Making Gardening More Accessible

By Charlie Nardozzi

The right tools and equipment ? and a little help from friends ? can keep you in the garden despite physical limitations.

Gardening is a great form of physical exercise. You can burn as many calories digging holes, raking the lawn, or pruning trees as you can taking a bike ride or a moderate walk. When you perform a variety of gardening tasks, as most gardeners naturally do, you're also exercising all the major muscle groups in your body and keeping joints flexible and strong.

Gardening also helps your sense of emotional health. It's a good way to unwind after a hard day's work. By focusing on gardening tasks, you tend to forget about the little upsets and worries that filled your day. Seeing a plant produce flowers or fruit gives a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

While gardening is loaded with benefits, some gardeners may begin to experience aches and pains, especially as their bodies age. Let's face it, gardening tasks, such as raking, weeding, harvesting, pruning, and digging, are hard work. Accessible gardening tools and techniques can lessen the impact on gardeners' bodies.

An Older Body

As bodies age many natural changes occur. Reduced clarity of vision and depth perception can make garden tools and seeds harder to find. Muscles may not be as strong as they used to be, making carrying a 50-pound bag of fertilizer difficult, if not impossible. After gardening, knees, hips, backs, wrists, and elbows may ache and become stiff. An older gardener's sense of balance may become impaired and this, combined with slower reaction times, increases the risk when using power tools, such as tillers.

Older gardeners may be more sensitive to the weather as well. They may notice that hot temperatures sap their strength and they get dehydrated sooner than they did when they were younger, and they may also find that their skin is more sensitive to the sun.

Despite the picture these changes paint about our aging bodies, many people in their 90s still work in their gardens, as do those with physical handicaps. It's all about being smart about your gardening practices.

Start with Accessible Designs

Making your garden more accessible starts with the design. One of the best techniques is to use containers and raised beds. Manufacturers have created light-weight containers that look like terra cotta and stone, and using self-watering containers decreases maintenance time.

When planting a large container, such as half whiskey barrel, place packing peanuts or empty plastic bottles in the bottom to take up space and reduce the weight. Most plants need only a 10- to 12-inch-deep layer of soil. Also, purchase large containers with casters or wheels so the pot can be easily moved.

Raised beds

Raised Beds

In the yard, build raised beds that reduce bending and reaching. These can be temporary or permanent. Temporary beds are built up each spring to a height of 8 to 10 inches tall, 3 to 4 feet wide, and as long as you wish. Cover paths with mulch that makes walking easy, such as shredded bark mulch. Minimize the amount of hose dragging you'll have to do by mulching plants and using irrigation. Lay soaker hoses or drip irrigation lines and place them on timers.

You can design permanent raised beds of an appropriate height using cement, plastic, or wood. If you are gardening from a wheelchair, build raised beds on legs that allow you to roll your chair underneath.

Vertical Gardening

You can also garden without having to bend down at all. Vertical gardening is a technique of growing plants in hanging baskets, window boxes, and trellises so most of the maintenance is at waist-to-eye-level. Not only is it physically easier to garden this way, you'll save space too, allowing for more flowers and vegetables on a balcony or deck.

Improvise to make garden tasks easier!

Accessible Solutions

Even with a good design, you will still need techniques to make gardening easier on your body.

  • Vary your gardening tasks so you work all your muscles and without overtaxing specific ones. Take frequent breaks, and don't work at any one task, such as pruning or digging holes, for more than 30 minutes at a time.

  • Wear a gardening hat and sun block, and drink plenty of fluids. Work in the early morning and late afternoon to avoid the heat of the day.

  • Be opportunistic with your tasks. Weed after a rain when roots are easier to pull. Transplant shrubs on cloudy days when the digging will be easier to on you, and the shrubs will suffer less water loss.

  • Paint tool handles bright colors so you can find them easily.

  • Plant small, hard-to-handle seeds, such as carrots, by mixing them in a saltshaker with sand.

  • Bend your knees when lifting heavy objects to use your leg muscles more than your back.

  • Use long-handled shovels and weeders so you aren't stressing your back by bending over too much. Try kid-sized tools for small gardens and working in tight spaces. They are lighter and less cumbersome to handle.

Easier Gardening Tools

To make gardening easier on your hands, back, knees, and wrists, manufacturers have developed ergonomic tools - those designed to create less stress on muscles and joints.

Share your love of gardening with the next generation!

Give Yourself a Hand

It all starts with your hands. Wear comfortable, properly sized gloves with textured grips to minimize dropped tools and help prevent blisters. Wrap tape or foam grips on tool handles to make them larger and easier to hold.

Purchase hand tools, such as pruners, that fit your hand. Try different designs to determine which is most comfortable. Models with looped handles, swivel grips, and ratcheting gears often require less effort to squeeze. Choose loppers with ratcheting or power gears. For high branches use lightweight aluminum pruning sticks or well balanced extension pruners.

Ergonomically designed hand tools, including trowels, weeders, and cultivators, are designed with handles that keep your wrists straight, reducing stress on joints. Some hand tools have forearm braces that make your arm do much of the work and reduce stress on your wrists. These are especially useful if you suffer from arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Share your love of gardening with the next generation

Back and Knee Relief

To save stress on your back, sit while you work. Use a rolling garden seat that's easy to move through the garden. For working on your hands and knees, kneel on a foam pad or wear kneepads. Wear a multi-pocketed garden apron to hold seeds, markers, labels, and tools to keep everything within arm's reach. Use a lightweight wheelbarrow to move heavy or large objects. For raking leaves and soil, try using an ergonomically contoured, adjustable-handle rake that allows you stand straight while raking.

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