Design & Decor - Landscaping

Plan an accessible garden

Don’t let a physical disability stand between you and your garden. Here are some tips to help you finesse the basics

My husband, Ian Parker, and I love gardening together at our west-end Toronto home. He contributes much of the vision, keeps me company while I work and occasionally does a last-minute nursery run when we’re low on soil or mulch.

I’m the one who does the dirty work. I do the planting and the pruning, the weeding and the watering, coaxing our greenery into something close to splendour.

Our roles are well-defined out of necessity. Ian is quadriplegic; he can’t walk or use his hands well, and he uses a power wheel­chair. Needless to say, Ian doesn’t do shovels. But he’s as much a part of the growth of our garden as I am, and he can admire an azalea or delight in a delphinium with the best of ’em.

Ian is not alone, of course; people across the country contend with physical disabilities, from slight to significant. But that doesn’t mean they must throw in the trowel. Like most leisure activities, gar­dening can be easily adapted for many types of physical challenges. Often, all that’s required is a little thinking outside the flower box.

That kind of plotting has become second nature for my colleague Barbara Florio Graham, who lives alone on a pretty cul-de-sac in Gatineau, Quebec. She can’t bend over or walk unassisted, but she’s devoted to her garden. The solution? Barbara’s garden is close to maintenance-free. Rather than fuss with exotic plants, she grows hardy native perennials such as trilliums and Virginia creeper; lovely wildflowers like Queen Anne’s lace and violets roam where they will. Spring bulbs have similarly spread themselves, popping up reliably every season.

Barbara hires a handyman once a week to cut back ivy or do any hard raking that’s required. But the list of chores isn’t usually long. Drip hoses laid through her beds ensure watering is as easy as turning on a tap. And there’s no lawn mower in sight: she’s had every blade of grass—from both her front yard and back—replaced with plants, shrubs, river stone or gravel.

Her innovation has paid off. “I spend a lot of time looking out the window,” says Barbara, who works from home. “I find it very soothing and calming and therapeutic.”

Ian enjoys our view, too, but for him there’s nothing like getting up-close-and-personal with the perennials to follow their progress, to welcome new buds, to enjoy textures and smells. So for someone who uses a mobility aid to get around, properly planned garden paths are important. Accessible paths should at a minimum meet the industry standard of 90 centimetres wide, and should slope gently (only 15 to 20 centimetres of length for every centimetre of height). The paths should also be well maintained: don’t let fallen branches lie or allow vines to creep across unclipped. Wheelchairs and walkers don’t mix well with steps and uneven surfaces. Paths that are paved or made of compacted earth or crushed stone are infinitely easier.

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