Gardening with Disabilities: Garden in Raised Beds for Less Stress

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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.

“There are many tired gardeners but I’ve seldom met old gardeners. I know many elderly gardeners but the majority are young at heart. Gardening simply does not allow one to be mentally old, because too many hopes and dreams are yet to be realized. The one absolute of gardeners is faith. Regardless of how bad past gardens have been, every gardener believes that next year’s will be better. It is easy to age when there is nothing to believe in, nothing to hope for; gardeners, however, simply refuse to grow up.”  ~ Allan Armitage

If you don’t know who Allan is, he is the professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia–the one who wears a Tilley hat. Dr. Armitage is also a researcher, world traveler, writer, speaker, recipient of many awards, and well, just an all-around amazing guy. I love this quote of his because in it he embodies what I think is the true spirit of gardeners: perpetually hopeful, absolutely faithful, and forever a child of the land. Even if that land is a raised bed or potted bowl of lettuces.

I love lettuce. Versatile, beautiful, forgiving, and there are sooooo many varieties with all their delicious shades of green with rebels of purple, red, deep maroon or even spotted like my old Austrian heirloom romaine Forellenschluss (speckled like a trout). This old-timer has beautiful green buttery leaves with wine-red splotches you will never forget. Best of all, it will grow in a raised bed, a garden box or a pot. In fact, I rarely plant my lettuce “on the ground” here at the Oregon coast because it stays cleaner in the raised beds and I have an easier time abolishing the slugs that are also big fans of my green jewels. Do remember lettuce likes cool weather. There are some varieties slower to bolt (go to seed) but these still will not like it if you stick them in the hot sun your tomatoes love to bask in. Raised beds can be placed most anywhere and pots can be moved as desired. Again, assess what like you eat or love to smell and look at and get planning!

Quick-sprouting and fast-growing lettuce is a great vegetable for raised beds, pots or any other container garden. Photo By Skylar Primm/Courtesy Flickr.

Before I launch full into raised bed and container gardening, I want to back up a little. In my last blog I was discussing garden design. To the topic of paths I want to add steps and ramps. Steps should have a depth of at least four inches with risers that are no higher than that. Railings of a nice smooth wood should accompany them (and ramps as well), placing them 30 to 34 inches high. Avoid metal as it gets hot and can be slippery when wet.If ramps are going to be added they should be gradual with a gentle rise of no more than one foot per 20 feet in length (a 5 percent grade) so wheelchair and electric scooters or chairs can easily negotiate them.This comes under the don’t-want-to-get-stuck-in-the-back-forty or pitched-out-onto-the-ground categories.

Now, back to raised planting beds. These can be any height that is comfortable for the gardener and should not be any wider than four to five feet (some feel six is okay; I prefer four feet so I am only reaching two feet to the center of the bed–less strain on the upper back and shoulders). If your bed is only accessible from one side, keeping the width to no more than 30 inches is desirable. Raising beds can reduce lower back strain as well as putting less stress on hips, knees and ankles. Three-feet-high beds will allow a person who cannot bend down or is using a walker to easily garden without bending. I have a wide ledge for some of mine, which makes a nice seat to work from or take a rest on. For wheelchair users the elevation of the beds is important as well as knee clearance heights (such as 20, 24 and 27 inches). These allow the gardener to roll under the planter and access its interior. Snazzy!

Repurposed wood makes an attractive and functional raised bed garden that can be constructed to fit the gardener’s physical needs. Photo By Vilseskogen/Courtesy Flickr.

Pots for plants come in all sizes, shapes, materials, colors and heights. These are great for balcony or patio gardeners and for those who have a larger yard but wish to have certain herbs, veggies or flowers closer to the back door. Pots can be placed on rolling stands and moved as the sun changes its position in the sky over summer. They can be set on stands of various heights to accommodate wheelchair or scooter users. You can paint them all one color for homogeneity or slather them with a rainbow of colors to suit your desires. Your garden experience is only as far away as your imagination and that little kid inside you!

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