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Ask a Master Gardener: Adaptive Gardening: Garden Smarter – Garden for Life!

By Mary Townsley, Mobile County Master Gardener,

Q: My [back, knees, hands, or … ] don’t work like they used to. Do I have to hang up my gloves and trowel and give up the gardening that I love so much??

A: There are many reasons to want to continue gardening even when life brings physical challenges. Gardening is such a joy, and I would not want to give it up! For myself, I appreciate the exercise gardening in the fresh air offers, tending pollinator gardens, growing vegetables and fruit, finding new plant behaviors, and watching the animal life that frequents my garden. You may have other reasons in mind. Thankfully there are many options available that will enable you to better match your approach to gardening to your physical abilities. You just need to ADAPT...

Assess your limitations and garden desires:

Take stock of your abilities - what limits your gardening time at the moment? I certainly have had to do this, as my ability to bend and haul garden materials has declined. There are many other physical limitations that need not preclude our garden activity. What will your body allow you to do? Then decide what garden activities are important to you.

(Re)Design your garden spaces:

If vegetable gardening is high on your "must do" list, consider scaling back your vegetable garden space to grow only what you (and your family) can eat fresh. Switch to growing vegetables in a few raised beds or pots rather than an extensive in-ground vegetable plot. For other landscape gardening, consider downsizing or converting beds that used to require substantial ongoing planting or pruning work. For example, consider planting perennials rather than annuals. Convert one of those beds into a native wildflower or pollinator garden that might require only occasional weeding. Choose low-maintenance plants. Make your garden easier to care for.

Create better Access for yourself to your garden:

If bending or standing for long periods of time have become problematic, invest in a garden scooter or seat. These will allow you to sit comfortably and weed or plant your favorites, or just sit and enjoy. Another alternative is to consider raising your garden beds. Raised beds can solve several issues depending on their shape and construction. They can minimize or alleviate bending. For example, raised bed kits are available that allow you to build 11/2 - 3-foot-deep beds, allowing you to sit or stand to garden. If you design your garden beds (raised or not) to keep widths less than 3-4 ft, you will be able to easily access that garden space with your hands and/or tools. Note that some raised bed kits have knee holes that allow for wheelchair access.

From another perspective, choosing different plants can improve access. Think about dwarf vegetable or fruit plants for example. There are many dwarf varieties that bear normal size produce yet allow easy access for the gardener. Think about the differing access provided by an indeterminant tomato plant (really a fruit) that may reach 8-10 ft in height versus a nicely behaved dwarf variety that might top out at 3 ft! The other advantage to dwarf plants is that they are also well suited to pot gardens.

Plan to garden smarter and safely:

Make sure garden paths are accessible and safe. Assess path materials - are they appropriate if you are using a cane or a wheelchair? Wheelchair access will certainly require wider paths and spacing between raised beds. Pace yourself while gardening - remember Rome (and your gardens) weren’t built in a day!! Select a small garden project for the day and take frequent breaks.

Choose your Tools wisely:

Choose garden tools that are ergonomically correct, appropriate for the scale of your garden beds and make your job easier. Many sources offer tools with extensions or with improved grips - important if hand strength is an issue. In addition to a garden scooter or kneeler to improve access, consider whether an electric power cart might allow you to haul gardening materials more easily. Finally, ask for help when needed. Gardening smarter doesn't necessarily mean gardening alone!

Some resources for the adaptive gardener:

Garden scooter with adjustable height seat and tool tray by Mary Townsley

Raised beds spaced to allow for garden scooter by Mary Townsley

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