How to create an accessible garden
Everything you need to keep growing, even with limited mobility or vision
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Tending a garden can be a lifelong joy, whether you start gardening as a child or pick it up later in life. It’s also an outdoor activity that is gentle enough for people who are starting to feel aches and pains where they didn’t before. Limited mobility, imperfect vision, or other challenges don’t have to stop you or loved one from growing vegetables, greens, or flowers from seeds to fully-formed plants. Here’s how to create a garden paradise that will allow you to keep growing.
Paths and walkways
Mobility can be a concern for people who rely on canes, walkers, or wheelchairs to get around, so keep surfaces in mind when constructing your space.
Instead of unsteady grass or gravel pathways, opt for hard, even surfaces. Mobi-mat paths (commonly used at beaches) are quick to install, and paths made of composite decking boards like Trex plastic lumber or concrete are all good options, according to the National Parks and Recreation Association. If you can’t live without grass, consider hard plastic grass pavers, which provide a solid surface with grass growing through. It’s suitable for wheelchairs, although cane tips can get caught in the holes. Concrete or porcelain pavers could also be a good option, just watch out for seams and chinks, especially between sections; small gaps can make wheelchair access a nerve-jangling experience.
The look of your paths matters beyond just aesthetics. Aim for high visual contrast, such as a white pavers surrounded by dark mulch. This can help people with reduced vision easily identify the border between the path and the rest of the garden.
Whatever your path is made of, make sure that the gardener can get to it. Are there stairs between the house or driveway and the garden? Is the path sloped so that it’s a hazard for unsteady walkers? Is the path wide enough (about 4 to 5 feet) for a wheelchair or walker? If the path is more than a few feet long, is there somewhere to stop and rest, such as a bench, a low stone wall, a widened edge of a garden fence?
You should be able to reach to the middle of your garden bed from the edge comfortably. Most raised bed kits for building new garden beds are 48” wide by default, but you may need to build narrower beds for someone with a shorter reach, or to accommodate an accessible path. Raised bed kits are available in 24-inch widths or even 16-inch widths, or you can just buy your own raised bed brackets or wall blocks and make it whatever size you wish.
For gardeners whose major concern is aching knees, garden kneeler and seat combos can help you stay comfortable while getting close to the soil. However, many people have problems getting down to ground level, whether due to balance or strength issues or wheelchair use. Planters with wide, stable edges like this stone model can serve as benches for gardening while seated. There are also “table top” raised beds like this 30-inch counter-height bed for gardening while standing, or this wheelchair-accessible raised bed, which has room for wheelchair users to roll underneath.
If it’s hard for your gardener to get outside, you can get an indoor/outdoor rolling garden to bring the garden to them.
When you’re looking at hand tools, think big and bright. Thick handles make it easier to grip and hold garden tools, like this Fiskars “Big Grip” garden knife. That Fiskars knife also has a bright orange strip on its handle, which can make it easy to find it when it’s lying in dark or shaded places.
Big also means long. For gardeners who want to avoid stooping and kneeling, there are many telescoping and long-handled tools for handling garden chores, like this long-handled weeder/hoe combo or these telescoping loppers. Some gardeners also swear by attaching ergonomic handles to shovels and rakes to protect their backs and knees from strain.
Some redesigned tools can make gardening easier for people with arthritis and weak grips. Ratchet pruning shears let gardeners cut thick branches by squeezing a little at a time, gradually increasing the pressure on the branch, instead of trying to squeeze the shears shut through brute force all at once. A garden auger drill attachment can make digging planting holes easier, especially for planting spring bulbs. For gardeners who prefer a low-tech experience, the ProPlugger 5-in-1 Planting Tool makes cylindrical holes with no motors at all. Step on the bars welded to the tube, and your body weight does the work.
It’s also important for tools to be accessible near the garden, so that the gardener doesn’t spend a lot of time and energy getting tools. A narrow shed or even a potting bench with a waterproof box on it will do. Make sure that the lock/ fastener is easy to open and relatch.
If you do have to store your larger tools away from the garden, make sure your gardener can transport them safely. Get rid of that tippy wheelbarrow and use a stable four-wheeled garden cart for large hauls.
A gallon of water weighs eight pounds. Full hoses can be heavy, slippery and hard to handle, and most watering cans are awkward and can easily put an elderly gardener off-balance. Instead of trying to hold and control a hose, most gardeners (and gardens) are better off using a soaker hose. Soaker hoses gradually drip water along the length of the hose, delivering a gradual, steady stream that will penetrate your soil and get to your garden’s roots instead of running off onto the sidewalk. Pair it with a hose timer so that you won’t forget to turn the hose water on—or turn it off.
For plants in an accessible garden, think high and low; high contrast, high-growing, and low maintenance. Plant bright, contrasting colors to help people with impaired vision enjoy the blooms, and make sure they flowers are high enough to enjoy without stooping (another good reason to use raised beds). If you’re planting vegetables, like tomatoes, place them so that the fruit will be easy to harvest, or plant dwarf varieties in a raised container. Avoid green vegetables like green beans that can be hard to see among the foliage. For beans, you could choose purple or yellow varieties, and you could have yellow squash instead of zucchini.
If scents don't bother you, then fragrant flowers and herbs can delight the senses even when vision dims. Plant herbs like basil, lemon balm, or mint along a path to brush against as you walk by (though be careful with mints, which are highly invasive; either plant them in a container, or place them in an area bounded by pavement to prevent it from taking over your garden.)
Low maintenance plants are good for gardeners of all ages, but they are especially important when time or energy may limit a gardener’s ability to care for fussy flowers. Avoid plants like tea roses, which are notorious for needing constant attention and chemical sprays, or short-term annual flowers which need to be constantly renewed and replanted. Opt for bulbs, flowering shrubs like lilacs, and fragrant perennial flowers that will please the eye and ease garden chores for years.
Most garden planners pay attention to how the yard looks from the street, or the deck—but how does the view look from the inside? What about the view from the first floor? If your gardener gets to the point where they are recovering from an illness or injury and can’t climb stairs, can they see out the windows, or is the view blocked by overgrown shrubs and trees? Is the beloved climbing rose on a trellis by the front window, or at the back of the garden 100 feet away? Try to have some focal points with favorite plants, garden statues, bird feeders and bird baths, wind chimes, or whatever else you enjoy observable from the house.