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Gardening with a Disability: Adjustments for the Disabled Gardener

  • Published: 2009-02-27 (Revised/Updated 2017-12-24) : Author: Carol Wallace
  • Synopsis: Tips for helping a gardener with a disability to enjoy gardening planting and sowing.

Main Document

"There are tools that can help tools ergonomically designed to cause less stress and require less exertion from the gardener..."

It has been a long time since I sat at this keyboard and attempted to write about gardening. And, having just gotten back from a harrowing trip down the steep slope of my driveway to get the mail, wearing the equivalent of studded tires on my feet to keep me from breaking my neck on the ice, it seems like a somewhat absurd thing to be doing now.

I've already had my first garden disaster. That was when my Helleborus niger the Christmas rose decided to almost live up to its name and burst forth into bloom at the beginning of December. It made it to the big fat bud stage. I could see the whiteness of soon-to-be-flowers from my sun-room window and was excited. But then temperatures dipped to sub-zero. Talk about being nipped in the bud! And then a foot or so of snow fell on the hellebores (and all the rest of the garden) so that even if they had bloomed it wouldn't have been in my sight.

But there is nothing to be done about that sort of thing. It is nature's whim and we, mere mortals that we are must bow to it or be bowed down by it.

Some whims of nature bow us down more easily than others. Like those whims that affect our health, and impose limitations on us that make gardening difficult. I spent a lot of last summer in a soft neck brace, afraid to do anything very vigorous. I did something only slightly vigorous when I used my loppers to cut down the stems of the spent day-lilies in the main garden. Hollow stem! Not even thick branches that required some exertion. It was three days before I was able to safely pick up anything heavier than a Kleenex. Then in August, I had my neck rebuilt and the recovery from that is not yet complete in fact it may be a full year before I can garden somewhat like I used to. But the surgeon told my husband that I will lop again although maybe not this summer.

So like many of you, I am facing a lifetime of gardening with limitations. And even in the midst of the snows of December, it's not absurd to try to plan for that. There are tools that can help tools ergonomically designed to cause less stress and require less exertion from the gardener. More important - there are also adjustments that can be made in the garden itself to make it easier on us. And there are a few adjustments to the gardener that can help, as well. May as well think about those now.

Adjustments in the garden

Pruning Problems

One thing I know all too well is that if I can't use my loppers I can't do much in the way of heavy pruning. That means I can either resign myself to wildly overgrown shrubs and rosebushes going bare and leggy, or ask someone to do my pruning for me. And while I can probably con my husband into doing a few of the many, many rose bushes in the yard, it would be insanity to expect a non-gardener to do them all at least not in the way they need to be done. It's true that you can treat a rose bush like a hedge and simply shear off the tops but that reduces the flowering and leaves the bush still crowded in the interior. Without good air circulation, black spot and downy mildew become bigger threats than usual. And that means even more work.

Mine will probably survive another season of neglect. But should this inability to use my arms for anything strenuous continue, I suspect that the roses and anything else that is finicky about pruning must go. But those shrubs that are not fussy about how they are cut back - or don't really demand it at all, like my dwarf conifers can stay happily.

Hose Hauling Problems

Another thing that is hard on the back and arms is hose hauling. The ultimate solution to this is to install an underground drip irrigation system in the garden. That is great if you don't mind digging everything up in order to lay in a proper system but impractical for anyone with a mature garden. However, if the garden is of reasonable size, you can buy soaker hoses at a quite reasonable price that can be twined through the beds in such a way that they will sweat moisture into the ground at the base of your thirsty plants without any more effort on your part than turning the spigot.

My beds are too large for this. After about 100' of tubing, the system starts to break down. So I've had to compromise. I have drip hoses in areas of the garden that are really thirsty and demand a constant, reliable supply of water. The thirstiest of all are located right near the tap so that I can easily fill a small watering can or reach them with only a short stretch of hose should they need supplemental water.

The tougher plants those that are drought tolerant are also grouped together, in areas somewhat distant from the drip hoses and water supply. They are watered by an overhead sprinkling system when they need it. Overhead watering is not nearly as efficient as that which comes from drip and soaker hoses but it is easy on the gardener and a lifesaver for those of us who can't haul hoses.

Plants that are not Problems

Of course, the best solution of all to this problem is to rely heavily on native plants that are naturally adapted to the conditions that our climate normally provides. These plants grow happily in areas where no gardener goes and are undemanding when planted in our yards, as well. You can find lists of native plants for your area by simply typing "native plants" and the name of your state or region into a good search engine. Many of them are quite beautiful.

There are other, imported plants that are also quite tolerant of neglect. In my area, where we more often than not suffer from drought, most Mediterranean plants grow happily. So do plants from other areas of the globe with somewhat similar climates. For instance hostas are among the easiest plants in my garden but they come from Japan. Look around your neighborhoods or any public gardens and see what thrives. You'll see some plants popping up everywhere. They aren't there because they are the latest plant fad. They are reliable favorites that even non-gardeners can usually grow successfully.

Think carefully about what you are growing. Fussy plants that demand pampering are not for us.

Beds that are easy to work

Think about all the bending and stooping we normally do when gardening and consider raised beds. Create a perimeter of flat stone or wood and you can sit on the edges of the bed and garden in comfort. Don't make the bed any wider than you can comfortably reach with trowel in hand and you'll eliminate a lot of back and arm strain.

The other advantage to raised beds is that you can fill them with really good soil. Good soil is easy to work. After years of gardening and mulching, most of mine is so loose that it scarcely requires a trowel to dig up bulbs and plants. They come up easily with a gentle tug. Easily worked soil is also easy to plant in. And if you are responsible for the contents of the raised bed you won't encounter the rocks that so often must be pried from the earth in order to create a proper-sized planting hole.

Soil practices that make gardens easy to work

If you can't build raised beds maybe because it's too late and the garden is too mature then make sure that you mulch faithfully. In fact, even if you do have raised beds, be sure to mulch. Mulch eventually breaks down and becomes compost. Worms come to play in the soil, aerating it and also enriching it with their castings. In time, the soil becomes rich and easily worked. Mulching also cuts down on watering needs, as it holds the moisture in the soil and it cuts down on weeding by shading out any weed seeds that are near the surface just waiting to invade. New weed seeds may blow in and germinate, but they are easily pulled.

These are just a few adjustments to our gardens that may help us to keep on enjoying them even if we can't do everything we used to do. But the fact that we can't do those things may have a discouraging effect on many of us. So perhaps we should also look at part two of this article Gardening An Attitude Adjustment.

Adjustments to the Gardener

Many of us instinctively protest the idea that we change our gardening style. We've been developing that style for years, developed a strong attachment to certain types of plants and planting schemes, even if they are somewhat labor intensive. And yet sometimes the physical reality of it means that something has got to give. And that something is either you, or the garden. At least the garden as we know it now.

Perhaps you are lovers of a very formal look. Formal looks are generally high maintenance, requiring sculpting and pruning and an exactitude of planting plans that demands that anything that can't keep up with its neighbors must be evicted and quickly replaced.

But if you can't keep up with that kind of work and can't afford a gardener, you may have to learn to rethink that. Just as I have to rethink my garden of heirloom rose bushes that grow so vigorously that they are now completely out of control. If you can't keep up with it, evict it and then plant something that you CAN keep up with. If you don't, you either won't be gardening at all or will come to hate it.

If you must have roses, do as people in very cold climates often must and treat them as annuals.

Or you may be a lover of the exotic. Once again, this may require an attitude adjustment. It can be a lot of work, planting the tender specimens and then racing out in autumn to rescue them from that first frost, carefully cleaning and prepping them for storage and then keeping them plump and healthy so that you can repeat the cycle the following spring.

If you truly love your dahlias or brugmansias then by all means grow a few to satisfy that urge. But once again, you may want to start thinking of most of them as annuals. I had tons of tender plants last year, from begonias and Alocasias to dahlias, Ipomoea batatas and coleus. Most of it is still in the garden, turning itself into fodder for the compost heap. The only things I had rescued were my 'Black Magic' elephant ears and my 'Bishop of Llandaff' dahlias, because they are both expensive and hard to locate. (And besides, I had to rely on my husband to do the rescuing, and it was easy to describe these to him. "The plants with the huge coal black leaves and the ones with the bright red flowers and black leaves." There aren't a whole lot of plants with black leaves of any kind in most gardens.)

With some plants, like the dahlias, it may be easier on you to take cuttings and spend a winter happily rooting and tending to these. It will also help you to pass the time until spring.

But take a mental journey through your garden right now. I'm betting there are many plants there that you take for granted. Plants that fill their allotted space without fuss. Plants that are so undemanding, and that thrive with so few demands that we practically forget they are there. These are the real workhorses of the garden and the kinds of plants we need to learn to really love if we want to keep on enjoying the act of gardening.

Consider native plants. Many of us react to that term with vague uneasiness.

"Aren't those the things that grow by the roadside and in ditches"

Yes and they would grow in our lawns as well, except that we mow them so the baby plants never mature to the point where we recognize them. But planted in a garden, in bright masses and drifts, they can look every bit as pleasing and even elegant as the fussy hybrids that we pamper and fret over.

Learning to love plants that are easy to grow requires not just an attitude adjustment for those who tend to pride themselves on successfully growing exotics. It also requires a visual readjustments.

A new style of dress, or car, can look odd to us at first. But then suddenly we become so accustomed to it that it looks right, and the styles that they replace start to look dated and unattractive after a time. Some of us may remember a time when rooms decorated in avocado and harvest gold were considered to be the height of style. Now those same colors provoke shudders. They are no longer a part of our visual vocabulary. Our eyes can as easily learn to prefer a garden full of ornamental grasses and drifts of echinacea and other native plants to one packed with plants that demand pampering, once the native plants become a part of our gardening vocabulary.

And consider replacing some areas of the garden with easy to maintain shrubs. Dwarf conifers can be extremely undemanding. They can also be beautiful, coming in all shapes and sizes, from the quite formal looking globe arborvitae to the almost eccentric and quite picturesque weeping blue cedars, And they can be extremely colorful, in shades of blue, gray, green and gold, plus bi-colors. And dwarf conifers provide color all year round.

A single ground-cover can look better than a patchwork of plants in some areas of the yard that invite relaxing contemplation. I have one garden that consists mainly of rhododendrons and a few hostas, hellebores and heucheras, planted in a sea of sweet woodruff. It is a striking garden, quite picturesque when flowering and peaceful but pretty the rest of the gardening season. And it requires almost no work at all. The thick carpet of woodruff keeps out the weeds as well as unifying the other plants. Instead of trying to fill a space with all kinds of different plants, consider a mass planting of ground-cover with a few striking accent plants. (And consider this a ground-cover can be anything that covers the grounds so even a mass planting of hostas or lavender counts.)

As gardeners many of us have physical limitations that may at times make us feel as though we can't really garden anymore. But that doesn't have to be true. Maybe it just takes a slight change of style, and a change in our ideas about what constitutes a garden and what plants we can't live without.

Reference: Carol Wallace was founder and managing editor of the Suite101.com's 36 member gardening section for 7 years. She wrote a weekly column, Virtually Gardening, as well as being a staff writer for Van Bourgondien Bulbs and Perennials. Her work has been featured in Green Prints, the American Gardener, Cornell Plantation Journal, Internet World and Aquascapes magazines, along with photos of her 14 gardens. Following a spinal surgery she was forced to revamp these gardens in order to continue enjoying them - and now shares the experience, and lessons learned, with the reader.

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