Enabled Life

Into the Garden

Accessibility Strategies for Life-long Planting

Roll under beds at accessible garden

The Tarrant County Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden in Fort Worth, Texas, features an Enabling Garden that highlights the possibilities for accessible gardens. Pan beds in different heights allow wheelchair users to simply roll their chairs under the bed. Photos by Elisha Bury

Few activities compare to a day spent gardening. A day in the sun can enliven the mood, and the physical work in the dirt can invigorate the soul and reduce stress. And when those first few seedlings push through the soil or you see the finished product of a beautiful bed, a sense of accomplishment can stay with you a lifetime.

But as seasons change so too do physical abilities. Whether you’re a senior with stability and walking issues, a person with a new spinal cord injury or someone who’s been coping with a mobility condition your whole life, gardening can be accessible. All you have to do is think creatively.

Think Out of the Plot

The way you design your garden can have a huge impact on your gardening ability.

Heather Rhoades, founder of the Web site Gardening Know How and a gardener for more than 20 years, recommends these design elements:

  • Wider pathways – The right pathway will allow more room to maneuver mobility equipment and navigate gardening beds, which can be useful if you are prone to falling.
  • Vertical gardening
  • Location, location, location – Put the garden closer to your home so you can get to it easier.
  • Raised beds – If you’re using raised beds, make sure they are high enough to meet your needs.

Vertical gardens, which allow you to grow up instead of in a bed, don’t have to be complicated. One of the beds in the Fort Worth, Texas, Enabling Garden is referred to as a teepee bed, which is a form of vertical gardening. The beds are constructed so that the lattice connects at the top like a teepee.

“That allows you to grow any kind of a vegetable that climbs like squash or pole beans, and then you can drive your wheelchair right underneath it and reach up above your head and grab the vegetable,” says Lance Jepson, who served as chairman of the executive committee that built an Enabling Garden as part of the project for the 2008 master gardeners class.

In addition, Jepson says the garden features a mister, which is a great example of getting creative in your design.

“We put up a pergola with a misting system in it so that if you get too hot, you can come back and sit underneath that and cool off,” he says.

That’s one way to keep you gardening even on hot days.

Rhoades says one important thing to remember is that it’s okay to ask for help. “My grandfather had a cinder block garden, and he didn’t build that by himself,” she says. “He asked his kids for help to put together the beds so that he was able to continue what he enjoyed in his garden.”

Raise Your Expectations

Varied heights at accessible garden

Raised beds for people with balance issues or trouble getting up from a kneeling position allow people to rest on the sides of the bed as well as adjust how much they have to bend over.

One of the most important features of an accessible garden is the raised bed.

Rhoades says raised beds fall into two categories: a straight raised bed or a table raised bed.

“A straight raised bed would just be one that’s built up straight from the ground,” she explains. “That’s typically what’s used for senior gardens, where bending over may be an issue.”

Table raised beds provide room underneath the beds for people who have equipment, such as wheelchairs or walkers, that needs to be pushed underneath the beds.

Jepson also calls this type of bed a “pan” bed. The Fort Worth Enabling Garden has a variety of heights to accommodate various wheelchair sizes.

“You can drive your wheelchair right into the bed and then reach over the top to plant seeds or pull weeds or harvest or do what needs to be done for the garden,” he says.

Bench at accessible garden

A bench on one side of a raised bed allows a gardener to sit while working in a bed.

No matter which type of raised bed you use, Rhoades says that raised beds can be “a game changer.”

“I would tell anyone who’s gardening that raised beds are a great idea because you have beds that get warmer faster. They’re better able to deal with pests,” she says.

And if you have a mobility issue, then raised beds can help you in other ways. For examples, these types of beds can help address some of your mobility needs, according to Jepson:

  • A 20-by-4–inch bed with benches on both sides enables you to sit while gardening.
  • A tall bed with toe holes allows you to slide your feet underneath and get close to improve stability; the tall bed also allows you to stand while gardening.
  • A bed with a series of heights from 12 to 30 inches gives you the option of bending over or standing up.

Jepson says that the best way to decide what bed suits your needs is to visit an accessible garden in your area to see what the possibilities are. “We don’t have the definitive plans by any means,” he says.

“A lot of people have copied the 30-inch beds, and we discuss with them what materials we put in it. Some people take our advice, and some don’t,” Jepson says. “They have their own kind of imagination on what they want to build or put in.”

If you don’t possess construction skills, don’t worry. Cinder blocks are a great way to build raised beds.

“My grandfather did that with his raised beds. He used cinder blocks to build. It looks like a maze, where it was waste high,” Rhoades says. “He didn’t have to bend down. He didn’t have to do anything else to get to his gardening.”

Remember that because you’re using raised beds, you need to find a good source for soil and compost.

“Put the raised bed in the fall. Go get some manure from a local farm; put it in your raised bed,” Rhoades says. “You can compost over the winter and into spring. And then come planting time, you have a really good soil base for your raised bed.”

Implement Best Practices

Toe cubbies at accessible garden

This bed at the Tarrant County Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden in Fort Worth, Texas, includes toe holes so that someone can slide their toes underneath for more stability.

Today’s gardening tools also offer a much greater variety. Rhoades recommends searching online for tools with longer, ergonomic handles or tools with a thicker shaft to make holding the tool easier. She says you can also find tools that make all of those difficult gardening chores—think tilling and weeding—a cinch.

In addition, time savers can help you enjoy gardening.

“There’s a lot of information on gardening in 30 minutes a week and things like that,” Rhoades says. “That kind of information can be really helpful for accessible gardening because if you look at strategies that will help you keep your weeds down, then that’s less weeding you have to do. … So look at best practices in order to keep you able to do what you love.

“Don’t expect that you’re going to re-create the world in one season,” Rhoades says. “You’re relearning everything you’ve learned from the past. So don’t give up. You’re going to get there.”

Find an Accessible Community Garden

Many community gardens are springing up across the United States, and many of them have accessible plots. Community gardens offer a plot for a set fee in a space, and gardeners contribute by helping to upkeep the community portions of the space.

The Fort Worth Enabling Garden, for example, rents out gardening plots on a yearly basis and has master gardeners on hand to help you plan your own home plot, Jepson says.

In fact, any master gardening association or botanical gardens can help you locate accessible gardens in your area.

If you don’t have a community garden in your area, Heather Rhoades, founder of the Web site Gardening Know How, recommends checking with senior centers.

“A lot of senior centers are very interested in putting in accessible gardens on their facilities. The reason being is that they find that it’s very helpful for their residents or for their members to be able to continue gardening, she says.

Beyond just producing healthy food, gardening offers exercise and can help with depression, which is common among seniors, Rhoades explains.

Even if senior centers in your area don’t have a garden, Rhoades says, your interest might just be the catalyst they need to get one going.


Where to Find Gardening Tools
University of Missouri Extension has a list of enabling garden tools here.

Peta-Fist Grip makes gardening work easier. Find it here.

PBS has a list of helpful tools here.

Where to Find Gardening Assistance
The Tarrant County Master Gardeners Enabling Garden offers community garden plots. Find it at the Tarrant County Resource Connection, 1800 Circle Drive, Fort Worth, TX 76119 or e-mail Bill Vandever.

Brookfield Farm, located at 24 Hulst Road, Amherst, MA 01002, offers a community accessible garden.

Find gardening tips at Gardening Know How.

Check out pictures of options at the Texas A&M Enabling Garden here.

About the Author

Elisha Bury is the editor of The Mobility Project. She can be reached at consumer@hmemediagroup.com.