Create a Welcoming Garden with Universal Design

By Rosemarie Rossetti

A foam pad provides cushioning as I plant the rock garden at the base of the waterfall.

On June 13, 1998, while riding my bicycle, my life changed abruptly and drastically. I was crushed by a falling 7,000 pound tree and paralyzed from the waist down. One of the heartbreaks after my spinal cord injury was the thought that I might never garden again.

When I came home from the hospital in a wheelchair, I realized that my existing landscape was no longer accessible to me. I thought of how a garden based on universal design principles would make all the difference in allowing me to continue to enjoy the pleasures of gardening. Universal design is a framework for creating places benefiting the widest possible range of people in the widest range of situations without special or separate design.

So when my husband, Mark Leder, and I decided to build our new home, universal design and green building principles became a priority both indoors and out. Our home became the Universal Design Living Laboratory, a national demonstration home and garden in Columbus, OH that demonstrates universal design and green building practices. The project was completed with the help of 207 corporate partners who contributed products and services. We moved into our 3,500 square foot home on May 18, 2012.

The planning for our landscape's accessible design had begun years before. In September 2005, Mark and I first met with landscape architect Bill Gerhardt. Together we planned outdoor living spaces that included a patio with room for me to maneuver in my wheelchair, along with space for plants in large containers. We also planned for raised beds, a waterfall visible from all the south-facing windows in the house, and an accessible potting table. Horticulturist Tracy DiSabato-Aust designed the front landscape beds, while Tom Lehner of The Ivy Tree designed many of the other beds, helped in plant selection, and led the installation of the pavers, retaining walls and plants. The design team understood that an accessible landscape isn't just for the wheelchair-bound. ″As the Boomers get older they can't bend over anymore. I'm starting to incorporate raised beds,″ says Lehner. Notes Gerhardt, ″We are all going to have a need for accessibility features sometime in our lives.″

Proper paver installation provides safe and secure footing and maneuverability for everyone who uses the garden, whether or not they have physical limitations.

Many professionals contributed their expertise and hundreds of student and individual volunteers helped with the installation. For example, students at Hocking College helped to install a 500-gallon RainXchange® rainwater harvesting system with a 20-foot stream and waterfall contributed, designed, and installed by Aquascape, Inc.

For patio paving we used ADA-compliant EcoFlo® permeable pavers, selected because they offer comfortable travel for people using wheelchairs, meet pedestrian slip resistance standards, and allow water to drain through to the soil below rather than run off. Details are important when installing pavers. The surface must be smooth and level to allow safe access for people who use wheelchairs, walkers, canes and crutches. Pavers were set and leveled, and masonry sand was applied between the paver joints. In some areas where rain comes off the roof and erodes the sand, polymeric sand replaced masonry sand in the joints. This sand becomes very firm and locks in the pavers with the added bonus of reducing weed growth in the joints.

In the early spring of 2013, with the patio pavers installed, I was able to roll outside in my wheelchair as well as my walker. I was eager to see what gardening I was capable of doing from a seated position. One of my first gardening activities was to grab a pair of hand pruners and begin cutting back the dry ornamental grasses in a raised bed adjacent to a gently sloping pathway. I transferred out of my wheelchair and sat on the retaining wall. It was easy for me to scoot across the wall as I moved from plant to plant.

Later that spring, Mark built a pair of 16 inch wide, 42 inch long, 10 inch deep planting boxes, which he placed in a recess in the retaining wall near the house and filled with potting soil. It was a joy for me to transfer from my wheelchair to the low retaining wall and plant potted herbs in these two little gardens. I was also able to tuck rock garden plants at the base of the waterfall by transferring out of my wheelchair and kneeling on a pad.

A raised planter set in a low retaining wall makes it easy for me to plant an herb garden.

We set ten large containers on the back and front porches that I planted with tomatoes, peppers, and annuals. Five of the containers were positioned in a straight line under the drip line of the overhang on the back porch. Because the house has underground channel drains to collect rainwater rather than gutters, when it rains the plants get watered by the runoff from the roof.

Watering was one of the unexpected challenges I discovered in my new garden. During dry spells I used the garden hose attached to a yard hydrant on the back porch, but it was a struggle to drag the hose across the pavers, not only due to its weight, but because of the slight downhill grade on the patio. It wasn't convenient to lock my wheelchair's wheels, but if I wasn't holding on to both wheels, the chair drifted down the grade. After a few experiences watering with the hose, I asked Mark to take over watering duties. In the future, we plan to invest in lighter weight hoses, drip irrigation, and self-watering pots to reduce the need for hand watering. We will also continue to make sure the soil mix in beds and containers has lots of water-absorbing polymers and peat moss mixed in to help it retain moisture.

The wide, gently sloping paths in the finished garden ensure that all parts of the landscape are accessible to me in my wheelchair.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when designing an accessible landscape that welcomes everyone:

  • Eliminate steps between the house and patios and porches for easy access
  • Handle grade changes with gently sloping ramps and pathways rather than steps
  • Ramps and pathways should not have more than a 1:12 slope; a 1:20 slope is best
  • Make garden pathways at least 36″ wide to allow for easy wheelchair passage
  • Create raised beds high enough to be accessible from a seated or standing position
  • Use large container plantings placed in accessible locations
  • Select plants that are drought and heat resistant and require little pruning
  • Install water outlets at convenient locations and heights
  • Install adequate lighting for good nighttime visibility

Byline: Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D. is the co-owner and co-builder of the Universal Design Living Laboratory ( and an internationally known speaker, consultant, author and horticulturist. (

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