Gardening Topic for April 2007
Accessible Gardening

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association



By George Kingston,
Master Gardener



Gardening is an activity that can be enjoyed at all stages of life. From the youngster helping his mother weed to the mature gardener who can no longer bend over, gardening can be for everyone, especially if the garden is designed to be accessible. Not surprisingly, a garden that is designed to be accessible to those with disabilities is also a garden that is easier to work in and more enjoyable for everyone.

What are the requirements for accessible gardening? Well, the first is to be able to get to the garden. This means that the paths to and in the garden and other activity areas must be wide, smooth, and solid. Generally, this means a minimum of 3 feet wide but 4 feet is preferable, especially if an assistant will be present. Slopes should be 10% or less and the paths should be paved or otherwise hard surfaced. Gravel and sand paths look great, but remember what it was like trying to ride a bicycle on those surfaces. There must also be room to turn around at the ends of rows.

Gardening can be thought of as a series of five activities: Preparation, Propagation, Planting, Maintaining, and Enjoying. Let’s consider each in turn.

Preparation includes preparing the soil and the beds, tilling, amending the soil, and installing plant supports where necessary. To minimize preparation, the garden should be designed with raised beds pre-filled with good garden soil. It may be necessary to hire out this part of the work. The height of the beds should be chosen with the needs of the gardener in mind. Someone who is working from a scooter or wheelchair may need the beds at a different height from someone who is standing or using a walker. Likewise, the width of the beds should be chosen so that the entire bed can be reached. This means that the beds should be no more than 3 feet wide and probably closer to two feet. If the gardener is going to be seated, consider building in a “knee overhang” to improve access.

Propagation includes seed starting, plant division, and rooting cuttings. A propagation bench can be built that allows for someone to work at it when sitting. The height and clearances should be adjusted to the needs of the gardener. Potting soil and seed starting mix should be stored in easy dispensing containers. One idea is to use a wall mounted pet food dispenser for potting mixes so that they can be dispensed with one hand. A water faucet with an appropriate valve handle is important. Propagation materials should be kept ready at hand, and an easily accessible trash container should be available. Consider installing racks for holding flats.

For Planting and Maintenance, seek out tools that are suitable for the specific gardener. These can include trowels and weeders with longer handles, long kitchen tongs, and tools with easy to hold grips. Use a drip irrigation system or soaker hoses to provide water conveniently. Consider using ball valves with flow limiting devices rather than gate valves, because the ball valves are easier to use. Avoid the use of pesticides as much as possible, especially if the gardener has health problems. Choose low maintenance plant varieties wherever possible.

Enjoyment includes harvesting and just experiencing the garden. If the gardener has visual limitations, choose plants for their scent and texture. Use tactile clues, such as differently shaped posts, at the end of each row. Change the path texture at the ends of rows as well. As with maintenance, choose harvesting tools with long handles and good grips. Consider professional fruit harvesting tools which catch the fruit and prevent damage from dropping it. If the gardener is hearing impaired, consider installing mirrors or gazing balls at the end of rows so that the gardener will be aware of people approaching from behind. Provide a choice of resting places in sun and shade so the gardener can use the one appropriate to the weather.

The ultimate goal of garden design should be to produce a garden that usable by all. This concept is called Universal Design. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University has developed a set of 7 Principles of Universal Design with 29 guidelines for their implementation. For more information, please contact:

The Center for Universal Design College of Design Campus Box 8613 North Carolina State University Raleigh, NC 27695-8613 Voice/TTY: (919) 515-3082 Fax: (919) 515-7330 E-mail:

There are also several books on accessible gardening that are of interest. These include

Woy, Joann, Accessible gardening : tips & techniques for seniors & the disabled Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, c1997.

Adil, Janeen R. , Accessible gardening for people with physical disabilities : a guide to methods, tools, and plants, Rockville, MD : Woodbine House, c1994

Internet resources include the following: 

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Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association