Accessible Gardening Techniques
Image courtesy of disABILITY Work Tools, disabilityworktools.com
Gardening is one of those hobbies you can enjoy your entire life but as you grow older some of the physical tasks required to manage your garden can become more strenuous and taxing on your body. But there are many ways you can alleviate or reduce some of the physical challenges that come with the territory, regardless of whether you suffer from arthritis, back pain or are confined to a wheelchair.
Here are some suggestions that should help minimize the physical challenges of gardening as well as some tips on better gardening practices.
There are alternatives to getting down on your hands and knees and working the ground. For those with bad backs or knee and neck problems, switch from garden plots to raised beds. Have them built to a height of 28 to 30 inches with easy access to the bed center so you can water and tend to the plants from any side. This will greatly reduce bending over and eliminate gardening on your knees. If you maintain multiple raised beds, you might consider creating wide, level pathways between them composed of pea gravel, pavers or brick. This will help with weed control but also provide flat, secure grounding that is wheelchair-friendly.
If trying to manage a large garden or yard becomes too much work, scale back and grow plants and vegetables in containers that you can easily move from the outside to an inside sunroom or greenhouse as the seasons change. It is much easier to monitor and tend to a plant's needs using this approach and eliminates the physical tasks that come with managing large garden plots.
Watering a large garden on a regular basis can be a time consuming and tiring task if you are doing it manually with a regular garden hose. Save your energy for more important tasks and use water conservative soaker hoses instead. Not only are they designed for better saturation for the soil but your water bills will be lower as a result. Automated sprinkler systems might seem more convenient but they are expensive, require repair maintenance and can waste water. Soaker hoses only need to be set up once and you are done. Growing plants in window boxes using drip irrigation is another easy and effective way to water.
Reduce your labor in the garden and concentrate on planting perennials over annuals. You can always grow your favorite annuals in containers or window boxes and save your energy for the care and maintenance of ornamentals and perennials that will come back year after year.
Jack Kerrigan, a former region director with Ohio State University Extension Service, maintains that one way to make gardening easier for yourself is having soil "that's nice and light and easy to work. Adding a lot of organic matter to the soil makes any kind of digging, whether it's using a shovel or a trowel, much, much easier." Composted garden waste is an ideal additive to any soil, whether it is sandy or clay.
There are highly effective ergonomic tools for combating weeds, but you can also be proactive and spend very little in this regard. Kerrigan advises gardeners "to put down a layer of newspaper and then cover that with mulch or use weed mats that are available to reduce the amount of weeding that has to be done."
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There is no longer a need to risk straining your neck, back or arms when pruning, raking or working the ground. There are now a number of tools available for gardeners with physical limitations from specialty garden product makers like Fiskars, Corona, Gripworks, disABILITY Work Tools, Life With Ease and others. Chris Sabbarese of Corona Tools says, "We have tools that can extend from anywhere like 18 inches out to 30 or more and give people in a wheelchair the ability to sit there and garden with trowels, rakes and cultivators."
In recent years, garden tools have become more customized to provide better support and functionality through ergonomic design. These new products are crafted to fit better in your hand and are made from lighter, yet durable, materials. You might love your trusty hickory handle steel spade, but using one made from cast aluminum and mounted on a fiber glass shaft can greatly reduce the pressure and wear on your hand. Gardeners suffering from arthritis and fibromyalgia, in particular, are able to enjoy gardening again thanks to tools like the Fiskars PowerGear Softgrip Pruner, which features a handle that rolls to follow your hand's natural clenching motion, reducing fatigue and allowing you to make effortless cuts.
If you are on a tight budget or don't want to replace your favorite gardening tools with newer, more ergonomic ones, you can easily make improvements to your current tools. Kerrigan, who suffers from arthritis, offers one solution: "I take the insulation that is sold for insulating pipes and I put that on and wrap it. You can use hockey tape and that added cushioning makes gripping so much easier."
If you have a tendency to bend over too much while gardening or need additional support, why not consider investing in a garden stool or a rolling work seat that you can easily move around the yard? The only concern here is the potential danger of tripping over the stool or work seat if you aren't paying close attention or lose your balance. Foam knee pads are another garden aid that offer great support and are inexpensive. It is also wise to keep the essential tools you need with you, either in a portable wagon or bucket or a handyman's tote. This will prevent you from accidentally misplacing them while gardening or making constant trips to the tool shed.
"I like to wear cotton because it breathes," Kerrigan states, "but also there are products out now where the clothing protects your skin from the sunlight, and those are very important." Kerrigan usually wears a cotton shirt with long sleeves and avoids bright colored clothing because it attracts insects. He also recommends wide brim hats because "they can provide shade on your face—and the ones with veils that go down over your neck are very helpful too for keeping the sun off."
Always remember to drink plenty of water while gardening and avoid working in the heat of the day. Early morning or late afternoon gardening are best during the summer months. Another helpful suggestion is to garden with a damp towel around your neck, which helps keep the temperature down. You can also buy cold packs and keep them in the freezer until you are ready to use them outdoors for heat relief.
For gardeners who are starting to experience memory loss or becoming more forgetful as they age, here is a simple solution for keeping track of garden tools: Paint them bright colors so they stand out against the greenery or brown earth tones of the garden. Another way to prevent losing or misplacing them in the yard is to tie brightly-colored ribbons or labels to them. It is also a good idea to make sure your garden design is kept simple. Kerrigan suggests that "a distinctive and familiar focal point allows for easier orientation" and that plants that trigger memories such as a favorite herb or vegetable are always beneficial.