The Kentucky GROW Garden:          
Basics of Enabling Garden Design

            Gardening is one of America’s favorite hobbies.  Whether your garden is a potted tomato on your apartment balcony or a half an acre of organic vegetables and flowers, there are some basic design concepts and measurements to keep in mind to maximize accessibility and ease strain.  Growers with disabilities or limitations have several different options to assist with accessibility.   Some of these include raised bed gardens, container gardening, vertical gardens and specialty tools.   Discussion of the many options available in enabling garden tools is too lengthy for this publication, but look for other Kentucky GROW publications that cover this topic.

            The first step in designing a garden is to evaluate your needs and the needs of others who may be working in or visiting the garden.   If you have trouble bending over (or getting back up after you bend over) then raised beds would be a great place to start.  Raised beds are also great for gardeners who use a wheelchair or cannot stand for long periods of time.  Other considerations for gardeners who use a cane or walker as well as those who use a wheelchair include wide, level paths, convenient turnaround areas and easily-negotiable surfaces.  Container gardens are often portable and allow for the gardener to determine his or her own comfortable working height.  Vertical structures and adjustable hanging baskets are other ways a gardener can design his or her own comfortable working height.

 Raised Beds

             Raised beds can be constructed out of several different materials.  Most common are landscape timbers, treated wood, brick, interlocking stone blocks and becoming increasingly popular is plastic lumber.  Another option is pre-made aluminum raised beds.  Important considerations when building raised beds are reach, orientation of the sun and availability of water.  If your bed is accessible from all sides, then it can be two times the width of your comfortable reach.   The rule of thumb is no more than 60 inches wide.  For beds with access from one side only, then stay under 30 inches wide.   You should adapt these recommendations to fit your needs.   To determine your maximum reach, sit parallel to a table, your legs not underneath it and measure how far you can reach comfortably, then double that length.  If you prefer standing, lean with your thighs against the edge of the table and measure with one hand on the table for support.  Once the appropriate width is established, the length can be as long as you like.  The height for a seated gardener or gardeners who use wheelchairs should be about 2 feet, although you can adjust it within the range of 18 to 30 inches tall and still suit most users.  Remember, a wider rail can be added all around the raised bed to serve as a seat and resting place for tools, etc.  Also, raised beds do not have to be rectangular or square.  Experiment with different shapes such as L-shaped, kidney-shaped or round – just remember to keep your reach measurements in mind while designing.  Try to orient your gardens north/south to maximize the sun’s path across the sky and avoid large plants shading smaller ones.   Don’t forget access to a convenient water source as raised beds can dry out more quickly than planting directly into the ground.

 Container Gardening

          One of the most creative and fun ways to garden is by using containers.   A container can be anything that holds soil and is large enough to support the root system of the plants you choose to grow.  Containers can be anything from whiskey barrels, clay pots, plastic planters, old boots and ‘recycled’ toilet bowls.    Create your own ‘pipe organ’ effect by planting in metal or pvc pipe of various heights bunched together.   Containers can be small enough to be easily moved or larger containers can be placed on dollies for portability.   Large, non-mobile containers can be planted and strategically placed to serve as stable resting places or handrails for those who may be unsteady on their feet.   Since containers typically hold much less soil than raised beds, a nearby and convenient water source is a must.   Table planters are especially handy for gardeners who used wheelchairs or need to be seated.   One design is a shallow soil filled tray about 6 inches deep, supported on legs which allows for 27 inches of knee clearance underneath.  Once again determine your reach when choosing the width of the table planter. 

 Vertical Gardening and Hanging Baskets

             Vertical structures and hanging baskets offer other ways to create accessibility while seated.   Arbors and trellises can be used alone or in conjunction with raised beds and container gardens.  Arbors (pergolas) are overhead structures that create semi-shade.  Hanging baskets can be suspended from these structures.  Vertical wall gardens are containers that hold the exposed soil surface perpendicular to the ground.   They are typically no more than 1 foot deep and can be whatever length, height or shape you desire.  Advantages include; increased amount of useable growing space, retain moisture longer than other methods, easy accessibility.   Disadvantages of vertical wall gardens are that you must start with transplants, and it may limit types of plant that can be grown.

            Hanging baskets are any small or medium sized container that can be suspended from a rope and pulley system or a commercially made retractable pulley.   These devices make it easy to lower hanging baskets for accessibility and raise them for plant protection. 
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the enabling gardening strategies or methods.  There are many other tips that can help you enjoy gardening activities.