Solutions for Senior and Disabled Gardeners

Sweet, ripe, garden-fresh tomatoes, aromatic herbs and beautiful flowers perpetually draw people into the garden—even when our knees are creaking and backs are aching!  Fortunately, adaptive techniques and tools can allow people with limited mobility to enjoy and maintain their gardens.

Gardening for seniors

The frequent bending and lifting involved in this pastime can give anyone sore knees and a stiff back but seniors typically suffer the most.  Start slowly especially the first few times you venture into your garden this spring.  Stretch and wear warm clothing to ensure your muscles and joints stay warm and limber.  Wear shoes that provide cushioning and are supportive to promote good back alignment.

Knee pads or a foam kneeling mat are essential and inexpensive.  Another item to consider is a gardener’s stool.  It can be as basic as a stationary stool or as high tech as a rolling stool with swivelling wheels and a seat that can be adjusted to different heights.  Be sure to remove pathway hazards such as loose stones and protruding roots.
As you garden, switch positions frequently to reduce the wear and strain on any one body part.  Staying in one position for too long can also make movement uncomfortable.  Remind yourself to stand up and stretch at regular intervals such as every 10 minutes.  If kneeling is painful (even with knee pads or a mat), intersperse planting and weeding with hoeing or another standing task.

After a winter of hibernation, muscles may not be up to the demands of carrying heavy pots or repeatedly lifting shovels of dirt.  It is far better to make two trips with a small load than to risk injury with one large load.  After a hard days’ work, indulge in a warm bath followed by stretching to prevent tight muscles the next day.  During the summer, you may find you gain strength and can incrementally increase your efforts. 

Raised beds are an excellent way to reduce bending, kneeling and lifting.  A landscaping company can build raised beds with stone, brick or wooden supports that elevate the height of garden beds to approximately knee level.  If you choose wooden railings, use untreated wood or pressure treated wood that is certified as safe for playgrounds and vegetable gardens.  Traditional pressure-treated wood contains toxic chemicals that leach into the soil.  Another option is a straw bale raised bed.  The bales elevate the garden to knee level and it is also possible to pile one bale on top of another for greater height.  Many online sources describe the method to prepare straw bales for planting, which involves soaking the bales with water then applying ammonium nitrate, compost and fertilizer.
The choice of tools can also make gardening a pleasure again.  Ergonomic tools can reduce strain on the forearms and wrists.  One of the best new devices on the market allows people to easily remove dandelions and other deeply-rooted weeds from a standing position.  Shopping for gardening supplies, you may notice that many tools are green, black and brown.  These tools look nice but are quite difficult to spot once you’ve set them down in the garden.  Since vision typically decreases with age, choose brightly coloured tools that will be easy to spot so you won’t accidently step on or trip over them.  A walking stick or cane can provide you with stability as you kneel and rise while working in your garden.  Another simple, low tech idea is wrapping tennis racket tape around the handles of hoes, trowels and other tools to improve the grip and prevent slipping.
Gardening for people with disabilities

Today, manufacturers offer more options than ever to make gardening accessible for people with disabilities.  Many common tools are available with adaptive grips such as oversized, easy-to-use handles.  Clippers with telescoping handles make it possible for people to trim at heights beyond their normal reach.  Another excellent, all-purpose tool is a telescoping ‘grasper’ to retrieve watering hoses and other items from the ground.  Most stores also carry long-handled watering attachments.
For people who rely on a walker or wheelchair, pathways should be at least 1.25 metres (4 feet) wide.   Veranda and courtyard pathways can often be expanded by simply trimming back plants and rearranging furniture.  Access to a garden plot; however, usually requires more effort and creativity.  Traditional garden rows are much narrower and the soft soil, which is so valued by gardeners, will impede a walker or wheelchair.  Consider hiring a landscaping company to install wide, solid pathways made with interlocking brick or other durable materials. This type of renovation can be costly but it will provide years of enjoyment for you and future owners.

Raised beds are perfect for anyone who has trouble reaching down to the ground.  As described above, raised beds can made with stone, brick or wooden supports and good quality soil.  The dimensions of the raised beds can be virtually any size although it should be possible for the gardener to reach to the centre of the bed from at least one side.  Weeds have a tendency to flourish just beyond our comfortable grasp!  Placing soil-filled planters on a table is a simple way to put herbs, flowers and other small plants within reach. 

Enjoy the fresh air, nutritious produce and natural beauty of your garden once again.

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