Garden smarter, not harder if you have disabilities

The OSU Extension Service's demonstration garden in Salem features adaptive gard
The OSU Extension Service's demonstration garden in Salem features adaptive gardening techniques. (Photo by Neil Bell)
Last Updated: 
January 28, 2013

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Pat Patterson, a Master Gardener trained by the Oregon State University Extension Service, does not let a bad back or an artificial knee keep her from her garden. 

The enthusiastic 74-year-old maintains a 2,000-square-foot vegetable garden, a four-acre wildlife area and a Japanese garden at her property between Noti and Cheshire with the help of three friends and her husband.

"I would be at a loss if I couldn't garden," Patterson said. "I would have planted at least sprouts in a pot or African violets on my windowsill, but I really wanted to grow food, and lots of it."

What allowed her the freedom? A concept called "adaptive gardening" involves making small modifications to accommodate a gardener's physical injuries or disabilities. In her case, she has built high raised beds that make access easier. She also uses an extensive trellis system. Favorite tools include an Asian plow-hoe, a garden knife and an aluminum trowel with finger indentations for a better grip.  

"We call it gardening smarter, not harder," said Patterson, who has been sharing her knowledge with the public as a Master Gardener volunteer since 1976.

Patterson chairs the adaptive gardening committee of the Master Gardeners' Association of Lane County. Anywhere from two to 20 committee members give talks and help such institutions as assisted living centers make gardening more accessible to everyone. One occasional committee volunteer is legally deaf and partially sighted. 

The OSU Extension Service offers gardening advice for the visually impaired. Here are a few of the tips:

  • Mark changes in the direction of path segments with shrubs or with different textures of the path material.
  • Make flower borders and planted beds no more than three feet across so the gardener can reach the plants while kneeling and working with short-handled tools.
  • Install wind chimes, moving water and scented plants to help the gardener find special parts of the garden.
  • Arrange bedded plants in groups of three to five in straight rows to make them easier to locate.

Another Extension guide offers advice for adapting gardening tools for people with physical challenges.  It recommends the following:

  • Use plastic handle extenders to improve leverage and keep you from having to bend over too. Or use long-handled tools, which are available in many hardware stores.
  • Garden from a chair to add comfort if you have knee problems.
  • Build raised beds or containers whenever possible to minimize bending.

You can see such examples of adaptive gardening techniques like whiskey barrel planters, accessible table-top beds and extra-tall raised beds at various demonstration gardens maintained by Master Gardeners, including those in Benton, Douglas, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion and Washington counties.

Author: Denise Ruttan
Source: Pat Patterson