5 Ways to Make a Wheelchair Accessible Garden

A man wearing a hat is seen in his wheelchair. In front of him are some plants. It looks like he is in a garden.

Those of us with a green thumb know just how much gardening is one of life’s simple pleasures. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of a well-tended garden: the fresh scent of blooming flowers; the vibrant colors on full display; the feeling of a gentle breeze blowing by as you admire nature’s handiwork.

Conventional garden layouts and designs, though, require a fair share of bending, kneeling, and reaching to take care of plants. Consequently, keeping up with gardening duties may be particularly challenging for wheelchair users and those with certain mobility limitations. The good news is that a garden can be made wheelchair accessible by implementing five straightforward solutions.

Clear Pathway

The first order of business is to ensure that the pathway to and throughout the garden area is navigable and unobstructed. A wheelchair-friendly path should provide a firm and stable surface. Poured concrete or large, tightly-laid pavers are ideal. Finely-crushed stone is also an option but can be tricky to work with, so be sure to construct it the right way.

The path should stretch wide enough to easily accommodate the user’s wheelchair and feature spacious turnarounds to allow for changes in direction. Lay a raised border along the edge to help prevent the wheelchair from rolling off the path. Bushes and border plants can dress up the both sides of the pathway, but be aware that regular pruning may be necessary to keep the plants from spilling over into the path.

When configuring the layout, evaluate the existing topography of the land and consider possible routes that create an easy slope as well as level spots to rest. Keep in mind that some earth-moving work may be necessary to ensure the path isn’t too steep. And in some cases a ramp may actually be the best option. Look to the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) for direction on the ideal specifications for a ramp.

Accessible Planters

While there is certainly a place for some ground cover and simple border plants, the bulk of the garden should feature planters that are easily accessible while seated in a wheelchair.

Perhaps the most popular method of bringing plants within reach is building raised garden beds. Lifting the soil to the same level as the wheelchair user makes gardening significantly easier. Raised garden beds are typically made of dimensional lumber but can also be made of stone, brick, or even less conventional materials like a metal water trough.

Since raised garden beds are completely filled in with soil, wheelchair users must be able to reach across their bodies and work from the side. Plants with far-reaching root systems are ideal candidates for soil-filled raised garden beds. Be mindful to avoid making garden beds that are too deep horizontally, and thus, putting the middle portion of the soil out of arm’s length.

A great complement to raised garden beds is the garden table. Garden tables employ short planter boxes lifted up on tall legs so wheelchair users can roll under the garden bed like a table, placing the plants well within reach. Plants with shallower root systems are better suited for garden tables since there is less soil below.
A vertical garden is a very creative solution that makes good use of space while also meeting accessibility needs. Vertical gardens come in many varieties: hanging containers, self-standing vertical planters, wall-mounted planter boxes, even potted plants suspended from a pulley system! Choose a vertical garden option to help add visual appeal and utilize parts of the overall garden that may not be spacious enough for larger garden beds.

Irrigation System

Manually watering an entire garden, even one with a small footprint, can be an exhausting chore. In most cases the sole water source is located at one end of the garden, forcing users to drag a hose along with them to reach all the plants. To avoid getting bogged down with watering, wheelchair users should consider incorporating an irrigation system into their gardens.

“Irrigation system” may sound complicated, but it really can be as simple as a few soaker hoses strategically placed to ensure certain plants stay watered. Soaker hoses are best suited for plants that are arranged in a row, such as vegetables. If a soaker hose will run to a raised garden bed, then try to install the hose inconspicuously without crossing the wheelchair pathway.

A more streamlined alternative to the soaker hose is emitter tubing. Emitter tubing is much smaller in diameter than a hose, so it can more easily interweave throughout a garden. Small nozzle heads can attach to the tubing to help expand the watering radius or periodic holes in the tubing can create a simple drip irrigation set up. Keep in mind that an irrigation system can’t typically water every single plant in a garden, so some manually watering will always be necessary. But the amount of manual watering will be much more manageable and enjoyable.

Programmable timers and smart controls really bring an irrigation system to new levels. A spigot timer allows users to water their gardens on a pre-programmed schedule: set it and forget it! Smart controls go a step further by automatically adjusting a watering schedule based on the heat and precipitation. If it’s scorching hot, then the smart system will supply more water. If it’s raining cats and dogs, then the smart system will forego watering. Smart controls for an irrigation system are well worth the investment for you and your garden.

Those of you with a large expanse of turf in your garden would do well to investigate an in-ground sprinkler system, if you don’t already have one. A lawn sprinkler can be set up on its own water line and include a programmable system that allows users to assign zones to the grass and customize the watering schedule accordingly. Some may say all this automation takes away from the gardening experience, but in reality it saves water and gives users an easier time of keeping up with all the labor of maintaining a garden.

Adaptive Tools

A key component to achieving a wheelchair accessible garden is utilizing the right kind of tools. Look for extra-long handles and telescoping tools that extend their length. To help give better control over long tools, consider adding aftermarket secondary handle attachments that affix to the shaft.

Stick to tools that are streamlined in design and made of lightweight materials to prevent experiencing premature fatigue while gardening. Minimize back-and-forth trips by using a wheeled tool trolley to transport all your tools in one load.

Take advantage of ergonomically designed tools that are more efficient and easier to use. Ergonomic means large and multiple handle areas, non-slip and grooved grips, built-in safety features, easy-squeeze handle triggers, and modified tool design to shift stress away from a user’s back and joints to avoid potential injury.

Check out this page for more information on adaptive garden tools.

Low-maintenance Plants

It may be surprising, but the plants themselves actually play a part in making a garden suitable for wheelchair users. Plants that require a lot of attention can make it difficult to keep up with the demands of a garden, so focus on building a garden with plenty of low-maintenance plants.

Cut down on the amount of time spent pruning by featuring slow-growing plants that rarely need to be trimmed. Here are some slow-growers worth considering.

Hardy, drought-tolerant plants are also high on the list because they are tough enough to survive even if you can only get out there to water them every once in a while. Plus, drought-tolerant plants typically need less water in general, so they inherently help conserve water. Check out this page for a list of drought-tolerant plants.

Finally, it may be worth considering bringing in plants that naturally repel pests to help keep the garden clear of unwanted guests. This page features a handful of pest-repelling plants.

Following these five steps can help ensure that a garden space is accessible for wheelchair users and visitors. Do you know of other solutions that improve wheelchair accessibility in the garden? Comment below and let us know!

This post was written by Jason Biddle from The Helping Home. The Helping Home is a comprehensive online directory complete with in-depth guides on how to age safely at home through the use of home modifications, medical equipment, and assistive devices.

Image Source: Los Angeles Times

1 Comments

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