- Grove City, Pennsylvania

February 5, 2009

Don’t stop gardening; alter it to accommodate limitations

By T.C. Connor

The Write Gardener

Some, if not most, of y’all are baby boomers like myself, but it’d be naive of me to think that we’re all equally physically fit. You might be more or less capable of hoeing five rows of corn than other cotton-top gardeners, and I might be less or more capable of hand pulling weeds from a 5’ x 10’ flower bed than those same cotton-toppers. But I think we can all agree that our love for gardening is equally strong.

Personally, I’ve noticed a decrease in stamina and strength as I’ve gotten older. Or maybe it’s just these northeast winters taking their toll. Having said that, I think it would be a good idea to start thinking about how I might adjust a few things in the garden to make it a little easier. There is a way to lessen physical strains that gardening sometimes brings as one gets older: The “Home Enabling Garden.”

Sixty million people in the U.S. are suffering from disabilities, and a lot of them are probably gardeners. I would also guess many of these folks had to quit gardening. Maybe it was due to limits placed on them by their aging bodies, or perhaps it was due to the garden not being as accessible as it once was. The first problem, the aging process, cannot be altered, but the second problem can be addressed, and should be.

The first thing you need to consider is your needs and abilities. What type of gardening do you want to do? How much time do have? Do you use a wheelchair, cane, or walker? Do you tire easily? Do you need to take special precautions when bending and/or kneeling? There are several things you can do to make your garden more easily accessible, so you should start by identifying all of your special considerations.

Depending on your resources, you could start from scratch and hire a professional landscape designer to design a new garden that meets the requirements you’ve outlined when you listed your needs and abilities. Keep in mind the distance you’re capable of traveling to and from the garden. If you use a wheelchair or cane, a paved pathway is definitely something you should include in your plans for the new garden. If you tire easily, consider locating the garden close to the house.

Paths for wheelchairs and scooters need to be at least 3 feet wide, with 5-foot wide areas for turning interspersed throughout. Remember the space you’ll need for maneuvering on patios where containers and outdoor furniture are arranged. If the ground slopes or rises, you’ll want to be aware of this and arrange for leveling, or decrease the slope enough so that it’s safe for wheelchairs and scooters.

If you have limited vision, you’ll want to have special markers in pathways so you’ll be aware of where you’re at. One way to do this is to install indicator strips in the path that alerts you to a known area. If your path is smooth, lay strips of a varying texture that can act as a sign, if you’ve a gravel path, lay down a section of particle board 18-inches wide or so.

Raised beds, vertical and container gardening can enable those with disabilities to more easily get their hands dirty by having things arranged at comfortable working heights. A soil level 2 feet high usually works best for those in wheelchairs or if you prefer sitting. Soil level heights between 24-41 inches is best if you want to garden standing up.

Vertical gardening techniques include the use of structures such as fences, walls, and roof overhangs to support plant containers at comfortable heights for the gardener whether seated or standing. Pulleys for hanging baskets will allow you to raise and lower your plants for easy access.

You will probably need a professional to help you engineer some of the above enabling garden methods, but there are also things you can do that don’t require a professional landscape designer.

ä Consider better quality hand tools made for children, which usually have shorter, padded handles. These types of tools might be easier to grasp and less likely to cause wrist pain.

ä Today’s selection of plants offers myriad choices of smaller varieties, not only in flowers, but in vegetables as well. Choose varieties that are easy to reach and harvest, and that have interesting textures and fragrance.

ä Create rest areas within the garden using benches with arm rests and foot stools.

My thanks to Ruth Leo, Pine Township, for suggesting a worthy topic for this week’s article. Some of the information I used was taken from Ruth’s “Garden For Life” series of informational sheets produced by the Horticultural Therapy Services of the Chicago Botanic Garden (

T.C. Conner is a Master Gardener and columnist for Allied News. He can be reached at Check out his blog at http://the