Gardening is not limited to the young and nimble. Gardening as a hobby or simply enjoying a walk around the garden should not end or diminish due to changes in our physical condition. As we grow older, our eyesight, flexibility, strength, and endurance may be reduced, even though our love for our garden has not ebbed. Landscapes can be designed and adapted to be beautiful and workable by anyone – allowing participation by everyone.
A universal garden really needs to be more than merely accessible. Inviting and inclusive are really better ways to describe a landscape that can be enjoyed and used by all. Keep these points in mind:
- Design – The ability to move confidently through the landscape or garden is the key to enjoyment. Regardless of vision, dexterity, balance, endurance or mobility, it should be easy to find your way around (or your way back). Remember one of the key principles of Universal Design – keep the design unobtrusive so that it blends with the existing landscape.
- Steps – Replace steps with long ramps. Slopes should be flat or gentle.
- Pathways – A firm, wide, flat, level, well-drained and maneuverable pathway is a must. Paving or brick is best. Paving, however, is expensive and retains heat. Brick can become uneven or slick with mildew if not maintained properly. Loose material (such as crushed stone) must be firmly packed for stability. Avoid abrupt or extreme drop-offs and pavement edges. Paths need to be 36″ wide for a wheelchair, five feet wide for two people to walk side by side. A five-foot turnaround area is required for wheelchairs.
- Grips – A rail or post to hold onto provides balance and stability for those who may be unsteady on their feet.
- Guides – Large areas can prove more than physically tiring. Being lost is not an enjoyable experience. Simple arrow markers or signs can assist those with restricted eyesight or reduced memory. Be creative – these don’t have to look like street signs.
Any physical limitations such as reduced ability to bend, kneel, lift, reach or grip must be considered when building or adapting the garden. Add the following features:
- Raised Beds -Bringing the garden to the gardener is the idea behind using raised beds. The traditional raised bed (18″ tall, more or less) could be used here but would still most likely be too low. Additional 6″ wide boards can be added to increase the height of the bed. Beds up to 3′ tall allow the gardener to stand while working. These can be made from brick or block and stained for a more natural look. A shorter raised bed with a built-in bench added would allow the gardener to sit while working and allow wheelchair access.
Bench -A comfortable bench to rest on is a welcome addition to any garden. If necessary, find one that allows easy transfer from a wheelchair.
- Containers -Whiskey barrels, hanging baskets, large pots (on the ground or on platforms with casters) can make plants accessible without excessive bending or banging knees.
- Vertical Gardens – Trellises, arbors and fences allow vining plants to be used in the landscape. Choose from many ornamental and edible plant varieties. See our Plant Guide for ideas.
- Tool Storage -Provide a secure waterproof place in the garden to store hand tools, gloves and other gardening items.
- Water -Water in a garden setting is almost essential. The look and sound of water attracts people and wildlife. Make sure your water feature is safe if your landscape will be frequented by anyone whose mobility or senses may be impaired. A small bubbling fountain may provide just as much enjoyment and interest as a pond.
One of the basic rules of landscaping and plant placement is to install smaller, shorter plants at the front of the planting bed or border. This “rule” is easily stretched by the use of raised beds. Those who have difficulty or are unable to bend down can “stop and smell the roses.” Choose plants based on fragrance and texture (how they feel to the touch) as well as pure appearance. Plant them where they can be enjoyed by all.