Design Tips for an Accessible Garden

Gardening can bring benefits to all. Unfortunately, some gardens feel exclusionary. If you have mobility issues or some form of disability, or are simply getting on in age, you may feel overwhelmed by the process of designing an accessible garden that you can maintain and enjoy.

Creating an accessible garden does require some care and thought. But it need not cost the earth, literally or metaphorically, to create a garden that works for you or all the members of your household. 

Linking the Home and Garden

A great garden is an extension of the living spaces within a home. But while many homes are fitted out for accessibility, links to garden spaces often leave something to be desired. So when designing an accessible garden, one of the key areas of focus will be the intersection between home and garden.

Patios, smooth decking, and ramps can help to create a seamless flow between indoor and outdoor spaces. Wide sliding doors soften the boundaries between inside and out. Pergolas, porches, and other covered structures can make for accessible transitional spaces linking the two realms.

Gentle terracing and slope creation can smooth the terrain, creating an easier route into garden spaces. Soft contouring of the existing terrain, with links to the back doors of your home, ensure that anyone can make their way outdoors, free from obstacles.

Zoning the Garden

For gardeners with physical challenges, “zoning” the space is even more important than it usually is. In permaculture, we zone a space so that those elements we visit most frequently are closest to the home, and those which are only visited occasionally are further away. Minimizing the time it takes to reach the most common routes in your garden will allow for more time to relax and enjoy the accessible garden you have created.

Zoning recreational spaces, designed for relaxation and fun, is as important as creating those purely functional spaces which will help you live in a more sustainable way, such as managing water wisely, recycling nutrients, and growing at least some of your own food.

Accessible Pathways

Some of the most important features in an accessible garden are the pathways which allow for free and easy movement through the space. It is important to think about reducing gradient, avoiding uneven surfaces, and keeping pathways wide and clear. 

The specific surface required will, of course, depend on who will use the space. In some spaces, a grass or other low-growing living pathway may be suitable; in others, a level compacted path made with gravel, sand, or clay might work better. The benefits of this, as opposed to concrete, for example, is that it is a permeable surface, which allows water to drain through. 

Where concrete is desired, a limecrete pathway or a surface made from recycled materials can be more eco-friendly alternatives to consider.

Low Maintenance Spaces

Where physical movement is a challenge, it is especially important to think about creating low maintenance spaces, where processes can be as streamlined and efficient as possible. But these do not need to be boring. Nor do they need to minimize the number of plants. 

In fact, it is often the case that the more plants you include in a design, and the more biodiverse the ecosystem, the lower maintenance it can be. 

In an accessible garden, don’t be afraid to incorporate a wide range of perennials—trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. Naturalistic landscaping which mimics natural systems requires far less time and attention than you might imagine. Remember, native plants will be best adapted to the conditions in your area and will require far less of your care.

Considering plant choices carefully—for example, choosing plants which can be harvested within your own easy-reach zone (fruit trees on dwarfing rootstock, for example)—means that you can enjoy abundant yields for a fraction of the time and effort it will take to maintain a traditional annual garden.

Of course, the specific needs and requirements of the garden should be carefully considered in any accessible garden design. Be sure to think not only about practicality but also about creating a beautiful and aesthetically appealing design. Think about sight lines for all members of the household, and incorporate visual, auditory, olfactory, and and tactile elements into the planting design. 

Raised Beds

If you do plan on growing annual crops, raised beds are often the best solution for an accessible garden. But when creating raised beds, remember that it’s helpful to think outside the box. Rectangular forms are not the only option, and creating raised beds in different shapes can sometimes help create a garden that better suits your specific needs.

The height of the raised beds should be tailored to you, or the main gardener, to enable all parts of each bed to be reached most easily. Make them high enough to avoid excessive bending and narrow enough to avoid excessive reaching.

Make sure that watering needs are met (considering automated systems may be beneficial) and make sure that your composting area, tools in a potting shed, and other things that you will need as you tend your raised beds are close by.

Whether you wish to make a garden more accessible for you, as the gardener, or for a member of your household to enjoy, the tips above should help you move in the right direction.

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