Bring Mother Earth within reach
All four statements are true. A few simple adaptations will allow anyone — young or old, crutch or wheelchair user — to harvest ripe tomatoes, germinate seeds, breathe the aroma of flowering plants, work the soil through their hands or simply enjoy the freedom of being outdoors with Mother Nature.
It's easy to see why gardening is a popular hobby. Few would complain about being surrounded by the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle in full bloom or a crop of fresh vegetables. Gene Rothert, developer of the Learning Garden for people with disabilities at the Chicago Botanic Garden and president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association, enjoys the result of successful gardening techniques and is more than willing to share his tips.
Rothert, who uses a wheelchair, blends his knowledge of gardening with the needs of people with disabilities in his book, The Enabling Garden (see below for details). His book shows how people of all ability levels can enjoy growing plants by planning ahead and making some adaptations. Rothert teaches the techniques he writes about to people with disabilities at the Learning Garden.
"One of the single most critical gardening adaptations for many people with disabilities and older adults is to raise the soil level to a comfortable working height," Rothert says.
People using wheelchairs, seniors or anyone else who can't easily kneel to cultivate, prune or do the other little chores of gardening, should consider a raised bed of soil to bring the plants to arm level. A raised bed, depending on how it's built, also provides a ledge to sit on if the gardener is able to stand, but needs to rest often.
Vertical gardening is another method to customize a planting area to fit the exact height or reach of an individual. Other useful ideas for accessible gardens include building a table planter for wheelchair users, adding accessible pathways and learning how special or adapted tools can help.
Raised beds are usually built as bottomless boxes containing large amounts of soil that are open for drainage below. Plants needing more care, such as those in a vegetable garden, would be a good choice for a raised bed. Low-maintenance plants such as border shrubs might not require a raised bed. Rothert points out that raised beds may be impractical if you lack yard space or if you're unable to build one.
"In these cases," he says, "consider using containers."
Containers, which come in a wide variety of sizes and costs, are great for planting favorite flowers or herbs. "Anything goes if it provides accessibility," Rothert says. Try using old pedestal bathtubs or stacking old tires to create a working area. "I particularly like to use old oak whiskey barrels. Cut in half, they are about 22 inches in height and a pretty good bargain at about $12 each."
Another way of growing plants, vertical gardening, is particularly helpful to people using wheelchairs or those who wish to avoid bending and stooping. People often overlook fences, walls, arbors, trellises and areas that lend themselves to hanging containers as structures to bring plants to a working height, but are favorites in The Enabling Garden.
Do-it-yourselfers with green thumbs can build larger vertical- wall gardens that are great because they are adjustable to any height.
Table planters are easily made containers especially recommended for wheelchair users and other seated gardeners. Usually built with a tabletop depth of about 6 to 12 inches for soil and with width and length dimensions best suited to the user, table planters are easy to customize.
Marie Quintin of Hanksville, Vt., recently named MDA's Personal Achievement Award winner for the state, enjoys gardening as a hobby and teaches others how to plant and grow a garden. She has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and uses short leg braces and a cane to get around. She likes the idea of gardening with a buddy.
"With gardening, one of the best benefits is being able to share," Quintin says. While sharing the duties of hoeing, planting and watering, friendships develop and are nurtured, just as the plants themselves are nurtured.
Gardening can open up conversations, providing "common ground" between young and old, people with different ability levels and backgrounds.
"It's a great way to meet people," she says. "And you can also enjoy the fruits of your labor by sharing home-grown vegetables with neighbors and acquaintances."
"The long winter months are an ideal time to plan ahead," Rothert says. "I suggest reading up about general gardening techniques, if you're a beginner, and then doing a garden layout to best fit your needs."
Visit local public gardens to get ideas, especially if accessible gardening techniques are used. Gardening classes are often available through rehab centers and independent living centers.
Finally, contact the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) to see if gardening programs are available in your area. AHTA is dedicated to the development of horticultural therapy efforts that serve and train people with disabilities.
The Enabling Garden: Creating Barrier-Free Gardens, by Gene Rothert, Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994.
The Able Gardener: Overcoming Barriers of Age & Physical Limitations, by Kathleen Yeomans, Garden Way Pub Co, 1993.
Also search online or at your local library for books using keywords "enabling gardens" or "accessible gardening."
Public Enabling Gardens
Buehler Enabling Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden
Denver Botanic Gardens
Enid A. Haupt Glass Gardens
Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine (NYC)
American Horticultural Therapy Association
AHTA provides a monthly newsletter, a journal and a network of regional chapters
National Gardening Association