Gardens aren’t just for the birds, the bees, and non-disabled people. Lots of disabled people enjoy participating in gardening or simply wandering through curated outdoor spaces so they can stop and smell the roses, but unfortunately, a lot of gardens are not laid out to accommodate them. Whether you’re a disabled person thinking about gardening who feels stumped by the options, someone who wants to make a garden a more inclusive environment for friends and family, or an organization interested in opening up a public garden to disabled people, some of these tips may help you adapt a space to accommodate as many people as possible.
By nature, some of the things in the garden tend to clash with a lot of disabilities. Many have rough dirt paths, which are not ideal for wheelchair, walker and scooter users. It’s common for beds to be placed at or close to ground level, making them difficult to interact with if someone cannot comfortably bend or sit at that level. Often paths are narrow, and it’s easy to get caught between plants and trees in a closely-landscaped garden.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and there are lots of ways you can adjust the structure of a garden and the tools available to make it work for the people who want to be there.
1. Make more space
Wheelchair users and other people with mobility impairments often need more space to get around comfortably, and they appreciate level pathways. While flagstones or bricks might be out of your budget, another option is planking, including engineered wood products that resist mold and mildew. You could also consider gravel paths, which aren’t ideal, but are definitely a better surface than uneven dirt. Think hard-packed, even materials.
Clip back trees and shrubs, and consider some relocations for those that get majorly in the way. If you’re disabled and you can’t do this yourself, you may be able to find a volunteer organization that can help you if you can’t afford a landscaping service to relocate mature plantings. Some gardeners may also be willing to help in exchange for divisions of mature plants.
2. Raise your beds
This might sound like a daunting proposition, so you could start small. Accessible beds raised at least 18 inches and up to table height to make it easy for wheelchair users and standing gardeners to use them can be installed slowly over time; you don’t have to change over the entire garden all at once. Numerous companies make them, and you can also build your own: basically, what you need is a box planter and a trestle table. Remember to keep accessible beds narrow, so wheelchair users can reach all the way to the middle.
Get creative! Hanging baskets, deep planter boxes or pots, and similar tactics can also be used to create accessible gardening space.
3. Install kneelers
For those who can bend or sit, it’s often hard to do so for extended periods of time. Kneelers next to ground-level beds that can’t feasibly be raised can still help bridge a gap. People can rest on the kneeler while they work, and a railing installed next to it can help them get up when they’re finished.
4. Add seating
Gardens are all the more lovely when you can enjoy them, so add some strategic seating to allow people to watch flowers blooming or kale sprouting. Seating makes public spaces more accessible by giving disabled people an easy spot to rest, and you might find that it makes a garden more inviting to other people as well.
5. Get the right tools for the job
Adaptive gardening tools are available from a variety of companies, like Life With Ease, including tools with extra-large and textured grips for older adults, people with neurological impairments and people with limited hand strength. Other adaptive tools allow people to use cultivators, shovels and other tools when they have a limited range of motion or use them sitting instead of standing. If you’re maintaining a public community garden, you may be able to get a grant for purchasing adaptive tools.
6. Irrigate, irrigate, irrigate
Disabled gardeners need to water their plants too. Taps should be placed at least two feet off the ground, and to make them easy to operate, install levers instead of traditional spigots. Ideally, the tap area should be bricked or graveled to prevent muddiness, and make sure the hoses and irrigation lines are installed securely so they won’t tangle with canes, wheelchairs and walkers.
7. Create quiet space
Some people with autism and other intellectual, cognitive and neurological impairments find gardening and being in gardens very enjoyable, and in some cases it can be a vital part of therapy and treatment. However, it can be easy to get overloaded with sensory inputs from the surrounding environment. A designated quiet space in a community garden can ensure that people always have a place to retreat to when they’re feeling overloaded. Keep the landscaping simple, and make sure it’s far away from sheds, potting houses and other work areas, along with water features and other potential garden noisemakers.
8. Ask people what they need
If you’re adapting a public or community garden, conduct a survey. Ask disabled members of the community what would help them, and if they have any special requests for the garden. Encourage them to drop by the garden and audit the space to provide suggestions throughout the planning and execution process, and consider hiring an accessibility consultant to help the space shine.
In the case of a garden being adapted for friends and family, ask them directly about specific issues that make your garden hard to navigate or work in, and integrate their feedback into your adaptation plans. If you’re adapting a garden for yourself and adjusting to a new impairment, seek out people with similar impairments on disability forums and ask them for advice. Many disabled people are passionate about gardening and they can provide advice specific to your needs, including product recommendations and hard-earned lessons.
Photo credit: Gareth Williams