Gardening is simply arranging your corner of the natural world in a way that you enjoy. Flowers, native plants, vegetables, water features, even rocks, if Zen is your thing, can all be “gardened” both indoors and outdoors.
The requirements for you to start a garden are surprisingly few. You don’t need a huge yard or a ton of money. You don’t even need to go outside. You just need to want to give it a try and be open to accepting a little assistance here and there.
We talked to wheelchair gardeners from across the country who are passionate about planting and watching their harvest grow. Following are their tips for you, future gardeners. We hope they inspire you to join us in the garden.
Why We Garden
For many gardeners, the greatest joy is just being in their garden, watching it grow and taking in the smells and colors. The appeal is the ability to quietly relax and enjoy nature. Getting more fresh fruits and veggies is a perk for most, for sure. And for some, such as Riley Poor, a C5-6 quad living in Portland, Oregon, one appeal is the exercise he gets.
“Every time I garden it’s a full-on workout because I just tend to go until I can’t anymore!” laughs Poor, who tends veggies and other plants using a manual chair with power assist wheels. “It’s the best. I love getting home from work, rolling out there and checking the progress of everything, doing the watering, cutting stuff back and just tending to it and watching it as it grows up.”
While Poor enjoys a great physical workout, Sarah Rose gardens for a different purpose. “I find it to be a meditative activity that relaxes me and makes me feel that life is all good and how it should be,” says Rose, who has a type of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth. She gardens using a manual chair — and sometimes her tractor — at her home in Durango, Colorado. “I love how I feel after working in the garden for a few hours, and I enjoy just hanging out in the garden watching the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.”
For Vini Portzline, a C1-2 quad from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, it’s a way of plugging into the very essence of nature. “It creates all kinds of connections,” says Portzline, who has gardened from her power chair for nearly 20 years. She grows flowers, vegetables and even fairy gardens at her home. “It gives me a sense of purpose, a sense of connection to something bigger than me, the planet, and even to other people.”
One of the big perks for gardeners who raise fruits, vegetables and herbs is immediate access to ripe, fresh produce. “I love to roll outside and pick a vine-ripened tomato — that is the only way to eat a tomato,” says Lisa Lanier, who has osteogenesis imperfecta. She gardens in Mocksville, North Carolina, using her power chair. “We eat tomato sandwiches, and they’re not good unless you pick the tomatoes directly off the vine.”
The food is the point for Craig Kennedy, a T12 complete para, as well. Kennedy, who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, gardens indoors and outdoors in his manual chair. “Now that I’m in the health and wellness industry I know the importance of nutrition,” says Kennedy, a health and business coach for the Juice Plus Company. “The stuff that we get at the store sometimes isn’t nutrient-dense. I feel like the food from my gardens tastes better because I grew it.”
Christina Mills gardens using her manual chair and attaches a Firefly power assist to help with the hills and gravel of her yard in Benicia, California. Mills, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, makes her love of gardening vegetables and fruits a family affair. “My kids absolutely love it,” she says. “I find it really rewarding to show my kids how our food actually grows, how they can grow their own food and we can eat what we grow. It doesn’t require you to spend a lot of money necessarily and it’s great quality time with your spouse and your kids.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Since a lot of gardening takes place in the ground, wheelchair height is an obstacle for almost all adaptive gardeners. Limited reach is also a consideration for many, but both issues can be worked around. “I couldn’t get down to the ground,” says Portzline. “And then I thought of lifting the ground to me!” She gardens in tall pots and elevated table beds that she rolls under, making bending and reaching easier.
There is a huge variety of roll-up-to and roll-under beds available that allow a comfortable and accessible garden environment. One idea is to buy inexpensive wheeled planter caddies from a hardware store that large pots or containers can be placed on, making moving and arranging them on decks or patios much easier.
If you are able, another way to solve the access issue is to get out of the chair, sit on the ground and garden literally by the seat of your pants. If you can safely use this method (think skin protection), it will save the expense of building beds or buying containers, but it is clearly not for everyone.
Terrain can be a barrier to gardening as well. Mills moved into a house with raised beds already set up and ready to go, but the only access to them was stairs. “I had this amazing garden setup given to me that was not accessible because I literally could not get to it,” she says. The solution? Her family designed and put in a paver walkway down to her garden.
Some of our other gardeners have also conquered terrain issues. Poor laid crushed granite, which is cheaper than pavers or concrete, next to his beds so he can roll up to them. Kennedy has an indoor garden, using two vertical hydroponic systems with artificial lights to grow veggies in his house all year around. Portzline gardens on her deck, using a variety of standing pots and hanging containers, which eliminates outdoor terrain issues altogether.
Getting water to an outdoor garden can also be an issue. While there are a number of watering hose attachments that are fairly easy to use, hoses can be remarkably heavy and difficult to manage when full of water. Lightweight hoses are available, but they are still heavy when full. One solution is to put your garden as close to your water source as possible. Our gardeners also suggested options such as using a portable pump sprayer, installing drip irrigation or soaker hoses, and even clipping the hose to the back of your chair to drag it around the garden.
A Little Help From Your Friends
Whether it’s garden beds or large containers, preparing them and/or filling them with soil can be difficult to impossible for many wheelers. It often helps to have, well, help. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance getting your garden set up. After all, gardening is, by nature, a community activity. Gardeners love to talk about gardens and to help each other. Working with other people to realize your garden dreams can be a lot of fun.
Poor, who has been gardening for a little over a year, got help putting his garden together from his family. His partner, Andrea, and his dad built a variety of garden beds that fill his back yard. Some are raised wooden table beds that he can roll his legs under, and some are chair-height wooden or metal structures that he can roll up to in order to plant, water and harvest. These beds were all created to meet Poor’s specific needs, and when it comes to caring for the plants, Poor’s mom is his go-to for advice. Together he and his squad of helpers made his gardening vision a reality. “Andrea was wonderful,” he says. “She helped set me up so I was as independent as I could be.”
Adaptive gardeners often find materials and assistance in all sorts of places. Kennedy and his wife built their raised beds out of free wood and soil acquired from friends, while Lanier’s family built raised beds that both she and her grandmother use. In many areas, you can lease plots in a community garden, although sometimes accessibility is an issue. Some condos and apartment complexes have designated space for gardening. Your local Boy Scouts may even build raised beds in some areas.
And, hey, you don’t need to be fancy. You might be surprised at the tools, containers and supplies you can find at garage and estate sales. Get cheap containers from dollar stores or make planters for free from reclaimed items ranging from yogurt containers to broken toilets.
Identifying and vanquishing your barriers to gardening sometimes requires a little creative thinking, but you can figure it out.
Tools of the Trade
The tools you need will depend on the type of garden you design and your own physical abilities. Container gardeners will use different tools than hydroponic gardeners, just as outdoor and indoor gardening will benefit from unique approaches. You may be able to use off-the-shelf tools or modify them to suit your abilities and preferences. You know your abilities — couple that with some trial and error, and you will figure out the tools you need.
In general, you need a shovel or trowel to move dirt, a hoe or cultivator to remove weeds and “work” the dirt, and clippers to harvest and prune your plants. If you have good upper body strength and trunk control you may be able to use tools you can buy at any hardware store. But because a gardener that uses a wheelchair is closer to the surface than one who stands, you may find that standard tools are awkward to use. They are also pretty heavy and can cause a fair amount of strain. Consider tools with short handles, kid-sized tools or cut tool handles down to the size you like.
To help provide more control, you can also buy add-on handles and cuffs that attach to long handles. These reduce the strength and endurance required to use standard tools. They are easily found online by searching for adaptive gardening, ergonomic tools or tools for people with arthritis. More and more, you can also find such tools in your local stores.
“I use off-the-shelf tools for now,” says Rose. “The only ‘adaptive’ thing I use is a plastic toboggan type sled with a rope handle that I rake debris onto. Then I drag it with my scooter and tip it sideways into the compost pile.”
To extend your reach, the grabber you use in the living room also works great in your garden. You may also find garden-specific tools to meet your needs. “As somebody who is 3 feet 10 inches tall, it’s not easy for me to reach very high in my trees,” says Mills. She found a telescoping pruner on wildflower-seed.com that she uses all the time. “I love that thing! It’s lightweight and doesn’t take a lot of strength to close.”
If hand strength is an issue for you, gripping aids may come in handy. These are widely available and you may already own some. You can also invest in tools specifically designed for use by people with reduced upper body function. Poor uses Active Hands gripping aids, Quad Tools brand reacher-grabbers and garden shears. “These tools are pretty crucial for me,” he says. “They are expensive, but I think of it as somebody took the time to work out the problems for me. I definitely splurged, but I don’t regret it.”
Many states have accessible technology programs that will loan you garden tools to try. Borrowing them will help you decide which ones work best for you. That way your money will be well spent when you buy your own. When it’s time to buy, some of these same accessible technology programs have low interest loans so that you can stock your shed without breaking your budget. Grants may be available to you or your gardening group as well.
We have just touched the surface of adaptive gardening, but a few internet searches will open a world of information in minutes. And you may have local adaptive gardening resources in your area you don’t even know about. Check to see if your Center for Independent Living or even a local nursery has an adaptive demonstration garden near you. Senior centers may also have good information on adaptive garden resources. Colleges and extension services sometimes offer adaptive gardening classes as well, so a little research should turn up the help you need.
“Also, there is nothing wrong with starting a garden inspiration board on Pinterest,” notes Rose.
Poor advises simply taking the plunge. “My advice is probably to just get some seeds in the dirt,” he says. “To get started you just need some soil, some seeds, something to put them in and a patch of indoor sun. And then it just becomes your project all of a sudden. They become your babies in a way, because you’re invested in seeing this seed grow. It’s such a cool process to watch.”
Once you get the basics down, your best teacher will be experience. Because gardening is as much art as it is science. “It’s trial and error,” says Portzline with a smile. “Every gardener will tell you that you always learn from what happened this season. The journey never ends!”
Ideas from Pinterest:
• Best 25-plus Vertical Hydroponics Ideas on Pinterest, pinterest.com/explore/vertical-hydroponics
• Over 823 Best Raised Garden Beds, Elevated Table Gardens, Containers on Pinterest, pinterest.com/accessgarden/raised-garden-beds-elevated-table-gardens-containe
• American Community Gardening Association, Communitygarden.org/find-a-garden/
• Bueller Enabling Garden, Chicagobotanic.org/gardens/enabling
• Center for Independent Living directory, Ilru.org/projects/cil-net/cil-center-and-association-directory
Gardening: It’s Good and Good For You
Gardening has an amazing array of health benefits, from stress reduction to increased strength. It has so many proven benefits that it has been used in rehab programs for many years. In fact, there is an entire branch of rehab called “horticultural therapy.”
“Horticultural therapy uses interaction with nature, particularly growing and cultivating plants,” says Barb Kreski, director of horticultural therapy for the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Buehler Garden is a demonstration garden that teaches accessible gardening techniques for people with all types of disabilities. The staff at the garden routinely fields questions from all over the world about adaptive gardening tools, techniques and resources. “There is pretty solid evidence now that spending time engaged with nature is stress reducing. Stress makes everything worse, so if you can take that down a few notches you’re contributing significantly to other therapies working better.”
This is great news because chronic stress can contribute to a mind-boggling number of health issues that we’d all like to avoid. And being “engaged” in nature can be whatever you need it to be.
In addition to stress reduction, gardening has other physical benefits. “Gardening for all sorts of people is considered a moderate-level physical activity,” adds Kreski. “It’s a very good type of activity to do half an hour a few times a week. If you’re a gardener, that’s pretty easy to accomplish.”
And there are so many ways to garden that don’t even require getting down on ground level. “Containers are the fastest, easiest, cheapest way to bring something up to a workable height,” says Kreski. “I like to encourage people to do things with plants that change over time, plants that bloom or have something happening with them — something stimulating in one dimension or another. For an introduction, that’s ever so much more fun than watching grass grow!”
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Your garden can be grand, amazing and fill up your whole yard, or simply be a seed planted in an old coffee cup on a windowsill. It’s up to you to decide what kind of garden you want, what resources you have and how much money you want to spend.
“Figure out what garden type might work for your ability and also your region,” says Lanier. “You always have to check what’s best for your climate.” The planting season where she lives in North Carolina begins weeks earlier than the planting season in states that are further north.
Some plants grow better than others indoors, some grow better in outside containers — you’ll be a happier gardener if you pick plants that will thrive in your type of garden. Also consider how much time and energy you realistically have to play in a garden, and how much help you can count on. Some plants require more work than others, so do some research and select plants that match the effort you can put in.
“Try something easy. Don’t try to do too much the first time — see what works in your back yard. You really have to be OK with some trial and error,” says Mills. “There are a lot of factors when it comes to gardening — it’s just not about reading the book … there’s got to be some creativity to it.”
Maybe digging in the dirt outdoors isn’t realistic for you, but don’t let that stop you from gardening. You can do something as simple as a cheap and easy indoor herb garden with some small pots by a sunny window.
If you want to step up your indoor game, you can grow fruits, flowers and veggies in a hydroponic garden like Kennedy has. You can build a do-it-yourself version or buy a ready-made kit, which come in sizes from tabletop to full towers.
We’ve touched on many of the outdoor options already. Raised beds and containers are popular options for wheelers, but don’t discount the idea of straw bale gardens (hint: it’s exactly what it sounds like!). These gardens are made by planting directly into bales of straw. Bales are a great height for wheelchair gardeners and are a relatively cheap short-term garden option. Both Rose and Poor used straw bales to grow vegetables last year and both reported unequivocal success!
When planning an outdoor garden don’t forget to consider whether you can easily and safely access your growing area. If you can’t, either make some changes to make it accessible or change your plans to garden in an area that you can get to.
You can grow tomatoes and some other fruiting plants in hanging, upside down pots that you either buy or make. These have a dual purpose of getting the pots up out of the way and growing the crop lower where it is easier to harvest from a wheelchair.