Accessible Gardens

Accessible Garden Design: Universal Garden Concepts


Accessible garden

Gardening is something that anyone can do. With the right tools and know-how, all people can create and enjoy gardens that benefit their well-being. If you share your garden with other people, consider implementing an accessible garden design that employs universal gardening techniques. 

Accessible gardening combines seven basic principles to ensure that a design includes considerations of all levels of mobility and understanding. An accessible garden doesn’t just focus on people with physical limitations or limited mobility. This type of garden also includes age, sensory abilities, and safety considerations. 

A garden designer who uses accessible gardening practices considers their audience and employs creativity to ensure every visitor has equal access to all its features. In this process, they create a community space that’s enjoyable and eliminates barriers.

What Is a Universal Garden?

Accessible garden
An accessible garden is inclusive of people of all mobilities and abilities. Source: Food Ethics Council

The concept was developed by Stephen Cantu, a UC Master Gardener based in San Diego, California. Thirty-seven years ago, Stephen experienced a job site accident that changed his life forever. Since then, he has relied on a wheelchair for mobility. In his time as a master gardener, he has sought to identify and eliminate barriers in gardening. 

A universal design provides a friendly, inclusive garden. By including the following seven principles, a universal garden has beds, a work surface, pathways, and features that everyone can enjoy – disabilities or not. Those seven principles are:

  • Equitable Use
  • Flexibility in Use
  • Simple, Intuitive Use
  • Perceptible Information
  • Tolerance for Error
  • Low Physical Effort
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use

Whether you’re interested in gardening as education for children or you’d like to provide a space of solace for an older family member, accessible gardens are the way to go. One thing to consider is who your audience is. That gives you the best foundation for creating a garden design that caters specifically to your garden visitors. 

Why Is Accessibility Important in Planting?

If you’ve gardened for any period of time, you know how beneficial the process is for mental health. People who carry a lot of equipment around on a daily basis – for example, people who rely on a wheelchair for mobility – have less access to gardens based on the difficulties present in that space. Pathways may be covered in a material that doesn’t allow ease of movement. Blind people may have trouble moving around a garden space that lacks defined paths and aural cues that tell them where structures are. When you’re already dealing with physical limitations like these, you may forego entering a planting space because you don’t want to struggle even more than you’re used to. 

That’s where an accessible garden comes in. In this type of gardening design, no one has to struggle. There are features in the garden that provide support, seating, places to put tools, and access to planting areas. Planting a garden is great for everyone – gardeners and non-gardeners too. Having access to plants gives people a sense of the earth’s cycles and tunes them into the seasons. Accessibility ensures everyone has a chance to enjoy what plants have to offer to humanity. 

Designing a Universal Garden

Raised beds and wide safe pathways
Plan inclusive spaces that enable people of all ages and capabilities to use them. Source: OSU

So, what does one consider when gardening with accessibility in mind? Let’s determine how to create and design a garden that gives access to everyone. Then you can create a garden that orients itself toward people of all physical capabilities, heights, ages, and skill levels. You can create a space that’s child-safe, disability-conscious, and allows for maneuverability.

Equitable Use

While some gardens will cater more toward specific accessibility concerns, the garden design should be helpful to people with diverse abilities. A garden can have raised beds at a height where someone in a wheelchair comfortably accesses them. The same garden can also incorporate another design feature to engage children more effectively. Put simply, accessible garden designs should be easy to use by all. 

Flexibility in Use

If we stick with our example of raised beds, we see how children may stand at a similar height to a person in a wheelchair. Therefore the raised bed height can accommodate multiple people with varying interests and levels of engagement. By tiering a raised bed, you also enable access by people with a full range of movement. A tiered bed with a nearby bench gives an older person a chance to rest a moment before moving on to another garden area. 

Simple, Intuitive Use

The garden’s design should be simple and effectively understood by all visitors. For example, people who don’t speak English may not enjoy a garden with info placards in only the English language. Instead, an accessible garden design could use universal imagery to convey information. By providing universal signage, the overall design and purpose of the garden is easy to understand for all.  

Perceptible Information

An accessible garden conveys necessary information easily to visitors and gardeners alike. They do this even when the ambient conditions are noisy or when someone’s sensory abilities divert from the “average.” When using different pathway textures, someone who has partial or no sight receives a signal that indicates an upcoming change in the terrain. Windchimes can indicate a barrier for people with partial or no sight abilities. 

Tolerance for Error

Gardens that focus on accessibility allow room for user or gardener error. For instance, a pathway with large curbs on either side gives gardeners a good sense of where to go, allowing someone with a wheelchair or cane the ability to explore without fear of falling into a raised garden bed or compost pile. 

Low Physical Effort

An accessible design allows anyone to move through easily, even with limited mobility. In accessible designs, paths, tools, and features all consider ways to minimize mobility struggles. Automatic doors that are wide enough to accommodate wheeled equipment are one such example of a low physical effort design. 

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Level garden being constructed
Plan your design to include level surfaces and good accessibility. Source: hockadilly

Regardless of body size, posture, and mobility, every visitor to an accessible garden has an equal ability to explore, manipulate, and reach varying parts of the planting area. For instance, wheelchair-bound people should have the ability to move easily to plants via wide paths rather than experiencing difficulty navigating through areas with varied ground textures. 

Applying the Seven Principles

Let’s look at the basics of universal design in a garden space. We’ll discuss how you can employ universal principles within basic garden features. 

Garden Beds

Raised beds are potentially the most inclusive place to grow plants. That’s because raised beds come in multiple heights and designs. A raised bed doesn’t just include standard wood or metal structures you fill with soil and grow vegetables in. Hanging baskets are excellent raised beds. Concrete blocks stacked on top of one another are great easy-to-move and design raised bed material. A table bed is potentially the best place to plant and grow vegetables, particularly if your plan is targeted toward smaller body sizes or people who rely on wheelchairs for movement. An underside that is recessed allows someone in a wheelchair to face the garden head-on, rather than having to twist their body to work with plants and the soil. 

Even a planter placed on the ground is a good option. If the planter is too short, you can raise it up with a platform or concrete blocks. Hanging baskets are great for plants and vegetables that vine. These allow people free access to flowers and fruit below. A raised bed without a recessed underside should be oriented so close proximity to soil and plants is possible. If you’re designing for people who need to use a wheelchair, put the wood in a V shape to allow access for their legs underneath the bed. If you’re looking for durable wood, use cedar as it has a long lifespan even when exposed to continual moisture. And of course, you may have an even better idea of a custom raised bed design that you’d like to create and fill with your plants.

Grow herbs or flowers in pots, or have a trellis wall so vegetables are accessible by people of varying heights. Whatever design you choose, make accessibility and beauty the guides for your design, and take into account the person who will be working in that space most. 

Pathways

Flat chair-accessible pathways
Broad pathways are conducive to easy movement by people in chairs. Source: VISITFLANDERS

When you create and design a garden, consider the pathways between raised beds and containers that will allow ease of access to all features. Consider the material used to create your pathway. Install textured pathways that won’t cause children to stumble or fall easily. Connect paths in a sensible manner that makes sense to anyone standing, sitting, or moving around on them. Smooth textures allow ease of access for people using crutches, walkers, or a chair to get around. The floor of your garden should also be wide enough to accommodate all body sizes. The creator of universal design, Stephen Cantu, suggests paths should be at least 5 feet wide. If you’re unsure if a texture will work for your purposes, test out different media as you search for the best one. 

Provide ramps where terrain levels change. People with wheelchairs and walkers need to be supported by your design. A ramp benefits a wide range of people and paths should eliminate barriers to access. In conjunction with the smooth ground, removing obstacles is vital. Don’t plant trees in the middle of a pathway or place a pot with herbs on the side of a pathway where it obstructs movement. If you must put a fence through a path, purchase a button that makes it open automatically. Use a fence to wall off an area of the garden that doesn’t ensure safety for your community. For instance, a compost pile behind a barrier keeps children clean. 

Tools

Each designer should consider the tools available in the garden space. If you’re working with children, containers should be large enough or small enough to allow access. Search for adaptable tools that don’t require extra bending and stretching to use. If watering is difficult for some, consider self-watering pots. If weeds are an issue in the garden, provide tools that make it possible for everyone to reach said weeds for removal. If trimming trees is a regular task in the garden, ensure the tool used for that can extend to reach branches that need pruning. If someone gets tired easily from being on their feet for a while, a kneeling tool that doubles as seating is a great option. This approach allows everyone to get off their feet but enables them to continue to experience the enjoyable parts of gardening. 

Workspaces should also be inclusive. A table that allows people to build soil, plant seeds, and fill containers should be recessed enough to accommodate a wheelchair. If there are people without disabilities working in the garden, an adjustable table that can raise if needed is excellent too. 

Irrigation

Child watering flowers
Children need space for safe interactions with nature, too. Source: shixart1985

Watering is a massive part of gardening. Irrigation systems around the garden should be designed for ease of use and convenience to the garden spaces.

Note the season. In winter, you won’t have to water as much, but in summer you will. Hoses are great when they’re not forcing limited movement on paths. To make the garden space welcoming to all, remove hoses that could act as tripping hazards. Wind them into hose holders, or put them within raised beds and containers so they’re out of the way. If you’re not on an automatic system, ensure the hose extension allows the person who is watering to reach the soil or the plant that needs watering. Ensure the spigots are high enough so people who sit while they’re mobile have the ability to see gauges and easily reach the handle, but not so high as to make them hard to reach. 

Trolley hoses are a great addition to gardens or greenhouses. These either wind hoses up when they aren’t in use, or keep them off the ground ensuring they don’t trip people. Greenhouse owners can install wire above plants where hoses can trail above plants, making them handy for use.

Light and Sound

Those who don’t have full sight and hearing capabilities need adequate sensory input to navigate gardening with ease. Wind chimes along pathways clue people into where the boundary between the soil and a walkway exists. Flowers are excellent for people with partial and no hearing. They provide a stunning view for the sighted and a texture and aroma that all gardeners can enjoy. Each plant has its own sensory qualities. Lambs’ ears are soft and distinctly perceptible. They’re a great tool for education about plant textures. The same logic goes for different soil types. Provide a display of clay, silty, and sandy soil types for visitors to touch and learn more about soil textures. Any way that you can provide sensory input has the potential to bring more delight into peoples’ lives.

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