Table of ContentsToggle
Gardening offers a number of health benefits, but you don’t need to kneel down in the dirt or lift heavy shovels to grow something beautiful.
September 30, 2023 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
“Gardening can be extremely accessible if it is set up correctly,” he said.
Fall is a time when many gardeners are planting bulbs, cleaning up beds and getting their gardens ready for winter. The Washington Post spoke to gardeners with disabilities and other experts for their best advice on making gardening more accessible. Here’s what they had to say.
Limit kneeling and bending with raised beds or containers
Raised beds can make gardening more accessible for people with mobility issues, said Wendy Knowlton, program supervisor and chair of a committee that teaches gardening skills to adults with disabilities at the Dartmouth Adult Services Centre in Nova Scotia, Canada.
For gardeners who use a wheelchair, a bed can be raised high enough that the wheelchair can be rolled directly up to the garden, she said. A U-shaped raised bed can be particularly useful, she said, because someone can sit in the middle and reach all 3 sides from the same location.
Instead of gardening on the ground, try container gardening, which involves growing plants in pots or bins. Put the container at a height that is easy to reach, and make sure you can move the container easily, said Phyllis Turner, 77, a Virginia Cooperative Extension master gardener with arthritis who teaches seminars on adaptive gardening.
“I firmly believe almost anyone can do gardening,” Turner said. “Even if you’re in a hospital bed, we can pull a table across, you can plant seeds into a pot, you can set it in a windowsill and they can grow.”
Plants grown in containers tend to have fewer diseases and insects, making them easier to care for, she said. One potential downside is that the soil dries faster, so plants may need to be watered more often.
Remember that kneeling or bending can put stress on the joints and on the spine, said Alicia Green, a horticultural therapist at Chicago Botanic Garden. People with joint pain, such as arthritis, or mobility issues, should limit the amount of time they are kneeling or bending over in their gardens.
Use a garden stool or rolling gardening chair
For people with joint, pain or mobility issues, a garden stool or rolling chair can help.
Charis Hill, 36, of Sacramento, sits on a cart with wheels to roll alongside the vegetable beds. Hill has health conditions that cause painful joints, fatigue and mobility issues. But Hill has used accessible gardening methods to create a backyard oasis of plants, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.
“Gardening is a place where I’m reminded that I have a place in this world that’s safe and that I have control over,” Hill said.
Try a reversible kneeling bench
Some gardening tasks require kneeling. Toni Gattone, 75, of Sonoma, Calif., recommends a reversible kneeling bench with foam padding. Gattone is a master gardener with chronic, severe back pain and arthritis who offers adaptive gardening seminars, and said an advantage of the reversible kneeler bench is that the legs of the bench can also be used as a hand grip to help push yourself up off the ground when you are kneeling.
Get extendible or long handle tools
Extended reach tools are essential for gardeners with physical limitations. A watering wand can be attached to a hose to make it easier to water plants. A stand-up weeder relies on a claw at the end of a long handle to uproot weeds.
“You want the tool to do the work for you,” Green said.
Find ergonomic tools with easy grips
Look for lighter tools that are easy to lift and ergonomic tools, where the handle is bent in such a way that it reduces the amount of twisting or provides the force you need to use to do tasks such as shoveling soil. Some tools come with straps, which can be useful for someone who has poor coordination or weak hands. Some gardening hoses come with a hook that can keep the handle squeezed for you.
When selecting your tools, Gattone recommends going to the store and asking a salesperson to take the tool out of its packaging so that you can feel how comfortable it is for you.
You can also make the tools you already have easier to grip by adding foam padding, wrapped on each end with tape, Turner said. She recommends buying pipe insulation and cutting it to match the length of your handle.
Ease the labor with automated or self-watering devices
Use labor-saving devices at every opportunity, Turner said. This helps reduce the amount of work you need to do and can reduce any stress on your body. “Gardening is more fun when it’s less labor,” she added.
Because of her disabilities, which cause chronic pain and require her to use a wheelchair, Rosemary McDonnell-Horita, 29, of Berkeley, Calif., doesn’t always have the energy or ability to water her plants each day.
She buries terracotta pots (with the drainage hole plugged) into the soil, fills them with water and covers them with a lid. This way, water slowly seeps through the clay pot into the surrounding soil.
“I only have to water my plants every few days depending on how hot or dry it is,” McDonnell-Horita said.
Seed tape already has seeds on it that are correctly spaced out and can be buried directly in the soil as is, which may be especially helpful for blind gardeners or gardeners that have intellectual disabilities, Turner said.
Reduce strain on joints with orthopedic aids
Hill wears prescription knee braces and notes that wearing orthopedic aids provide stability and reduces joint strain while gardening.
“Wear braces even when you don’t think you need them,” Hill said. “I’ll often put them on as a reminder to not squat so low because it’s painful. When I’m in the groove, I’m not thinking about the ramifications of what I’m doing.”
Compression socks or sleeves can help reduce inflammation, swelling and soreness from gardening, Gattone said. She also recommends stretching before gardening and switching up your activities so that you don’t do any single gardening task for more than 20 minutes at a time.
“You can use different muscle groups and avoid repetitive movements to avoid pain,” she said.
Utilize free public resources
Look for your state’s master gardener programs, which may often offer classes on adaptive gardening to get hands-on learning, said Kathleen Wellington, 72, a master gardener living in Fairfax, Va.
The National AgrAbility Project at Purdue University maintains a database of tools that can help people with various disabilities who want to garden. The site can be tricky to navigate, but Paul Jones, program manager at the project, recommends looking at tools labeled “Gardening” and “Vegetable, Small Fruit, and Flower Production.”
Jones has worked with farmers and gardeners with a wide range of disabilities, he said, including people who have amputated limbs or who are quadriplegics.
“Don’t rule yourself out,” he said.
Sign up for the Well+Being newsletter, your source of expert advice and simple tips to help you live well every day