are available and can be placed on deck railings for easy access.
4) Incorporate vertical gardening
When working with trailing and spreading plants, provide supports for plants to grow vertically rather than taking up precious surface soil surface area. This maximizes your growing area, allowing more space for additional plants. Vegetables grown on supports actually benefit from improved air circulation and are less likely to succumb to soil-borne diseases and rot than when resting on the soil.
5) Include pathways in your garden space
Safe access to and from your garden and throughout the garden space is important and ensures a more enjoyable experience. Select surface materials when creating pathways that prevent wheelchair tires and assistive walking devices from sinking into the soil. Think smooth, level and firm. Decrease tripping hazards by selecting materials that pack down to a smooth finish; wood chips and grass, even when mowed to a shorter length, are more difficult to ambulate on or roll over. Some recommended pathway materials are concrete, boardwalks/decking and pavers. When using pavers, create minimal space between pavers to assure there are not any raised edges or spaces for front castors to tip forward. Granite crusher fines (also known as packed limestone) pack down well to create a firm surface and are suitable for arid environments. Keep in mind that granite crusher fines will get soft or muddy with excessive rainfall, snowmelt or overspray from irrigation heads.
Pathways should be a minimum of three feet wide to allow access by wheelchairs and wheelbarrows. Keep in mind that power wheelchairs require five feet to turn around. Read more on pathway suggestions.
6) Use adaptive gardening tools
Adaptive tools can make gardening tasks easier to accomplish. Some tools you can make yourself and others can be purchased. The right tool can enhance your independence and minimize energy expenditure by working more efficiently. Adaptive tools help us perform gardening tasks with greater ease. Tools are available to help with planting, watering, pruning, cultivating, weeding and more. Read more on the kinds of adaptive tools that are available.
7) Consider space-intensive planting methods
As an alternative to the traditional row method of planting, plant in blocks or pockets instead of rows. This method eliminates unnecessary walkways between planting rows. You will access your garden from the perimeter and never need to be in or on the soil. Additional benefits include increased yields, less soil compaction and fewer weeds. This is ideal for raised beds and you’ll save time, space, water and overall effort needed to garden. This method is sometimes called square foot gardening or block style gardening. Learn more about planter bed dimensions in a previous blog post.
8) Make access to water easier
Drip irrigation is an efficient way to water your plants and is a preferred alternative to overhead watering. DIY systems can be set up to provide irrigation to your containers and planter beds, and programmable timers attached directly to an outdoor faucet make sure that your plants receive water on the days/times that you select. This eliminates the daily burden of watering and also lets you get away for travel without worrying about your plants getting the water they need.
Additionally, having an outdoor faucet nearby where you can hook up a hose is ideal for times when supplemental water is needed for newly established plants or during heatwaves.
9) Join a community garden
If you don’t have space for a garden where you currently live, consider renting a community garden plot. For an annual fee you can rent a plot to grow your vegetables of choice. Some community gardens already offer raised plots, and we have found that others are often willing to convert ground-level plots to raised plots to accommodate gardeners who benefit from a raised planter bed. An added benefit to gardening at a community garden is belonging to a group with other enthusiastic gardeners. Trainings may be provided and gardeners often gather for potlucks to share their successes and problem solve each other’s challenges. Community gardens may be located at schools, churches or empty neighborhood lots, to name a few. Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) has an extensive listing of community gardens in several counties throughout the Denver metro area.
10) Make your garden convenient
When considering garden placement, keep in mind that the closer to the house your garden is, the more you’ll use and enjoy it. Imagine how handy it would be if you could snip fresh garden herbs from just outside your kitchen door! You’ll not only enjoy the convenience of having your flowers, herbs and vegetables nearby, but you’ll be pleased with how welcoming and attractive your outdoor living space will be.
And don’t forget: have fun designing and maintaining your home garden!
The Enabling Garden: Creating Barrier- Free Gardens, by Gene Rothert
Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew (Amazon link)
“Block Style Layout in Raised Bed Vegetable Gardens” GMG GardenNotes #713. Colorado State University Extension, Master Gardener Program (link)
Denver Urban Gardens (DUG)