University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

For many people, gardening is a therapeutic activity, providing hours of relaxation and contemplation. But as we age, even some of the simplest tasks like planting flowers or weeding become difficult due to arthritis, back injuries, and other health problems. Injuries caused by accidents and other physical limitations also pose challenges to gardeners. Don’t give up gardening if you have physical limitations, just change how you do it, and perhaps the tools you use and the space you garden.
You may need to buy different tools, plant in raised beds or containers, or redesign garden paths for easier movement. You may need to downsize, focusing on fewer garden beds. You may wish to shop by mail order instead of making the trip to your garden center for supplies, seeds, and plants.
The first step is to determine your limitations, then take them into account when planning the garden. If you are having trouble bending, then you'll probably want raised beds. Raised beds are becoming increasingly popular, even for those without physical limitations, as they are easier to weed and manage.  They can be low (usually 8 to 10 inches, up to 16 to 20 inches high) if you can work sitting or on your knees.  If in a wheelchair or mobility seat, 24 to 36 inches high is best—lower is better if you’ll have tall crops such as tomatoes that require reaching.  
If you or your guests use a cane, walker, or wheelchair, allow extra space between plantings and make sure you have a smooth, hard-surfaced path to get to and from the garden. If for those merely with walking and standing limitations, place benches and seats nearby.
If for wheelchairs, paths should be wide enough—at least 3 feet wide, and often 4 to 5 feet wide, particularly on corners or for turning.  Paths should be as level as possible and have raised edges and a hard surface of a non-skid material such as roughened concrete, asphalt, or interlocking bricks. Don't use wood as it will be slippery when wet, bark chips and straw are hard to wheel on, and bare soil is a mess after rains.
You can plant your flowers and vegetables in containers or in shallow planters placed on a table at wheelchair height. Many annuals and herbs are particularly suited for container gardening as they have shallow roots.  Just remember to water often if it doesn’t rain sufficiently.  
If you or family member has trouble walking, move the garden closer to your back door. Keep tools close by, such as in a tool shed with a door that's at least 36 inches wide if you use a wheelchair.  You may want to purchase some type of tool carrier such as an apron with large pockets, a child's wagon, tool cart, or a bucket or basket. You can find tool caddies with wide wheels at your hardware store or garden center. These often have a seat with a storage area underneath for your hand tools.
Speaking of tools, consider lightweight tools with large handles for better grip, especially if you suffer from arthritis or have limited strength. Increasingly you can find ergonomic tools, particularly hand ones, with curved handles that are easier to hold. Wheelchair-bound gardeners will find long-handled tools more convenient to use. There are pruners with handles that swivel, making the repetitive cutting motion easier on your hands.
Foam kneeling pads or knee pads will make gardening gentle on the joints. Many garden stores now carry these, some quite decorative, or you can find functional ones at home supply and hardware stores. 
A four-wheeled cart may be easier to push, or pull, than a wheelbarrow, with less chance of tipping. Some wheelbarrows have two wheels, so are hard to tip.  I just bought a new wheelbarrow with looped plastic handle ends—much easier to hold and tip.
Visually impaired? Even if not, but if you have friends or family members who are, make it possible for them to enjoy your garden by selecting plants and features with sensory interest. Hang wind chimes or put in a fountain for orientation in the garden, as well as the sound effects. Ornamental grasses add sound to the garden as does a bubbling fountain.
Plant fragrant roses, herbs, scented geraniums, and moonflowers among other aromatic flowers.  Lavender and rosemary are great choices for tender perennial herbs, useful as well as with aromatic leaves.
Use colorful plant markers with large print. Think about mass plantings of brightly- colored flowers such as red geraniums and yellow marigolds, orange gerbera and blue salvia, or bright red and white petunias with blue lobelia. 
Buy a large magnifying glass for planting seeds and viewing plants if your vision is limiting. (Any gardeners should have a magnifier, even if a small one as used for coins, to scout leaves for insects.) There even are magnifier head sets you can wear, leaving your hands free. Or, use mechanical seeders or seed tapes when planting.
Keep beds narrow to make them easier to weed.  Set up a drip irrigation system so you won't have to lug a hose to the garden every time you need to water. Use mulches to reduce weeding and watering, or hire your neighbor's child to help with these and other chores. It's a good way to introduce the next generation to the joys of gardening.
Whether you are a new gardener or a long-time gardener facing new challenges yourself or with others, think small.   Plant a smaller garden than you might be tempted to when planning, or perhaps had in the past.  Plant fewer plants, choosing low-maintenance, easy-to-grow varieties. Shrubs usually require less care than perennials, which require less care than most annual flowers.
If you’ve been gardening in the past, and can no longer keep up with the weeding and harvests, perhaps this is the time to “right size” to what you can handle.  Read up on more such ideas in the book by Kerry Ann Mendez, The Right-size Flower Garden: Simplify Your Outdoor Space with Smart Design Solutions and Plant Choices.

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