Clever design opens up gardening for less able-bodied people

Raised beds, slip-proof surfaces and ingenious tools help keep elderly gardeners going

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As young or youngish gardeners, we rarely stop to wonder what it would feel like to suffer from a sore back, or diminishing mobility, or fading eyesight, or a faltering grip . . . Until we’re forced to, that is, which is when flights of garden steps can suddenly become dangerous hazards, uneven paths unnavigable, flower beds inaccessible and garden tools frustratingly unusable.

I say this because I’ve seen how easily it can happen to some older gardeners or those unlucky enough to suffer from ill-health. Confronted with persistent pain, a fear of falling, or just a dwindling sense of physical autonomy, they slowly stop doing the very thing they love. Not just the thing they love but the very thing that always helps to put a gardener’s own tiny universe to rights, and that does so much to counter the physical and mental challenges of ill-health. So what to do?

The good news is that there’s a host of clever designs, useful tips and ingenious tools to help those less able-bodied to continue gardening into even advanced old age.

Let’s start with safe and easy accessibility, an especially important consideration if you use a wheelchair, a walking frame, a walking stick, or are visually impaired. In this case, well-constructed, well-lit, slip-proof garden paths are a must. For wheelchair users, make them a minimum width of 1,200mm (with a turning circle of 1,500mm for manual wheelchairs and 1,800mm for powered chairs), while ramps should be constructed at a gradient of preferably 1:20 (see iwa.ie). For those who can walk but baulk at using garden steps, installing a handrail and lights will help hugely in terms of making them safe to navigate.

Easy maintenance

Paths, ramps and steps aside, raised beds are an excellent solution for less able-bodied gardeners. Not only do they bring plants closer to eye, nose and hand level, but they also allow for easy maintenance and better growing conditions.

Again, there are certain guidelines regards their optimum width and height. If only accessible from one side, they should be no more than 500mm wide, but they can be twice that if accessible from both sides. For wheelchair users, a height of 615mm is best, while for more mobile gardeners who like to garden sitting down, they can be a little taller (690-760mm). If you’re happy to garden standing up, they can be as high as 900-1,000mm.

Raised beds like these at Mud Island Community Garden in Dublin are better for gardeners’ backs and easier to maintain
Raised beds like these at Mud Island Community Garden in Dublin are better for gardeners’ backs and easier to maintain

Weeding is notoriously hard on even an able-bodied gardener’s back and joints. But for those suffering from decreased mobility, joint pain, or a weak grip, it’s a real challenge, requiring a multipronged approach that makes full use of clever weed-prevention techniques.

For example, the weed-suppressant membrane Mypex can be used on both ornamental and vegetable beds to effectively control the germination and growth of new weeds (just cut cut an X-shaped slit where you want to position plants). To extend its longevity and disguise its utilitarian appearance, cover it with a shallow layer of fine pebble or horticultural grit.

Alternatively, regular generous organic mulches to the surface of the soil will do a lot to control weed germination; just make sure that the mulch you’re using doesn’t contain weed seeds, which will only make the problem worse. Temporary non-organic mulches (for example a sheet of strong black plastic) are another brilliant way of keeping unused vegetable beds weed-free until needed, thereby avoiding heavy digging work.

Great tools

Sometimes, of course, we gardeners have to dig, in which case, there are some great tools that help to make the job an awful lot easier. One of them is the Autospade, which is specially designed to reduce back pain. Manufactured by UK-based Backsaver Garden Tools (from £99.99, backsavergardentools.co.uk) and based on an original 1970s design by WOLF-Terrex , it’s suitable for kitchen gardeners who need to dig over large stretches of open ground at a time. The same company also supplies the Backsaver Twinn spade (£15.99), for use in more confined spaces.

Spades aside, the long-established tool manufacturing firm WOLF-Garten manufactures an excellent range of interchangeable garden tools that can be easily attached to lightweight handles of varying lengths, allowing gardeners to reach into difficult corners without the need to bend or crouch down (mrmiddleton.com).

For gardeners with weak hands/wrists, there are also plenty of ingenious, ergonomically-designed garden tools, including general purpose gripping aids (€64.95, activehands.co.uk), clever arm cuffs into which you can slot a hand cultivator or trowel (from €9.95, activehands.co.uk); and secateurs with rotating handles that minimise the strain on arthritic fingers (Felco 7, €89.95, mrmiddleton.com).

Dermot Byrne waters salad crops growing in one of the many raised beds in Mud Island Community Garden in Dublin
Dermot Byrne waters salad crops growing in one of the many raised beds in Mud Island Community Garden in Dublin

If sore knees are your problem, then invest in some shock-absorbing knee-pads (available from most good garden centres), or the OneLeg, the one-legged garden stool that allows you to weed without having to bend or crouch (from €39, oneleg.biz). Finally, always take the time to gently warm up before any kind of strenuous gardening activity, avoid lifting heavy weights and keep good posture firmly in mind. It may not seem that important now, but your body and your mind will thank you for it in the gardening years to come. (For more useful tips, see carryongardening.co.uk)

This Week in the Garden . . .

For the purposes of pruning, the huge and beautiful genus of ornamental climbers known as clematis is divided into three groups. It’s the species/varieties belonging to group two and three that are pruned at this time of year (late February/early March) in order to keep them vigorous and floriferous. With those belonging to group two (examples include clematis “Jackmanii” and “Rouge Cardinal”), generally only light pruning is required (dead or weak stems). But with those belonging to group three (for example any of the viticella types such as “Etoile Violette” or “Polish Spirit”), use a clean, sharp secateurs to cut the plant back hard to just above a set of buds and a height of only 30cm above ground.

Late February is a good time to sow seed of broad beans.  If you garden in a mild part of the country, these can be sown directly outdoors, but I prefer to sow seeds into individual modules to ensure best conditions for germination as well as easier protection from slug attack once the young seedlings emerge above ground. Young plants can then be transplanted into the garden in mid-spring. One of the loveliest varieties to grow is the crimson-flowered broad bean, whose colourful, scented bloom are loved by bees and other pollinating insects. Stockists include Cork-based organic seed producers Brown Envelope Seeds (brownenvelopeseeds.com)

Now’s the time to prune established specimens of the lovely winter-flowering deciduous shrub, Vibirnum x bodnantense, whose clusters of pale, scented flowers are fading with the arrival of spring. Use a sharp secateurs to cut a handful of its oldest, woodiest or weakest branches back down to the base and then mulch the roots with a generous topping of garden compost.

Crimson-flowered broad beans growing in an Irish garden
Crimson-flowered broad beans growing in an Irish garden

Dates For Your Diary

Sunday March 5th- Sunday March 12 th : National Tree Week is organised by the Tree Council of Ireland and features a host of events around the country, including lots of “Trees for Bees” planting projects, a botanical drawing and painting workshop with artist Lynn Stringer (Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar, Co Mayo, March 11th) and guided woodland walks ( Belvedere House, Mullingar, Co Westmeath, March 11th, 2-4pm). See treecouncil.ie for the full itinerary

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