Planting seeds and nurturing their growth is a healthy prescription for anyone, and especially for people with fewer options for getting out into the natural environment.
An existing garden can be modified to accommodate a wheelchair or walker, with the main requirements being pathway width, grade and surface condition. Pathways need to be well-spaced for wheelchairs, at least 3’ wide, with turn-around areas built into the garden layout. Pathways should be near level, with grades not exceeding 5%, and the surface condition should be solid in varying weather. Dirt pathways can become rutted with use, with low spots holding water after a rain and eventually becoming a muddy track difficult to wheel through. Pathways can be improved with pavers, flagstone or wood. Gravel or compact mulch such as small bark chips are more difficult to wheel through, but still manageable for people in wheelchairs. Be sure to put down a layer or two of landscape cloth before adding the surface treatment.
Modifying an existing garden can require substantial work and investment. Ideally, the beds should be raised to a height of 24” or more for a person in a wheelchair to work comfortably. This is a big job, but worth it for the wheelchair gardener with a long-term commitment to gardening.
An option for those without an existing garden is to use smaller raised garden beds, or ‘elevated planters’, which can be situated in easily accessible areas with firm ground, such as patios, balconies and decks. Smaller planters can also better accommodate gardeners with limited energy who prefer to garden intensively in a smaller space.
In writing this article, we have drawn on our own gardening experience and also consulted with an occupational therapist specializing in creating gardens at rest homes and health care facilities. Here below are some tips which may help the wheelchair-bound, disabled, or elderly gardeners enjoy the benefits of tending their own garden.
Choose the ideal height and width for raised beds
Raised beds which have the soil level at 24”- 36” from the ground are ideal for gardeners who must work from a seated position. This height enables a gardener to dig or transplant without developing arm fatigue, since most work will be oriented slightly downwards. If the bed is any taller, it makes it difficult for the gardener to lift a watering can, hose, or soil amendment high enough. Also, a 24” bed height makes harvesting easier for people growing vegetables, since taller plants like tomatoes and beans will require the gardener to reach upwards as much as 3’ higher than the soil.
An exception to the recommended height of 24” is for gardeners who wish to work frontwards, with their knees under the raised planter. By placing the knees under the planter, the gardener can get closer to the bed when working frontwards. The height of the planter at soil level will need to be about 34”. This allows up to 12” soil depth and leaves 24” beneath the bed for knee space. With a 36” tall bed, the seated gardener will be working at approximately shoulder height, which can be more tiring over time. Also, while this height may be easy enough for flower gardening, it will be more difficult to harvest vegetables as the plants get taller.
24” and 36” tall raised planters are available here.
The width of the bed should also be considered. While many raised garden beds are 4’ in width, raised planters for seated gardeners may be more convenient with a 3’ width. Seated gardeners are not able to stretch as far to easily weed and tend plants in the center of a wider bed.
Situate the planter for maximum access
Access is improved if the planter is near a wide door with a low threshold, and situated to allow wheelchair access to opposite sides of the planter. Orientation to the sun must also be taken into consideration, with at least six hours per day of unobstructed sun. Southern exposure is usually considered ideal.
Work to the side, rather than from a frontal position
If the wheelchair or seat is positioned sideways to the planter, it is easier to tend the garden bed. Working directly frontwards requires a more extended reach, and bending forward from the waist, which becomes tiring. When working from a sideward position the gardener also has the option to switch sides for comfort and balanced exercise. Working to the side also prevents the wheelchair from creeping forward or backward as you work. (Even with the brakes on, wheelchairs can move slightly, which is disconcerting while trying to work.)
Store garden tools nearby
Keeping tools close at hand makes it easier to garden on a regular basis. A raised bed provides the opportunity to hang tools directly beneath the bed, where they will be out of the rain but within easy reach. Cup hooks can be easily screwed into the slats beneath the raised bed. You can also hang the hose from a cup hook, just be sure to get a hook which exceeds the diameter of the hose. Tools can also be stored in a tote beneath the planter (see next tip).
Provide a small wagon or roller-tote for carting seed trays and soil amendments
Moving sacks of potting soil, compost and soil amendments like rock phosphate, vermiculite or peat moss can be difficult for wheelchair gardeners, the elderly and handicapped. A small child’s wagon is useful for this, since it has 3” sides which keep things from falling off, and it is easily pulled using the extended handle. A rubberized tote with built-in wheels is even better, since it has a lid so it can be left outside in the rain. Also, the lid can be used as a potting table – a 12” tall tote provides the right height for potting from a seated position, and the lid can be easily rinsed off after use. The tote can be stored under the bed for real convenience, providing the bed has 12” clearance beneath, of course.
Have a second chair nearby
Gardening is a wonderful meditation when working alone, but every gardener wants to show their garden to family and visitors. People confined to wheelchairs get tired of looking upwards when talking with people who are standing. Have a simple “visitor’s seat” nearby, so the wheelchair gardener can entertain friends eye-to-eye. This simple act also makes the visitor more comfortable, leading to longer, more enjoyable visits.
Think ‘vertical’ for increasing the harvest
If you’re growing vegetables in a limited space such as a planter, the harvest can be increased by adding a trellis along the back of the planting area. This allows climbing plants like tomatoes, beans, peas and squash to get the exposure they need for maximum production. On a 24” tall planter, a 3’ trellis is about the right height, since the seated gardener would have to reach 5’ to pick the top produce.
Use low-maintenance gardening techniques
You can reduce garden maintenance and extend time between waterings by using mulch beneath your plants. This will aid in soil moisture retention and reduce watering requirements, while at the same time preventing weeds from sprouting. Watering in the morning will reduce slug problems. Small drip-irrigation systems, timers and soaker hoses are additional ways to reduce watering needs. Planting local varieties of flowers and vegetables will usually yield better results overall. For more information about efficient, organic garden practices, see our Grow page.
Gardening offers a sense of purpose and self-empowerment which people with handicaps and mobility limitations can especially benefit from. It is well worth the effort it takes to provide access to gardening to anyone and everyone.
More accessible gardens available here.