Simple changes make gardening easier for wheelchair users

May 27, 2007|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

While gardening nourishes the soul, it can challenge the body, especially those gardeners who cannot walk, reach or bend freely.

The first thing to consider in designing a garden for those who use a wheelchair is access. Paths or walkways both to and in the garden must be wide enough and made of a material that allows easy movement of the wheelchair.

"It must be smooth and level [side to side] with no steep slopes," says Jack Carman, a landscape architect in Medford, N.J., who designs therapeutic gardens for senior communities. "A 2 to 3 percent grade allows someone to safely wheel up and down."

"The big thing is having a lot of walkways so you can get to everything," says Ed Miller. Miller, who had never even held a trowel until he began using a wheelchair 20 years ago, now gardens on 5 acres in Hilton, N.Y.

Another consideration is comfort. Many wheelchair gardeners prefer raised beds, tall pots or other chair-height options so they don't have to lean far out of the chair.

"We raise the beds in our Renaissance Gardens so that the bed level is equal with the seat of the wheelchair," says Jane Powell, head of public relations at Oakcrest Village in Parkville.

Louis Tenebaum, a Potomac consultant, has designed a variety of raised beds, including tabletop and platform gardens, to address the comfort of the gardener who works from a seated position. "You can have a raised bed that you can get your knees under."

Carman often uses smooth wooden planters - concrete and stone are hard on a gardener's skin if arms are moving across them constantly - that are about 2 feet wide for easy reaching. Tools that offer extra reach - long-handled pruners, hand forks, and sharp-edged Japanese hoes are great options.

Stamina is often an issue for wheelchair gardeners. Lightweight tools can help. Carman also gauges the height of a planter and plant together so the gardener isn't constantly straining upward, a problem that Tenebaum solved for one client by making adjustable beds.

"We put tomato plants into window boxes that were adjustable in height through the simple process of bolts sticking out from a wall," Tenebaum explains. "As the plants grew and she needed to reach up to pick the tomatoes, we came back and dropped the soil height down."

Yet while many wheelchair gardeners benefit from chair-height gardens, not all need or want them. Miller, who does 10K races in his wheelchair, has none.

"Bending is not a problem for me," he says. "I use a rake or a shovel. I can deadhead and prune. It may take me way longer, but as long as I can reach it, I can do it."

Tips for gardeners in wheelchairs

Attach hanging baskets to pulleys to lower them for maintenance.

Choose lightweight tool options. Plastics are cheaper but sometimes less sturdy. Fiberglass usually lasts longer.

Use ergonomic tools that fit the hand's shape. For example, there are pruners whose handles rotate and that come in both left- and right-handed configurations.

Consider lightweight pots. Provided they won't blow over, they are easier to shift. Heavy pots are easier to lean on.

Hook a small, wheeled market basket to the wheelchair to act as a quiver for long-handled tools. A leather or other stiff-walled insert (so it doesn't catch on tools as you extract them) keeps them from falling out.

In a larger garden, use a large container to hold the tools you use most often so you don't have to carry them back and forth.

Put a hose holder in the garden to keep from dragging a heavy hose around -- hose guides keep it from destroying plants.

Keep tools sharp and clean, so they are easier to use.

NANCY TAYLOR ROBSON

Sources

Design for Generations

92 Tallowood Drive

Medford, N.J. 08055

609-953-5881

designforgenerations.com

Louis Tenebaum

Independent Living Strategist

Potomac 20859

301-983-0131

Medford Cedar Products

59 Old Red Lion Road

Southampton, N.J. 08088

609-859-1400

medfordcedar.com

Therapro, Inc.

225 Arlington St.

Framingham, Mass. 01702-8723

508-872-9494

800-257-5376

theraproducts.com

Charley's Greenhouse

17979 State Route 536

Mount Vernon, Wash. 98273

1-800-322-4707

Abledata

8630 Fenton St.

Suite 930

Silver Spring 20910

800-227-0216CQ

abledata.com

Books

Accessible Gardening for People with Physical Disabilities: A Guide to Methods, Tools, and Plants by Janeen R. Adil (Idyll Arbor, 1995)

Accessible Gardening: Tips and Techniques for Seniors and the Disabled by Joann Woy (Stackpole Books, 1997)

The Enabling Garden: A Guide to Lifelong Gardening by Gene Rothert (Taylor Publishing Co., 1994)

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