Gardening Ideas for the Disabled Gardener
In recent years, a great deal has been done to help the disabled, elderly and infirm to participate more fully in the pleasures of gardening. A number of manufacturers produce specialized tools and appliances for the disabled and there are a number of demonstration gardens throughout the British Isles, including those of the Disabled Living Foundation, 380-384 Harrow Road, London W9 2HU, as well as the Royal Horticultural gardening for special educational needs project.
Disabilities range from the back-aches and stresses of the elderly to the almost total immobility of those crippled by illness or accident. For those in the first category, only slight adaptations may be needed, including the choice of more suitable tools and the use of proprietary kneeling devices which will minimize stooping and bending as well as doubling as useful garden stools when they are reversed.
The more seriously disabled or infirm will usually need a specially planned and designed garden in order to be able to pursue their hobby in relative comfort. Many disabled people possess tremendous determination and, as a result, devise ingenious methods enabling them to take full advantage of any such aids available to make gardening easier.
Garden Planning for the Disabled Gardener
The design of a garden for disabled persons will depend, to a large extent, on whether they are able to walk or are confined to wheelchairs. For the elderly the infirm who are still able to walk, the provision of handrails and non-slip paths is of the utmost importance. Also, wherever possible, steps should be replaced by gently sloping ramps.
Handrails, which should be provided alongside the main paths, can be constructed of wood, steel or plastic tubing. For safety’s sake, extra care should be taken in their installation. Only if they are really safe and firm can they be used with complete confidence. A rickety support is exceedingly dangerous and, for the old and frail, can be worse than no sup-port at all.
Paths should be surfaced with asphalt or non-slip paving stones. This is of the utmost importance where the garden is designed for the walking disabled, since it is essential to provide a safe surface not only for those who have to use walking frames or similar aids, but also for those with lesser disabilities that make walking difficult.
Paving stones are obtainable in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colours and most of them have non-slip surfaces. To prevent any subsequent movement, the slabs should be laid in cement and be properly levelled, with great care taken to avoid even the slightest irregularities.
Paths should be at least 1m (3 ft) wide, to allow for the passage of wheelchairs or to permit a disabled person and his helper to walk two abreast. For wheelchairs, it will be necessary to provide turning spaces at strategic intervals and these should not be less than 1.2-1.5m (4-5 ft) in width.
In addition to paths running through the garden, supplementary paths running through beds and borders will be particularly useful, for these will allow easy access to all cultivated areas for any necessary maintenance work. For those confined to wheelchairs and for the elderly and infirm who are unable to bend or stoop, raised beds are the best answer.
The larger beds, especially those at ground level, are best planted with easy-to-maintain shrubs, with an under-planting of ground cover). If regular mulching is also carried out, beds of this kind will require only a minimum of attention apart from an occasional pruning of the shrubs. Between them, the ground cover plants and the mulches will smother the majority of annual and perennial weeds.
Raised beds for the disabled gardener can be constructed from a variety of materials – brick, walling stone, natural stone or peat. Peat is particularly suitable where the gardener wishes to grow lime-hating subjects such as rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and heathers on a site with predominantly alkaline soil, since the beds can be filled with peat, which is non-alkaline.
Another point in favour of peat blocks is the fact that they are so light to handle. They will need a thorough soaking before use, after which they can be bonded like bricks until the required height of wall is reached. This can vary according to the needs of the person concerned, but approximately 1m (3 ft) should be optimum, both for those who can walk and for those in wheelchairs.
Raised beds can be laid out to form attractive designs, suitable for large or small areas. Such beds can have as many and varied uses as those in the more conventional kind of garden, and can be adapted to suit individual needs.
The ‘Gardens for the Disabled’ Trust have their own specially designed aids to easier gardening. They are constructed of fibre-glass, which makes them light and easy to handle. They include a system of raised bed units which are obtainable in sizes ranging from 1.2 x 1.6m (4 x 5-1/2ft) up to 1.2x5m (4x17ft). These are designed to be comfortable to work at from either a wheelchair or garden stool. The soil depth varies from 10cm (4in) at the edges to 45cm (18in) or more at the centre.
Also obtainable are smaller circular plant containers of similar height with a circular top 60 cm (2 ft) in diameter. These can either be planted up or used as containers for pot plants.
Tools for Disabled Gardeners
Many of the conventional garden tools can be comfortably used by the disabled, but there are others designed specially with their needs in mind. These include a weeder that looks like a walking stick, with a spear-shaped end and a lever action which enables the end to grip the weed prior to pulling it out. This is a useful tool for the removal of deep-rooted weeds such as docks and dandelions. Shallow-rooted annual weeds can be removed with a long-handled rake-like weeder, the blades of which drag the weeds out of the soil. The latter tool also comes with a short handle for use at closer quarters on raised beds.
Cut-and-hold flower gatherers, both long and short-handled, make the task of dead-heading easy; there are also long-handled appliances for picking up piles of weeds and other garden rubbish without needing to bend down at all.
Other useful tools include trowel, fork and planter sets with special ‘trigger’ grips that enable those with stiff or disabled wrists or hands to grasp them firmly, and a spade and fork with spring-loaded shaft and blade that takes much of the effort out of digging – no bending or lifting of the spade is required.