While gardening grows more satisfying with experience, mature gardeners may find it harder to get off the ground or spend a full day toiling in the sun. For most of us these changes are gradual, allowing for small adjustments year by year.
For example, large garden beds can be filled with low-maintenance planting rather than annuals. These plants should be slow growing, noninvasive and drought tolerant, and they should require no deadheading or other special care. Few plants fit all the criteria, but good low-care selections ideally meet at least three of them.
Raised beds can be constructed to minimize bending. A height of 30 inches is ideal for gardening while seated, or 41 inches while standing. The beds should be no wider than two feet if worked from one side, four feet if worked from both sides. One does not want to risk a fall by getting off balance while overreaching.
Pathways throughout the garden must have firm surfaces. The minimum recommended width is 36 inches; however, situations vary. To be wheelchair accessible, not only must they be wider but if they are not laid out in loops, a “turning basin” at the end would be critical for the project to be really functional.
Simpler than constructing raised beds and pathways to reach them is using tall containers on an existing deck or patio. Containers have long been used for flowers, and now an increasing variety of miniature vegetables make it possible to have an ample kitchen garden in them.
Adaptive gardening tools are designed to decrease fatigue and discomfort. When shopping, look for good construction, a comfortable grip and good balance. The tool should be lightweight and not require great hand strength to use.
Certainly it often happens that the gardener has a sudden change in health or ability. One short-term solution is to find an “apprentice.” This person should be interested in gardening. He ideally would agree to exchange a fixed amount of labor for the gardener’s invaluable store of knowledge.
When the magnitude of a disability makes managing any sort of functional garden unrealistic, gardening activity may still be enjoyed therapeutically. In planning such activities, adopt the motto “keep it simple; make it fun.” You might dedicate one or two patio pots for the project. In making floral selection, keep in mind that the aging process makes the red-violet color spectrum particularly appealing while pastels look bland. Yes, I am suggesting magenta as a delight for old eyes.
Once you have the plants, let the disabled gardener do what is enjoyable and finish the job for him. Have a planned focus for each session: planting, deadheading, watering, harvesting. Enjoy the fruit of the labor whether a ripe tomato or fragrant flower.
The Chicago Botanical Garden contains an area devoted to adaptive gardening for a range of disabilities. Take a virtual tour via the internet. Another source of information is the American Horticultural Therapy Association.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett still trots around her flowerbeds like a racehorse, thank you very much, but has lots of bright ideas for garden accessibility if that changes. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.