Gardening For Everyone

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

February 20, 2009 5 min read


Those with disabilities can get involved with planting

Vicky Katz Whitaker

Creators News Service

Being disabled doesn't mean you can't raise tomatoes or fragrant flowers in your backyard, or skip touring a large botanical garden.

With ergonomic garden tools, specialized growing equipment, how-to books and websites, raising veggies, planting petunias or simply enjoying the smell of a gardenia or touch of rose petals are all within reach. It may take a little work and a good deal of planning, the experts say, but the end result is worth it.

One of them, Francesco Clark, president of the skincare line Clark's Botanicals in Bronxville, N.Y., knows about it first hand. In a wheelchair after a crippling spinal cord injury from a 2002 swimming pool diving accident, Clark has since become an enthusiastic home gardener. As an ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation (, he has no hesitation about sharing the dos and don'ts of creating a home garden for yourself or for a friend or relative with a disability.

"In my experience, the accessibility of the garden has always been an issue," Clark said. "Walkways are either too narrow or an uneven surface, like brick, physically blocking my wheels from getting to where I want to go. There is never enough room to turn around and back up, and most of all, it always ends up looking ugly. There's no need for that. The new types of colored concrete are great for this, and they can be molded to make stone-like shapes."

For Clark, an easy solution is "setting up a nice, elegant table where I can pull up in my wheelchair and work on whatever gardening projects I like. I love that table!"

Placement of the water hose is very important, he added. "If it's too hard to uncoil, I can't use it," he said. "If I do uncoil it, but it crosses my wheelchair's path, I get stuck. I've actually punctured a hose rolling over it, then got sprayed with what felt like 800 gallons of freezing water." Though pricey, push-button controlled sprinklers are easier to use.

People tend to design vegetable gardens too tight, Clark said. "Make them spacious, and adding a little sitting area between vegetables and flowers is nice so you can enjoy the space. And you can use that space as workspace so you don't need to wheel a long distance from your work-table to planting beds."

Botanical gardens, zoos and even fancy nurseries are the best places to get ideas. Clark said they are "amazing" resources, and many are accessible to the physically handicapped or visually impaired.

For example, the Buehler Enabling Garden at Chicago Botanic Garden features raised beds and displays of adaptive tools and model gardens. The Courtyard of the Senses at the Canada's Montreal Botanical Garden features Braille-identified prickly, sticky, soft and rough trees and plants that allow the blind and visually impaired to discover a garden with senses different than sight.

If you can afford it, bring along your contractor, gardening helper or landscape architect, or go with a friend that is helping you with your project. "My budget was very limited, so I went with my family and friends to brainstorm," Clark said of his visit to the New York Botanical Garden.

Clark uses very large flowerpots "so my sitting height is an easy working height to maintain flowers and more needy plants. They also look fantastic, help frame the space and break up boring spaces." He suggested you keep the more easily maintained plants at floor level, since they don't need as much attention.

Even if you're disabled but not confined to a wheelchair, there's no need to give up gardening. Among the tools now on the market are easily-gripped garden trowels, long reach cultivators, cushioned kneelers for weeding and planting and even barrier-free gardening tables with removable planters.

Several books, like Janeen Adil's "Accessible Gardening for People with Physical Disabilities" ($17, Idyl Arbor) or Joann Woy's "Accessible Gardening: Tips and Techniques for Seniors and the Disabled" ($17, Stackpole), provide step-by-step guides to planning and building home gardens.

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