Enabled Gardening

photo credit: 
agrilifetoday on flickr
Tending a garden can help your elder in more ways than one

As our parents age, bit by bit the activities that bring them joy are lost as physical limitations set in. Gardening does not have to be one of those lost hobbies. With a little planning and adjustments, gardens can be made accessible for everyone.

Why gardening?
Both children and the elderly can enjoy and participate in gardening. It is an ideal vehicle to cultivate a shared interest and encourage family connections. Gardening can be adjusted to the participant's ability without being demeaning or insulting. And activity and absorption in a task can distract a person from pain and relieve stress.

A plant fosters nurturing because it needs and responds to care. Growing plants give your elder something to care for without the burden of emotional attachments that other living things (like pets) require. Watching growing things gives all gardeners something to look forward to.

Growing vegetables or flowers produces a feeling of usefulness. Actually being able to contribute fresh foods to the table is a great booster of self worth. You can add to the specialness of the contribution by planning to harvest for holidays or other occasions, for example; pumpkins for Thanksgiving, tomatoes for the Fourth of July.

Jobs can be divided into manageable chunks and still give a sense of being a part of the whole. Sprinkling seeds and filling pots with soil are just as valuable and necessary as the heavier gardening.

Start with accessibility
The first order of business is to make maneuvering about the garden as effortless as possible. Gates should be easy to open and wide. Thirty-six inches is wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through. Paths should be smooth and free of materials.
If ramps are needed, be sure they have a non-skid surface and have a slope of no greater than 8%. A bench or chair placed in a nearby shady spot or a place to park a wheelchair for resting is a good idea. An important thing to remember is to keep the garden small enough so that it stays a pleasure and doesn't become a burden.

Raised beds and container gardens are ideal for gardeners who have physical limitations. Raised beds can be designed in a number of shapes, but take care to make all planting areas easily reachable. About three or four inches is a good width for beds and provides adequate access to the cultivated area. Beds should be about two to two and a half feet high for those in wheelchairs, and two and a half to three feet high for the semi-ambulatory.
There is a wide choice of materials that can be used, depending on how much you want to spend and whether or not you will want to redesign your garden for another planting season. Landscaping timbers are easier to move than heavy bricks or cross ties.

You may wish to build a movable bed. A child's wagon or even a wheelbarrow make an attractive, if shallow, movable bed. Annual flowers, strawberries and herbs can be planted in shallow containers, while vegetables need about 12 inches of soil and plenty of sun, eight to ten hours. If you build a movable bed for vegetables or plants requiring deeper soil, make it sturdy, keeping in mind that wet soil is very heavy.

An elevated or table bed is a shallow bed, usually built of wood, that is raised up off the ground. These types of beds are good for gardeners who need to work from a chair with their legs comfortably under the platform. The usual height for an elevated bed is thirty inches from the ground. Tables that are too high cause the arms to become quickly tired.

Grow up--literally
Don't overlook the possibility of vertical gardening. Climbing plants reduce the need for bending and stooping and bring the vegetation into easy reach for those in wheelchairs. Look for fences, walls and other areas you can use for vertical gardening. Some structures can provide places for hanging baskets as well.

Window boxes are ideal for gardeners who find going outdoors difficult. Plants can be directly planted in a soil filled box, or plants can be left in pots, then placed in a window box. Herbs and annuals are favorite window box plants. Care must be taken with window boxes to provide adequate drainage.

Container gardens require more watering than regular gardens, and a sprinkler hose will make that job less troublesome. Mulching will reduce the need for frequent weeding. Special gardening equipment to make gardening easier, such as kneepads and tools with longer handles, are widely available at garden centers and through gardening catalogs.

Some might assume planting perennials instead of annuals is a good choice, but for many climates perennials will get too cold during the winter if planted in a raised bed. When choosing the variety of plants for your garden, seek advice from a local nursery or garden center on the specific needs of the selections you want to grow.

Safety tips for older gardeners
Work should be done in the coolest part of the day. Wear a hat for protection from the sun. Many medications increase sensitivity to the sun, so you will want to check any prescriptions for those side effects. Wear gloves to protect the hands, and long sleeves if working around thorny areas.

Mark your tools by wrapping bright electrical tape around the handles so that if they are dropped or mislaid they will be easier to find. Have a designated storing place to keep them.

Older gardeners should rest after about thirty minutes of gardening or as soon as they become tired. Pesticides should be used minimally, if at all. If you do use pesticides make sure to always follow the directions and safety precautions carefully.

With a little planning and foresight, your elder can enjoy the garden for many years to come--and the whole family might benefit from the extra food and flowers.

Donna Stone is a freelance writer and home educates her four children.