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Garden smarter, not harder: a guide to adaptive gardening

Linn County Master Gardener

OSU Linn County Master Gardener:

While we are cleaning up winter storm messes on the occasional sunny day, we are thinking about how the landscape and garden areas could be easier to maintain in the future. To garden smarter, not harder, we have many possible changes. 

We plan to stay and use the space we have, so how can we adapt it our aging bodies? What repeating chores are dreaded or overwhelming that need to be eliminated or changed? Will we be caring for someone who is physically disabled?

Adaptive gardening means analyzing our gardening techniques, tools, structures and surfaces. Our current strength, flexibility, balance, bending and kneeling, mobility and medical issues are all subject to the whims of age and accidents. 

How will conditions be ten years from now? Will we be able to make the necessary adaptations then as well as we can now? 

Our goals in the garden are pleasure, safety, fitness and sensory enjoyment. We should be able to grow into the garden, not out of it.

Raised bed gardening is popular because it eliminates spading and tilling and at the same time allows more control of the soil mixtures. They are not easy to move, so the spacing should be planned to allow for wagon, walker and wheelchair access between beds, including turnarounds. 

To be able to reach a raised bed from both sides it should not be wider than one can reach into the middle of it. Beds built 18 inches (sitting height) to 30 inches high (table height) allow gardening while resting or in a chair. 

Garden beds and a water source should be placed close to the house with flat, firm surfaces that will accommodate wheeled equipment. Packed ¼-inch gravel can make walking easier on well-traveled paths. 

Tool size, weight and length should be considered when replacing equipment. The type of handle and how it makes the shoulders stretch can be cause for pain or comfort. It seems all the (same) tools get heavier as we age. Covering handles of long tools with duct-taped pipe insulation foam makes gripping easier for arthritic hands. There are kneeling benches with resting seats and handles to help us get up. 

A place to rest in shade is important, especially to sit and admire accomplishments. There are wheeled seats to scoot down the paths and garden from a low sitting position. 

Tools and supplies should be stored close to the garden to reduce trips to the garage or at put into a tote or bucket to take all at once.

Are the plants easy to maintain? Which ones are more of a pain? Can they be replaced with something more manageable? Do they need more or less water? Do the plants provide candy for the senses – fragrance, textures, colors, sound, taste, and a call of nature for birds, butterflies and bees? 

As our hearing and eyesight decline, other senses compensate and so can the garden. Is there a lot of time spent with annuals every year that would be satisfied with perennials? Plan for the right plants in the right places.

There are many more things to consider when planning for a less-capable future in the garden. OSU Extension has a set of “Make Gardening Easier” publications available online at extension.oregonstate.edu. Search for EM8499 Gardening Hints for People with Arthritis, EM8500 Gardening Adaptations for People with Gripping and Lifting Problems, EM8504 Adapting Garden Tools to Overcome Physical Challenges, EM8505 Gardening with Limited Range of Motion, EM8498 Adaptive Gardening Techniques for the Visually Impaired,  EM8501 Gardening Strategies for People with Heart and Lung Problems. 

There should be nothing stopping us from enjoying our gardens.

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