Gardening for the Disabled
It would have been unthinkable, only a few years ago, for a chapter in a general gardening book to be devoted to this topic. Things have changed partly because many people who have gardened all of their lives now wish to continue doing so, with relative ease, as they grow older. And second, and perhaps even more importantly, because gardening itself is now seen as a highly beneficial and therapeutic activity for those, gardeners or not, who have or who develop a disability. In consequence, several organisations now exist to give advice and assistance and I’m grateful for their publications in guiding me in much of what follows.
The basic principles of garden design still apply: deciding your needs, recognising your local conditions and drawing up a plan. If your mobility is restricted, the main consideration will be ease of access around the garden, so paths, steps andmust be designed to make this as simple as possible.
Paths: More paths will be needed than in a conventional garden and the additional cost shouldn’t be underestimated. Bear in mind that in a small plot, several wide paths will reduce the area available for growing plants. One option is to have narrower paths with turning spaces at intervals: if done with attractive materials and in a regular fashion as part of the overall design of a garden, this can be very striking. Slipping is a hazard so brick paviours and some types of slab are the best options. Loose gravel is difficult for wheelchair use but by using a 5mm (1/4in) layer of mechanically compacted chippings on top, the surface will be easier to grip. A low edging to a path that will prevent wheelchairs slipping off the path is also useful to the visually impaired as is a tapping rail.
Steps: Wide, shallow steps are the easiest to use but a slip-resistant surface is again important. Keep steps clear of obstacles such as pots and try to avoid positioning them under overhanging trees that drop fruit and leaves. A firm handrail can be helpful but choose a style that fits in with the rest of the garden. Providing the slope is gradual, ramps can replace steps to keep costs down, but in positioning steps, try to work with the shape of the garden. Ramps are best made of concrete and the gradient should be at least 1:1 5; the ideal is 1:20. This does of, course, increase the length and in a small area, could be considered unsightly. Try to provide some screening or use a local point therefore to draw the eye away from the ramp.
Raised Beds: These are expensive to install, so try working with one in another garden first to satisfy yourself that they really are what you want. If you do decide to go ahead, you have the option of free-standing raised beds or those that are built against an existing wall or slope. Free-standing beds are more expensive and look unnatural but access to both sides is possible. Cutting into a slope and using a retaining wall to hold back theis cheaper and more attractive. Piling up soil against a garden wall and building a retaining wall in front is both quick and inexpensive and worthwhile if you have an existing wall in a suitable position.
A width of 60cm (2ft) – or 120cm (4ft) if there is to be access from both sides – is ideal for a raised bed but the most suitable height will depend on the height of the person using it and the types of tools they have. As a guide, assume that the shoulders are flat and the soil is below elbow level. The walls must be strong enough to hold the soil whilst being as thin as possible so the user can gel close to the plants. Most raised beds are constructed horn timber, concrete slabs or brick but weep holes may be needed for drainage and lining the inside with polythene can help to prevent damp from penetrating the materials.
Growing in Containers
An alternative to raised beds is to grow plants in containers on a level surface but make sure that you have easy access to an outside tap or water butt. There are many types of container now available, but half barrels are popular: they are large enough to grow a wide range of plants, inexpensive, fit into many gardening styles, can be left out overwinter and are firm and stable. Containers needn’t be considered permanent fixtures, however, and can be moved on trolleys or fitted with castors. Hanging baskets and window boxes are also practical, especially if a long-handled sprayer or other device is used for ease of watering.
A great deal of research and study has been made in recent years into the design of tools that are appropriate for different types of disability. I have followed the experts’ categories here and it is evident that by defining the problem, the solutions almost present themselves.
Difficulty in Bending or Kneeling: Long-handled tools can enable most gardening activities to be done while the back is straight. A jacket with plenty of wide pockets for holding small items avoids the necessity of having to bend down to reach into a bag. Kneeler stools and knee pads are other useful options.
Weak Grip: Arthritis can cause both pain and weakness in the hands and arms, making pruning and digging difficult. Careful choice of shrubs and correct spacing can reduce the need to prune while extensive use of mulches can reduce the need for digging. Pistol-grips are more comlorlable to hold than conventional handles and you can either fit your own or buy tools already equipped with them: they often also have arm supports, fixing loam padding to existing handles can make them more comfortable, while ratchet pruners need less strength than conventional models, although they do take longer to cut.
Chronic Fatigue: Lightweight tools may help but learning to pace your activities so that you do ‘little and often’ is the best approach. Try to be well organised so you don’t waste physical energy looking for tools or simply walking to and fro. If chronic fatigue is a long term concern, you should seriously consider redesigning the garden so that it creates less work.
One Hand or Arm: A number of one-handled tools are available while cordless (battery operated) versions of many tools are also helpful.
Wheelchair: Using the correct tools (long-handled or light-weight for instance) can be a big help when trying to garden from a wheelchair but the physical handling of materials is the hardest problem to solve. Tools should be stored somewhere accessible and be carefully organised on tool racks.
Visual Impairment: This covers a range of conditions and individual solutions will be needed to enable you to move around the garden safely and measure out materials you need. Apart from a sale layout, clues will be needed so a visually impaired person can orientate themselves: the sound of chimes or water (a pool is dangerous), a change in texture on a path, the provision of hand rails, the avoidance of trip hazards and the provision of defined edges to borders, paths and other features. Planting should include not only scented and aromatic plants but also those with contrasting textures.
Garden Tools and Equipment
There isn’t one set of tools that will suit all disabled users but there is now a wide range available, which means that finding out by trial and error shouldn’t present a problem. Often a slight adaptation to a conventional tool is just as useful as buying an expensive specialist aid. Make contact with a local centre or group where you can try out a range of tools before buying. Large garden centres generally stock a reasonable range but a wider selection will be obtainable by mail order.
Instead of buying separate tools, several companies now offer so-called multi-change systems. These allow you to buy handles separately from the heads; many handle lengths are available (some are telescopic) with a wide range of tool heads. These systems, however, are only as good as their fixing mechanisms so check both their effectiveness and that also you can operate it easily. Among the tasks for which special tools might be able to help are :
Weeding: Long-handled hoes and weed-pullers save having to bend down but remember that the use of mulches and other techniques may help reduce the amount ofrequired.
Digging: This is a strenuous activity for all gardeners and it is worth using techniques such as mulching that help to reduce the need for digging. Lightweight digging tools are available but you may also consider those with either shorter or longer than average handles and those tilted with an auxiliary handle or a pistol-grip. Spring-aided spades are used by many able-bodied gardeners and they are suitable for many disabled gardeners too.
Pruning: The problems with most conventional pruning tools are their weight and the strength required to make a cut. Longer handles can reduce the need to bend down or reach up while a ratchet action requires less strength. Cut and grip cutting tools (those that hold the item once it has been cut) reduce the need to bend over and pick up clippings. Bear in mind that there are many versions of conventional garden shears, including the extremely useful one-handled models.
Watering: The installation of an automatic watering system is a relatively costly option but one that could be amply repaid in the time and effort that it saves in the daily chore of summer watering. Another way to reduce watering is to choose plants that are more drought tolerant and to mulch generously in early spring. Watering cans van,’ greatly in size and shape so try several to find the one that suits you best. Remember that carrying two small cans might be easier than one large one. A hose that rewinds itself on a reel might save effort and be safer than leaving it out, while seeping hoses, spray guns and sprinklers can also be useful.
Moving Materials: One-handed wheelbarrows and the ascender barrow that can be lowered to the ground in order to load goods at ground level are both excellent aids. Other options include adapting a trolley to hold tools or using ground sheets to drag materials rather than carrying them.
Greenhouses and sheds: For wheelchair access, make sure there is no door threshold, and the door width is adequate (double doors can be fitted to most garden buildings). For a greenhouse, automatic vent openers are valuable in summer and thermostatically controlled electric fan healers in winter. Sheds should be well-organised with tools kept on racks.