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Gardening for Everyone: Creating Accessible Gardens

By Julie Bawden-Davis

When it comes to hobbies, gardening is a popular activity that just about anyone can enjoy. Using specific methods, individuals with limited mobility or who are disabled can care for plants. Accessible gardens, such as raised beds, offer a chance for those who are wheelchair bound to enjoy the many pleasures of tending to plants.

Here are three methods that open up the world of gardening to people with physical limitations.

Raised Beds

Raised beds make gardening possible for individuals who are wheelchair bound or unable to kneel. Beds can be constructed at any height desired and should be placed in accessible locations.

Follow these steps to designing and constructing a raised bed:

Consider the gardener's physical limitations. If wheelchair bound, construct the raised bed at a height that allows the gardener to reach into the garden while seated. If the gardener is mobile but unable to kneel or lean over easily while standing, construct bench seating around the planting bed.

Choose a location. Locate the raised bed in an area that's easily accessible and conducive to what the gardener will grow. Pathways widths should be minimum of 4 feet to ensure clearance for wheelchairs, walkers and wheelbarrows.3 Ensure that the paths are level, firm and free of any stumbling blocks, including loose gravel.

If the gardener will be planting vegetables, small fruit trees or sun-loving flowers, locate the raised bed in a location that receives 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day. For shade plants, place the garden in an area that receives morning sun or dappled sunlight throughout the day, such as under a tree or patio cover.

Determine dimensions. Raised beds are generally 3 to 4 feet wide.1 Determine the width according the gardener's reach. For example, if the person can reach 2 feet into the bed from one side, then make the bed no wider than 4 feet. The height of the bed should be 24 inches for someone seated in a wheelchair, and 30 inches for an individual who will stand while gardening but has difficulty bending and reaching. The length of the raised bed is usually 10 to 20 feet. Make seating edges 8 to 18 inches wide.2

Build the bed. Raised beds are generally made from rot-resistant wood, brick or stone. You can make one from scratch or purchase a raised bed kit from your local garden center or hardware store. When building a wooden raised bed from scratch, use decking screws for maximum stability. Cement brick and stone together to avoid soil leakage. if you have problems with burrowing pests like voles, moles and gophers, deter them by lining the bottom of the bed with hardware cloth.4

Fill the bed. Fill the bed with a mix of two parts planting mix, one part horticultural sand or perlite, and one part compost, such as Pennington® Earthworm Castings 1.5-0-0. Water well to settle any air pockets, and then add more soil until the soil line is 1 to 2 inches below the top of the bed.

Plant. You can plant just about anything in a raised bed that you would in the ground. Raised beds are ideal for flowers; vegetables and herbs; fruits, such as strawberries; and even dwarf fruit trees, including peach and plum.

Maintain. Raised beds tend to drain fast, so they require more frequent watering than in-ground plants. Water when the top 2 inches of soil has dried out. Fertilize monthly spring through fall with Lilly Miller® All Purpose Planting & Growing Food 10-10-10, and prune flowers regularly to keep them blooming. Harvest herbs and vegetables as soon as they are ready for consumption or the plants will stop producing.

Tabletop Garden

Essentially a shallow raised bed on legs, a tabletop garden allows for easy wheelchair access. The gardener can push the chair underneath the table and work comfortably. Tabletop gardens are generally made of wood or metal, and can be constructed from scratch or bought pre-made.

Construction. The planting bed of a tabletop garden is usually 8 to 10 inches deep, and the table is generally 27 inches from the ground. To avoid arm strain, the top of the planter should not be higher than the sitting gardener's ribcage. For easy reach, the width of the bed should be 3 feet.

Drill drainage holes beneath the planting area, and consider placing the tabletop garden on casters, so it can be moved easily.2

Add soil. Fill the tabletop garden with pre-moistened potting soil until it's filled to within an inch of the top.

Plant. Since they aren't very deep, tabletop gardens should only be used to grow shallow-rooted annuals and some vegetables and herbs. Flower choices include marigold, petunia, zinnia, phlox, lobelia, verbena and pansy; vegetable and herb choices include lettuce, spinach, cucumber, cherry tomato, baby carrot, basil, thyme and rosemary,

Maintenance. Water when the top 2 inches of soil has dried out, and fertilize monthly with Lilly Miller® All Purpose Planting & Growing Food 10-10-10. Keep flowers pruned to promote re-flowering, and harvest vegetables regularly to increase production.

Containers

The wide variety of pot sizes and types open up a world of possibilities for a gardener with limited mobility. Such an individual can easily garden at a table with smaller pots or from a chair next to large containers.

The following tips help ensure a successful container gardening experience.

Choose a container. Choose wood, plastic, ceramic, metal or clay containers, making sure that each one has drainage holes to prevent root rot. If the gardener's upper body strength is limited, opt for small, lightweight plastic pots. Put large containers on casters.

When planting in a hanging container, use a plastic pot and install a ratchet pulley system that allows the gardener to easily lower and raise the container by pulling on a cord.

Add soil. Always use potting soil in containers; never garden soil. Choose a potting soil that contains organic material, such as peat moss and compost, and drainage agents, such as perlite or pumice. Further enrich the soil by adding Pennington® Earthworm Castings 1.5-0-0 according to package directions. Lightly moisten the soil before adding it to the container, which will help prevent air pockets and uneven settling of the soil.

Plant. You can plant most flowers in containers. If you wish to grow vegetables, opt for dwarf forms, such as bush bean, baby carrot, baby beet, green onion, cherry tomato and baby cucumber. Most herbs thrive in containers.

The amount of plants you put in a pot will depend on the size of the container and the size of the plant at maturity. Check the plant care tag for this information.

Water. Containers require frequent watering. Plants in hanging baskets get especially thirsty since heat rises. Water when the first inch of soil has dried. Typically, during spring and summer months, watering once a day will suffice. In fall and winter, water only once or twice a week.

Fertilize. Frequent watering rinses nutrients from the soil of containerized plants, so feeding on a regular basis is important to keep plants healthy. During the spring and summer months, fertilize every two weeks, and in the fall and winter, feed monthly with Lilly Miller® All Purpose Planting & Growing Food 10-10-10.

Conclusion

Gardening is an enjoyable activity that is within reach for just about anyone who wants to dig in and enjoy the many perks of nurturing plants.

Pennington is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc.

Lilly Miller is a registered trademark of Central Garden & Pet Company.

Sources

1. Diane Relf, "Gardening in Raised Beds and Containers for Older Gardeners and Individuals with Physical Disabilities," Department of Horticulture,Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, 1995.

2. Jean Larson, et. al, "Accessible gardening for therapeutic horticulture," University of Minnesota Extension, 2008.

3. Becky Cresswell. et. al, "Gardening for Life: A Guide to Garden Adaptations for Gardeners of All Ages and Abilities," January 2005.

4. Johanna Silver, "Step-by-step: Build the ultimate raised bed," Sunset.com.

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