Gardeners' Dirt: Build gardens to be accessible to all needs
By Pat Blanchard - Victoria County Master Gardener Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
May 5, 2010 at 12:05 a.m.
Editor's Note: Accessible gardens provide opportunities for both the able and disabled gardener. This is Part I of a two-part series, which addresses adapted gardening methods for those less able.
You may ask why we garden: to maintain physical health and strength, to enjoy an experience that stimulates all of our senses as an outlet for creativity, to control stress and to have a sense of control, to have fun and play in the dirt, to renew spirituality and experience the circle of life.
Caring for plants is firmly anchored in reality, fostering a sense of independence and a sense of tomorrow.
Gardening can distract one's thoughts about lost skills and gives a sense of control.
Horticultural therapy became recognized as a healing tool in the United States in 1973 and today, most public gardens are accessible to young and old, able bodied, as well as the disabled.
The Master Gardeners' Victoria Educational Gardens are no exception. Raised beds, vertical beds, wheelchair accessible pathways, and adaptive tools welcome the other-abled gardener.
Gardeners come in all shapes, sizes, ages, abilities and disabilities.
Gardening as a hobby is appropriate for people who have differences in mobility, whether one uses a wheelchair, walker, or cane for a standing intolerance, paralysis or advanced age.
We all may take for granted the ability to bend over or to squeeze a pair of pruners. Gardeners with multiple sclerosis, arthritis or stroke may have difficulty reaching, grasping or holding onto garden tools.
Sensory limitations of vision, hearing, touch or speech do not preclude one from the joys of gardening.
People with health problems may benefit most from gardening as it improves joint mobility and balance, socialization, memory skills as well as muscle strength and coordination.
Gardening is certainly a hobby that lasts a lifetime, although life changes may necessitate changes in the way we garden.
There are numerous ways of accomplishing those changes: adapt the garden, adapt the gardener and adapt the plants.
Adapting the Garden
Container gardening - Gardening in containers has become exceedingly popular and is an easy way to adapt the gardening experience for one with mobility problems or the inability to stand.
Strawberry barrel pots are an excellent choice for a variety of herbs, flowers, succulents or vegetables.
New, lightweight and reasonably-priced containers can be arranged at different heights by setting them on steps, risers, decks, wheeled platforms or pedestals.
Raised beds - Elevated beds are popular for anyone not wanting or able to bend or kneel to cultivate a garden.
While railroad ties soaked with creosote are not environmentally friendly, marine grade pressure treated plywood can be utilized for traditional raised beds.
Raised beds should not be higher than 3 feet, so little children and seated adults can reach the plants.
Planters should not be more than four feet across so the center can be reached without undue stretching. A depth of 12 inches is adequate as soil is heavy.
Adequate mulching slows water evaporation and keeps the soil and roots cool. Creatively recycling flue tiles, drainage pipes, old bathtubs or toilets, wheel barrels, fishing boots, hollowed-out stumps, or rain gutters will provide accessible homes for plants, as well as delight the young and the old alike.
Pathways - The ability to move around in a garden is essential, and pathways are a major consideration in the accessible garden.
Paths should be smooth, level, firm and with good traction.
Paths, ramps and grades should not exceed 5 percent. For example, a 36-inch wide pathway with one foot of slope per 20 feet of length meets the minimal specs with preference for a 4- to 6-foot width and less than a foot slope for greater wheelchair accessibility.
Most prefabricated pathway materials come in 4-foot widths, while at least a 6-foot width is minimal for two people to walk side-by-side.
Grass is beautiful and cooling, but it is difficult to maneuver in a wheelchair and may cause tripping for those with walkers.
Wood gets slippery when it is wet and sand or mulch is too soft and unstable. Bricks may be uneven and gravel is too soft.
Surfaces that are hard and stable, yet provide traction, as well as cushioning for unexpected falls, are often found in playgrounds and may be made from recycled rubber, shredded wood or pea gravel.
At the educational gardens, crushed granite is used, which provides firm footing and is the size of pea gravel.
While raised edging causes a tripping hazard for the visually impaired, contrasting colors or textures can help locate the beginning and end of paths.
Vertical structures - Important components to an adapted garden include vertical gardening elements with fences, walls, arbors, trellises and stands that help provide greater access to gardening space.
Planters can be hung from them and plants can be trained on them. This brings more plants within reach for those with mobility limitations.
Plants are brought closer to the challenged gardener for care, harvesting or close appreciation of such intricacies of a blossom, stem or leaf.
There are also many outdoor bracket and shelving systems designed to attach to existing walls, decks, railings, fences and arbors, which become platforms for placing small plant containers within easier reach.
One might even consider a vertical wall garden with contained areas holding unexposed soil surface and plants perpendicular to the ground.
The use of hanging baskets raises soil level to a comfortable working height for the challenged gardener.
Ropes and pulleys can be designed to lower a container for tending and raise it back again out of harm's way.
When we are young and healthy, we persevere on our brute strength and determination. When either of these attributes fail us, we can still garden by making adaptations.
Accessible gardening means more than just an adapted garden.
Adapting the gardener and even adapting the plants for gardening that is more accessible to all gardeners will be discussed in Part II.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.