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Wheelchair Accessible Garden Paths: Getting Around

One of the most important parts of designing universal garden styles is path making. While the paths you create have an aesthetic appeal, they should also have proper form and function. Accessibility to pathways and all the parts of the garden they connect is pertinent too. We’ve dedicated this piece to wheelchair-accessible garden paths. 

Having an outdoor space that is inviting to every visitor is important! In this piece, we’ll cover what an accessible path is, and what material works best for a wheelchair-friendly garden. That way you or someone you know can make a garden suitable for wheelchair accessibility. 

We’ll discuss the design process, and how to consider wheelchair users in your garden space. These sorts of considerations are especially important in gardens that are in public spaces. Ensuring pathways are accessible to people who travel by foot and by wheelchair will not only be in line with accommodation guidelines, it will also help you in creating an inclusive space.

What Makes a Path Accessible?

Wheelchair accessible garden paths
A paver pathway is always accessible, no matter the weather. Viv Lynch

Accessible pathways are useful to people with varying abilities. They accommodate a wide range of capacities and preferences. They’re easy to use and understand, and those who traverse the pathways know what their function is just by sensing them. Accessible pathways minimize the risk of accidents. They can be navigated easily and efficiently with minimum fatigue. They’re made of the appropriate material at the appropriate size. They consider use in terms of approach, manipulation, and reach regardless of the ability of the person on the pathway. 

Accessible Path Materials

One of the most important aspects of creating an accessible pathway is considering what the pathway is made of. Here, we’ll consider the benefits and disadvantages of varying consistencies, and determine which provide the best support for people who use a wheelchair for mobility. What material you choose for your wheelchair-accessible pathway has bearing on the overall design of your garden. 

Gravel

When it comes to wheelchair accessibility, not all rocks are equal. Crushed, washed gravel is ok for a wheelchair user, assuming the pieces aren’t too large to prohibit ease of motion, as medium-sized crushed gravel provides a stable surface. Crushed limestone isn’t great for wheelchair access because the large particles obstruct easy access for wheelchair users. Pea gravels sit somewhere between the two. Here, the rocks are smaller than crushed limestone, but they are also more slippery than small crushed stones. 

Crushed, washed gravels that are packed and tamped adequately can be a satisfactory material to work with when creating a pathway in a garden that invites wheelchair users to explore and engage the space. Resin-bound gravels are the most accessible because they’re durable and have enough traction to prevent falls. They also don’t collect water on their surface. To create a surface made of resin-bound gravel, simply lay crushed rocks and then seal them with resin and allow them to dry. Self-binding rocks also keep together much like resin-coated options, adhering to one another as they are rolled over. This is an excellent choice as the rocks are small enough to be easily navigated by people using wheelchairs. 

Gravel path at Nehantic Trail
Packed gravel paths may be an option if it’s the right size gravel. morrowlong

Pavers

Pavers are an excellent pathway material provided they are placed so each one is on the same level as the next. Wood pavers have a rustic look. If they’re placed closely together, they can cover an area much like bricks. Because they’re permeable they allow water to pass through them, rather than sit on the top, increasing the risk of slippage. Wood pallets are also viable when placed in line to connect one area to another. They are permeable, and their simple design makes designing a pathway easy. But keeping them in place may be difficult. Tiles have a high aesthetic value but could make a pathway treacherous due to their lack of permeability. Water that doesn’t absorb into the paver or trail off into a garden bed could make someone who uses a wheelchair part of the time risk falling when they get up to conduct maintenance in one of their garden beds. 

Bricks and Stones

Smaller, modular pathway supplies are often the perfect solution for accessible pathways because they can easily shift with topography more immediately than something like wood slats, for instance. Provided they are non-slip, brick is one of the best materials for this purpose. Because slip resistance is key, those who go for bricks as the key pathway material in their gardening space should consider clay bricks. Clay bricks not only respond effectively to changes in topography but are also textured and create a path that is slip-resistant. 

Stones can be placed together for a cobblestone effect. The stones you choose could be granite, sandstone, or flagstone. Flagstone is an interesting option for pathways that accommodate wheelchair users. While they don’t fit neatly together, if they’re appropriately leveled they can provide a stable and low maintenance option for gardening with a wheelchair. Because they’re large, and roughly the same size, they allow pathways to curve and incline gently, rather than abruptly. While round stones can be used, they’re often too slippery and bumpy for ease of access in a gardening space. Even when they’re recessed into the earth with sand, the amount of energy it takes to move a wheelchair over them is a deterrent for accessible movement. 

Boardwalk

Boardwalk style path at Nehantic Trail
A boardwalk-style pathway can be a good choice. Source: Morrow Long

Those who have a site that has several trees and low-lying areas might consider a boardwalk route design. Not only do the boards provide a smooth, permeable pathway, they also grade up and down with topography easily and efficiently. Especially if you have the supplies and time to install a boardwalk, this could be a very accessible format for mobility in the garden. Ensuring the boardwalk is oriented appropriately to garden beds, your working area, and that it includes railings to prevent falling off the edge is important. Boardwalks sometimes require more maintenance, however. 

Concrete

Poured concrete is the smoothest of all the pathway types we’ve discussed so far. It’s permeable and easy to navigate. If concrete is your go-to, you’ll have the option to design the pathway in whatever manner you please. Concrete also holds up over time and requires little maintenance. The only downside to concrete is it can visually disrupt a space. While it’s great as a sidewalk running in front of a house in a neighborhood, it’s not the most natural-looking or eco-friendly option. Concrete can damage the soil where it’s placed, and it may serve as a sharp visual contrast to a naturalistic garden. Those who wish to work with more natural materials should opt for resin-sealed rocks or leveled flat stones. 

Sand and Mulch

Potentially the least preferable of all pathway materials is mulch because the large particulate and give of a mulched pathway is difficult to move through with a wheelchair. Sand also has a lot of give, and tracks tread through the sand over and over can cause issues with erosion. While sand or mulch lanes have a natural look and feel, they aren’t adequate materials for providing accessibility in a garden to persons in wheelchairs. They also require a lot of upkeep.

Synthetic Turf

Certain synthetic turf materials provide a natural look and feel without the give that comes along with natural materials like sand and mulch. Bonded woodcarpet, for instance, has several layers of different materials to promote drainage. The top layer is made of compacted and bonded wood chips that stay together as they are moved over. Bonded woodcarpet won’t chip or become eroded from wheels, or feet. The only downside to synthetic turf is it can be more expensive than the other materials we’ve discussed up to this point. 

Accessible Pathway Design

Chip mulch is not very accessible
Loose wood chip mulch is not very accessible as it shifts under wheels. Source: crumj

When you decide what pathway material you want to include in your gardening space, you should also consider how your design will promote accessibility as well. That way you and the visitors to your garden can focus on watering, working, and tending to the fruits and vegetables therein. 

The pathway should be wide, with enough space to accommodate people who use wheelchairs to get around. The width of your pathway should be at least 3 feet wide, and ideally, 5 feet to accommodate the wheelchair itself, turning, and equipment. A garden with a sharp corner at every turn presents challenges for people who use self-propelled chairs. That’s why walkways are better when they have curves rather than corners. Curved paths allow for gradual movement between the different focal points of a garden. Ensure the planters and entryways you create don’t block a wheelchair, or the tools someone in a wheelchair may be carrying. 5 feet accommodate the length of a shovel placed on the armrests of a wheelchair. 

Another factor to consider when designing gardens to accommodate a wheelchair user is to consider not only stability but safety. Aside from the make of your pathway, it shouldn’t have a ton of texture or bumps that are difficult to move over. But they also shouldn’t be made of something that easily erodes over time. You want something low-maintenance that holds up to the elements. The installation of ramps is an important part of the accessible design as well. Especially where the path itself doesn’t follow the topography of the ground, install a ramp to limit the challenges that changing topography presents. Keep the surface smooth, and ensure the site allows for ease of movement at the ground and above ground level. Where the installation of a ramp is not possible, consider a zig-zagged path that allows access to spaces and beds at a higher elevation. 

Considering which spaces need to be accessed and how they connect is important too. How the raised garden beds connect to a house, a work space, garden beds, hanging baskets, and even open spaces is the guiding principle of your design. While you may have visually pleasing materials at hand that help you formulate ideas about what the garden will look like, the function of the design is most important. If you have to curve your trail around an open space with grass, or between raised garden beds and plants, a grid design might not be the best option. When you generate ideas for your design, think about how people and the elements move through the garden. This will help you decide where certain raised beds, plants, and planters will go in the yard, and how you’ll access bulk items like soil and compost. 

On that same topic, think about how you can create enough room for watering plants in the yard too. Ensure the spigots are at a comfortable height. If watering plants with an automatic irrigation system isn’t possible, ensure there are watering cans available. Having multiple cans nearby of varying sizes can make it possible for the entire family to join in on the fun. Smaller cans are great for kids, and larger ones can be handled by adults. If you’re working with hoses practicing manual watering, ensure they don’t obstruct pathways or create tripping hazards or more limited mobility. Keeping watering cans, hoses, and irrigation system access at arm’s length is a great idea for any gardener. Planting low-maintenance plants can help gardeners reduce the energy used to water them. But making sure irrigation tools don’t prevent the flow of movement in a garden is key. 

Stick a table or two along the pathways to give you, your family, and garden visitors a place to rest as you work within the space. The table is a space where you can set down tools, or tend to plants at a comfortable level. Add a few chairs to the table, and hang some plants nearby, and you have a leisure space just off the pathway of your accessible garden. Or post the table right next to certain plants that you appreciate because of their look, smell, or function in the garden. I love to sit near my pollinator garden to watch butterflies, moths, and bees flit between flowering plants, so that’s where I place my lawn furniture. Providing a space for relaxation amidst the hard work is important too. 

Pathway Maintenance

Raised beds and wide safe pathways
Well-planned accessible spaces need regular maintenance, too. Source: OSU

One way to promote the efficacy of a pathway is to include edging along the border of the pathway in the installation. Using metal edging along curves keeps particulate like small rocks and base supplies like sand below flagstone in place and prevents erosion. Pebbles and crushed stones need to be maintained every few years. Fill the pathway as the material degrades over time. Keeping the pathway free of weeds and obstructions reinforces its navigability. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How wide should a path be for a wheelchair?

A: 3 to 5 feet wide. 

Q: Is self-binding gravel suitable for wheelchairs?

A: Next to other smooth options, this is potentially the best choice.


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