Using Universal Design as You Grow Your Garden

By Steve Trusty

As the years pass I am starting to think more about easing some gardening tasks. I also think about others with health conditions or concerns that limit their gardening abilities. Whether you are planning for your own gardening experiences or for a friend or relative, there are a number of things to take into consideration.

This is where universal design comes into play. Universal design, in the broadest sense, is the practice of designing, in this case gardens, in a way that provides accessibility for the greatest number of people. It takes into consideration all ages and stages of life and abilities.

Most people now know there are a multitude of benefits from getting outdoors and spending time in a garden. Being able to enjoy a garden with limited mobility or senses is important to healing and quality of life. Working the soil, tending plants, and reaping the harvest can provide even more benefits.

No matter what the physical or mental challenges, gardens can be designed for maximum enjoyment. When designing your garden, consider all its potential users and visitors. As we get older we might not be able to stoop or bend as we used to. We may have trouble navigating slopes or certain surfaces. Some of our senses might not be what they used to. Injuries, diseases and other health conditions come into play. You want to make your garden uniquely yours, but you also want others to enjoy it.

Things to think about are: Who is the garden initially designed for? What are its primary objectives? Who is going to be the primary caretaker? What are his or her limitations? What are potential issues with visitors? Are there sensory stimuli that could be added or should be avoided? What can be done to assure the safety of those enjoying the garden? After you address those questions and others that will come up in the initial process, it is time to complete the design.

Consider mobility. Wide, paved walkways are best for those with wheelchairs, walkers, or canes. These should have enough texture to prevent slipping but not be bumpy and hard to navigate. Design to prevent tripping hazards.

Think accessibility. Raised beds are easier to work with than those at ground level. The beds can be waist high or whatever height is most suitable for the primary user. Raised beds can be any length but should be narrow enough to be able to reach across or at least halfway across from each side; definitely no wider than 3 feet. Consider designing seating into the raised beds and including insets to allow wheelchair users to reach into them.

Select as many low maintenance plants as possible. Avoid poisonous plants or those with sharp points or edges. Where trees and shrubs are used, make sure they don't obstruct walkways or headroom. Select plants that don't need frequent pruning or dividing to thrive and look good. Create appeal for all of the senses with plants that provide extra fragrance, bright colors, and interesting textures for touch.

Add a focal point. Draw people into the garden with inviting focal points, such as a water feature, a piece of sculpture, a bed of colorful flowers, or a weeping tree with branches cascading to the ground. Include comfortable and accessible seating in spots to encourage visitors to linger and enjoy the beauty and life around them.

Proper planning can provide enjoyable gardening experiences no matter what a person's physical limitations might be. Incorporating universal design principles into your garden makes it welcoming to visitors and helps to ensure that you can continue to enjoy its pleasures for years to come.

Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their gardening for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.

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