Raised beds in accessible garden. Photo by Mary Stewart.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Gardening is one of the more therapeutic things a person can do – emotionally, mentally and physically – but for some it seems out of reach.

Good design and practices can make gardening accessible for everyone.

“We all have challenges if we live long enough,” said Corinne Thomas-Kersting, a retired speech-language pathologist and nine-year Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener.  “We have different challenges. Even when you’re young and healthy there are things to do to prevent future disabilities.”

Thomas-Kersting advocates “universal” garden design – planning the landscape so that anyone can access and enjoy it.

“It is my deeply held belief that we don’t need to label people as having a disability versus being ‘normal,’” she said. “Using universal design benefits us all.”

There are many ways to design a universal garden. Being aware of Americans with Disabilities Act measurements for pathways, using raised beds and appropriate tools are good starting points, but Thomas-Kersting said there are many ways to invite anyone into the garden and protect the gardener from injury or future problems.

For instance, a garden can be designed for a person with a visual impairment with water features, fragrant plants, ornamental grasses that make a gentle sound as they blow in the wind and bright, contrasting colors.

“For me, I really love to touch things,” she said. “I’m gently touching things when I’m in another garden. Think about texture – smooth, fuzzy, lacy, sharp. Variety and diversity in the garden and mindfulness in how it’s designed opens up the opportunity for more people to enjoy it. And you enjoy it, as well.”

A new Extension publication, “Gardens are for Everyone,” gives tips for creating accessible home and community gardens, including design, navigation, tools and equipment and plant selection.

In her own garden, Thomas-Kersting redid some steps into a ramp. Not only does it allow people in wheelchairs to traverse the path, but it makes it easier to move the wheelbarrow from one area of the garden to another. And, she says, it looks better with a slopping, continuous path rather than the steps.

Stretching, resting and using the correct tools top the list of approaches to avoid injuries and mitigate disabilities of everything from mobility limitations to medical challenges such as arthritis. Have benches and chairs sprinkled throughout the garden as places to rest. Keep water around to sip while you sit. Stretch or walk a bit before and after time in the garden.

Ergonomic tools are available in a variety of prices. Look for curved handles and indentations for fingers on smaller tools or modify yours by wrapping them with water pipe insulation, bicycle handles or tape used to wrap golf clubs. Check that handles on larger equipment are long enough so you can keep your back straight. Tools shouldn’t be too heavy. Choose those made from aluminum, which is lighter than steel. Sometimes, lightweight children’s tools will do the job.

There’s much more you can do. Here are some tips to increase the ease of gardening:

  • Use a kneeler with handles that will help you get up. There are some versions that can be turned over and used as a seat.
  • Sit on a bucket or seat made for gardening.
  • Use major muscles and keep your back straight.
  • Start small. Biting off more than you can handle means more work and more chance of overdoing it.
  • Keep pruners and other equipment sharp and clean. With pruners, use a sheath to protect yourself from accidentally sitting or kneeling on them.
  • Build raised beds or tables out of wood, concrete blocks or thick pavers. Make them 3-4 feet wide so you can easily reach into the middle. Height should be between 24 to 36 inches. Kits are also available.
  • Move the garden to you by planting in containers or window boxes. Containers are easier to weed and water than gardens in the ground. They also take much less work to fill with soil than adding compost to in-ground gardens. Containers with wheels are easy to move around.
  • Make beds narrow enough so that you can get to the center when sitting or kneeling.
  • Put away tools, hoses, wheelbarrows and other equipment so there’s no chance of tripping over them.
  • Use a light or expanding hose.
  • Make paths easy to navigate without having to show people where to go.
  • Design wider paths with places to turn around. This works for wheelbarrows as well as mobility devices.
  • Instead of steps use gradually sloping paths.
  • Keep tools and equipment close to the garden so you don’t have to walk far. If possible, move or build sheds adjacent to the garden.
  • Garden with lower maintenance plants that don’t need as much water, pruning, staking and deadheading. Look for plants that are disease and pest resistant.


Extension Service

About the OSU Extension Service: The Oregon State University Extension Service shares research-based knowledge with people and communities in Oregon’s 36 counties. OSU Extension addresses issues that matter to urban and rural Oregonians. OSU Extension’s partnerships and programs contribute to a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future for Oregon.

Story By: 

Kym Pokorny, 541-737-3380, [email protected]


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