In June of this year, my gardening life was rudely interrupted by 2 broken heels, a wheelchair, 2 Star Trek-style orthopaedic boots and a walker, all of which prevented me from getting anywhere near my precious plants.
As I continue my recovery, I have become painfully aware of how my own garden, my allotment and facilities do not make life very easy.
In this article, I will explain the possible difficulties that less able-bodied visitors may have in accessing gardens, not only wheelchair users but also anyone pushing buggies and those using crutches and walkers.
This may help in future-proofing your garden and also allow both younger and older gardeners the chance to get closer to the plants!
6 ways to make garden access easier; what do you need to consider?
Read on for my experiences and discover some innovative ideas to improve garden design for wheelchair users.
1. Can a wheelchair user move easily on the paths provided?
Designing wheelchair-accessible garden paths can be quite complicated. When thinking about your path, consider a wheelchair not only going forwards or backwards but also needing to turn around or swivel in order to gain access to a flower bed. The preferable width for a wheelchair-accessible path is 1.8m. Obviously, many gardens won’t have that much space, but if you make the path as wide as possible, it will aid a wheelchair user to comfortably move around in the space.
- Motorised wheelchairs are even wider than the measurements quoted above but they are also able to handle rough ground surfaces better.
- Walkers (pictured below) need solid ground and a path width of at least 45 cm wide, wheels may mean that the path needs to be even wider. Like with wheelchairs, you also need to allow for turning and changing direction. Walkers are more precarious so obstacles like that bucket and chair need thinking about. See more on surfaces and obstacles below.
The uneven surface of the path pictured above proved impossible for me to navigate in a wheelchair and the extra bump in the centre meant I had to ask for help to get along it.
- Crutches are probably the easiest to accommodate although you may need to provide seats and/or soft places to land in the event of a slip!!
- Buggies are pretty sturdy and if you follow the guidelines above, your garden should also be able to accommodate them.
I have to add here that all the gardens I love and use include small curved paths and interesting planting layouts, like shade-loving fruit bushes (eg blackcurrant) with glorious sun-loving salvia flowers in front of them. However, I can’t access these paths at all now. All I can do is use a hosepipe from afar and wistfully hope it reaches the roots of the plants. By this time next year, let’s see if my recent experience changes my approach to garden design…
2. Is there adequate support and places to rest?
Newbies like me are unused to using my arms to lift myself from one spot to another. More experienced wheelchair users may be able to do this due to being accustomed to this regular exercise. I find it fairly exhausting to go a few steps, wobbling as I do and need to sit every 10 steps or so. But if walkers or crutches are used, can a visitor use handrails or seats when in need of a rest?
My answer? I found sawn-off logs to be a fabulous resting place in my own garden because they are in plentiful supply and I like the natural surface. The only safety issue is whether I could balance so that I could lower myself on (and off) them. I am now considering handrails for future use and placing more seats along the way where possible.
3. Is the path surface suitable?
This is not something I have ever really considered but in several places I visited, the paths were in a shocking state. Nature does not necessarily design wheelchair-friendly access, so human designers can offer some help in this area.
- Gravel. I could not use gravel paths at all with wheels. I didn’t trust them when using a walker either because they are unsteady. Most people using walkers have either had an accident or are quite unsteady on their feet after an operation, so falls need to be avoided.
- Bark chippings were difficult and when wet, can even be dangerous. Normally, I wouldn’t notice but I am in a wheelchair because I’m in a lot of pain, and bumping over cracks, uneven paths, door thresholds and gravel in some places is not ideal.
- Short grass was gorgeous in the sunshine – it has a bounce and feels wonderful under wheels, even if there was the odd molehill or bump, I felt a lot closer to Mother Nature here than on a concrete path. I must admit that I did not try to manoeuvre on grass in downpours of rain.
- Paving stones were some of the worst surfaces to navigate because the green growth between stones was uneven, and the gaps weren’t filled to the same height as the stones, making my progress slow, bumpy and difficult.
4. Consider variety in the height of planting
The viewpoint of a seated adult is like the viewpoint of a child – waist height! When seated in front of a tall flowerbed, I was unable to view much beyond waist height.
To accommodate everybody, try to add some low-flowering plants close to the front of the bed in each season. Taller border plants can be admired by pedestrian visitors. However, if they overhang a narrow path, it can seem a bit jungle-like going through high flowers and grasses and feel quite claustrophobic. It has certainly given me some ideas about how to plant a border with this in mind.
5. What about any obstacles?
This is a general suggestion. In a wheelchair, I want to see a clear path ahead of me, and the quirky designs I have always used in my own garden spaces are simply a nuisance. Things to watch out for are:
- Pots to bash into, edges that overhang and bump into my wheels as I turn, watering cans left in the middle of the path; all of these caused a lot of deep breathing and looks to my carers to remove them or help me. It is the loss of independence that is the worst.
This picture was taken in a garden centre in Kent. The place was really excellent overall, but there were a few improvements that could be made. This space was originally designed to allow access but somebody had placed this water feature on the right, in the way. I placed my wheels in the space and you can see the problem.
My only option here was to go back the way I came, reversing out of the space, and then doing a full circle around the plants to get back to where I wanted to go. My arms ache after a few minutes so if you work in a garden centre, please try to leave room for us to get through! My future designs will certainly re-think some of my ideas to date.
- Steps are the next obstacle worth mentioning. We barely notice them as we go up to fill a watering can from a butt or step up to the greenhouse. These days, steps can be managed on my butt only. Once my mobility increases and I can put weight on my feet, then I will need to learn to take one step at a time. Ramps are provided in most commercial spaces but in a home garden, I’m now thinking of ways to fashion part of the steps with rails or a ramp after these last few weeks.
6. Think about access to and height of flower beds, tables and facilities
In your own garden, you may not need to worry about disabled access now. However, if you are thinking about future-proofing, it is a good idea to have a friend in a wheelchair visit so you can assess access.
- Tables. I have found that I can almost never sit at a table like everybody else. I’ve only found two tables that accommodated a wheelchair where I could actually sit underneath it. See my tips below for suggestions to help with this problem.
- Raised beds. Most of the time, I was unable to see over the top of raised beds, even in garden centres. There were some excellent places but generally, if a small child can’t reach the centre of the bed, then the same is true for somebody in a wheelchair.
Sitting next to a raised bed is another experience. I normally sit on a plank of wood, which holds my tea and my tools and plant pots but from a wheelchair, you can only sit sideways, and reach in with one hand, so your whole upper body is twisted. Now I know gardeners often complain about aches and pains after a hard day’s work in the garden but imagine if one side of your body has been twisted at an awkward angle all day, not to mention the other pain that has you in a wheelchair in the first place.
- Check the height. When you design a table or a raised bed, think about the height. If possible, try to make sure there is an overhanging piece on a raised bed that allows a wheelchair user to slide in underneath so they can do their gardening with two hands like everybody else.
- Viewpoint. Check what the user or disabled gardener can see before you decide on the plan. You may need to suggest smaller edging plants for those in wheelchairs while those with a longer arm stretch can plant the higher (and usually heavier) plants in the middle. At times, moving through paths with shrubs overgrowing the bed edges can feel quite claustrophobic so allow large walkways through these (if space permits) or keep the overhanging foliage contained. To accommodate everybody, try to have some low-flowering plants in each season as well as taller border plants.
- Touch and smell sensory gardens. If you want disabled users to be able to touch plants, make sure they can actually reach them comfortably without having to edge in sideways with an arm extended! Scented flowers add extra joy to wheeling alongside a bed so lavender, aromatic herbs, sweet peas and scented flowering shrubs will improve everybody’s experience.
- Get in a wheelchair and experience it yourself. This is the best advice I can give. See what your user can see, touch, smell and how far you can get into that raised bed. Try to carry tools, plants and your own water bottle as well as a watering can. Remember that your user may have difficulty out-stretching arms (or muscle wastage) and most people are in pain. Make it easy for us!
Tina’s recommendations: The best wheelchair-friendly garden centre I visited
Holme for Gardens garden centre in Wareham is perfect for a disabled user and I cannot recommend it enough.
Disabled parking was close to the entrance and it was easy to move from there to get around the plants.
The paths that I could access were wide and well-surfaced. There was only one area that was impossible to access.
The plants were at the perfect height for me to read the labels.
This was my wheelchair eye view of a redcurrant bush! Hardy herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage provided gorgeous scents as I passed by. Lavender was in bloom, and I was literally sniffing in heavenly relaxation as I wheeled myself underneath it.
The Orchard Café was friendly and helpful and there was full access to tables, both inside and outside with a fabulous fishpond to keep me amused.
The shop selling local food, seeds, garden supplies and some wonderful gift ideas had wide aisles and easy access. Somebody even offered to help me carry my purchases to the car!
Even the toilet deserves an award. Not strictly a gardening issue but disabled users need to be sure the facilities exist in advance. Clean, functional and spacious, this was the only toilet I have visited in 6 weeks that had a drier close enough for me to dry my hands while seated, and a mirror at my height. Small details but they make a huge difference to a wheelchair user.
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