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Look at My Garden Design!
I love gardening! As an occupational therapist, I feel delighted when my clients tell me they enjoy gardening as well. Since gardening is a great activity to stay healthy and strong, I like to help people figure out how to stay engaged in it.
I found that most of the time, people stop gardening because they can no longer access their garden beds at home. These people can not get down to the ground and stand back up. They find it difficult to walk on uneven ground in their yards. Reaching for weeds or tools on the ground can cause people to lose their balance. Nobody wants to take a tumble in front of the neighbors!
These gardening problems are caused by losing strength and balance over time as we age. When we stop doing certain activities, we lose the ability to participate in that task. Of course, I could tell people, “Just start exercising”, but in all actuality very few clients follow through on that suggestion.
Other hurdles to gardening include arthritis pain and joint problems. These two common complaints make my clients feel unable to resume gardening how they used to. So with these biological barriers blocking my clients from enjoying time outdoors with their plants, what am I going to recommend to them?
I wrote an article in May, “Easy Gardening Tips”, that focused on tool and self care recommendations when gardening outside. Today, I am going to go into detail about the physical changes you can make in your yard to access the garden easier!
Let me give you an example about my own garden. My husband and I want to make a raised 16'x16' garden bed for produce in our yard. We wanted to include a path in the garden bed to be able to walk and reach plants in the middle. Here is a picture of the design my husband created:
Design by Cole Lindbergh
We call it a "Big Garden" because we are amateur gardeners, okay people? Sometimes I kill plants unintentionally, but I always love to try growing them.
To make the garden accessible for most people, I asked my husband to make the entry and garden path inside of the square 36 inches wide. This will allow plenty of room for any person with a walker or cane to come look at my plants or weed for me (for free of course). Anyone who walks will have no problem carting a wagon of tools around a pathway this size. My clients who find it difficult to lean and reach for items will like this type of design to avoid losing their balance.
The garden path width will also allow a wheelchair user to come inside, BUT this would be a very tight squeeze for that person when you include hand rims. Ideally, the width of the path would be 60 inches or have one spot that is 5'x5' to turn in any direction. My garden design works for people with smaller width wheelchairs and only gives them the ability to go forwards or backwards.
The other bone of contention is my power wheelchair user friends would not be able to come into the garden. They would need a 6'x6' turning space to safely navigate my garden without bumping into the bed walls. Power wheelchairs can often cost the same as a car! So we wouldn't want to accidentally damage my friend's mode of transportation!
Another thing to consider is how tall to make the garden bed walls. The minimum recommended height for raised garden beds is one foot for plant roots to spread. There is no rule for a maximum garden bed height, but be wary of the need to reach up too high to tend to your plants. For our purposes, we are going to make the bed walls two feet high. If that is too low, we can certainly add on to the wall height in the future.
Building taller raised garden beds, like four feet high, will work better for people who feel pain while bending to the ground. I would recommend bringing a light stool in your garden wagon in order to sit and work on the plants. Sitting to garden conserves energy, limits pain, and improves your balance. You can also use a raised garden bed with legs that will give more room for your lower body while sitting to tend to plants like the picture below.
Lastly, it's important to think about the material to use for the garden pathway. For obvious reasons, dirt and grass will make it very hard for someone to walk or push a wheelchair in the garden. Mud is a mortal enemy to power wheelchairs and is incredibly hard to clean off of wheels!
You want the garden pathway material to be non slip and smooth for wheelchair users and people who use walkers or canes. The ability for a wheelchair user to access certain areas depends on their equipment and upper body strength. Some ideal materials include crusher run, concrete, or asphalt. Wood pathways are another option, however, you need to make sure they are sealed properly to avoid the pathway to become slippery when wet and to prevent the wood from breaking down from the elements.
Do not be tempted to put in brick or other stone pavers! They look really pretty, but cause unnecessary bumps for wheels. Also, I cannot tell you how many times I watched people with walkers get stuck in the spaces in between pavers and sidewalk cracks. Bumps and cracks on pathways can easily lead to falls in the garden. Again, we don't want the neighbors to watch us fall!
If you are interested in learning more about making gardens accessible for all, please check out Enabling Gardens: Creating Barrier Free Gardens by Gene Rothert. Mr. Rothert is a wheelchair user and gives first hand experience on how to make gardening available to people of all ages and abilities.
Everyone deserves to enjoy what they like to do, including gardening. If you or someone you know has a hard time with gardening, try some of these tips to get back outside! Comment down below if you have tried ways to make gardening easier for you!