University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
ACCESSIBLE GARDENING FOR THE PHYSICALLY
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
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
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.
Return to Perry's Perennial