Mother Earth Living

Gardening with Disabilities: Designing a Garden for Accessibility

Susan Hoysagk is a seasoned nurse who, when not busy “nursing it up,” can be found gardening, experimental cooking with fresh organic herbs and veggies from her garden, reading, writing and rearranging her yarn stash.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ~ Henry David Thoreau


One of the perks of gardening is having clean food. No, not clean like washing your veggies, clean. Clean as in free from the whole array of chemicals used on and in our food these days. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers–all things that make fruits and vegetables grow faster, bigger and prettier–yet, for the most part, tasteless compared to the stuff I get from my yard. Oh sure, my strawberries are not as big and beautiful as those big, plump Frankenberries at the market, but mine taste like sweet, delicious strawberries. I grow mine in a half whiskey barrel, very accessible and easy to take care of. This brings us to the topic of this week’s blog: garden design. Ha! You thought I was going to say containers, didn’t you?

Getting around the garden and doing so safely is one of the challenges many with disabilities face. Accessibility is as important as the act of gardening itself. With thoughtful and sometimes creative garden design, safe and easy access means all the difference for folks with power scooters or chairs, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, activity intolerance or visual impairment.

Elevated planter boxes are one of the many ways to customize the gardening experience to meet each individual’s physical needs. Photo By FiveTen/Courtesy Flickr.

The first step is being honest with yourself regarding capabilities and gardening desires. There is that old saying about eating too much, “my eyes are bigger than my stomach,” and it applies to the garden, too. Start small and work up as you gain strength and expertise. Do you have a yard, a patio or a balcony? Do you want to grow only edibles, flowers or both? How much time can you physically spend each day? How much time do you want to spend? These are all parts of the larger puzzle that is unique to each person. I have an herb garden next to the patio directly outside my kitchen door. This makes a quick and easy trip for chives, sage, thyme, oregano or any other herbs I need for cooking. You can accomplish the same feat with large pots for your patio, balcony or sunny front porch. Placing them on rolling stands gives them height and ease of movement so you can arrange them to accommodate your physical needs.

A garden design should include safe pathways of appropriate width and foundation materials. Photo By Joy Weese Moll/Courtesy Flickr.

Permanent structures to ease the way are especially important considerations. Passage through and to the garden spaces needs careful thought and planning to ensure the paths are wide enough, made of navigable surfaces, and allow for turning around (who wants to get stuck in the back forty?). A path width of at least 32 inches will allow for most standard wheelchairs, scooters and walkers. However, 48 inches is more ideal for maneuverability, plus two people can walk side-by-side. As stated, you should incorporate some areas for turning around and six-foot diameter or square areas (at least) will make that easier. The addition of path edging defines planting areas and keeps plants and people safe. Paths should have a firm, smooth surface. Grass, wood chips, gravel, slick bricks or uneven materials are not good choices as they do not provide good traction for wheelchairs and can cause falls for those who have walking or balance issues. Hard surfaces (such as concrete, asphalt) are most desirable but packed granite (where available and affordable) works well. I have pea gravel in some parts of my garden and depth makes a big difference in maneuverability–too deep and those wheels get stuck fast! Concrete pavers may be another choice but can get expensive. Although finding a surface that fits your needs and budget may take some time and creativity, remember your yard and garden is like running a marathon–you are in it for the long haul so pace yourself! 

  • Published on May 3, 2011
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