Handicapped gardening

A friend who suffers from arthritis in her hands has high praise for Bionic gloves, designed by a hand surgeon.  Both she and her husband wear them for gardening.  See them at www.bionicgloves.com .  The Arthritis Foundation has given this product its "ease of use" commendation. 


BEWARE: If you're offered a remote control for your sprinkler system, be very cautious.  It sounds like a great idea for someone whose mobility is impaired, but it isn't, and here's why:  It only runs each station for ten minutes. That is NOT long enough for lawn watering. 

Sprinkler salesmen may tell you 15 minutes every day or every other day is adequate watering time, but they're selling sprinklers and are not responsible for residential lawns.  A reporter from The Statesman got  information from a sod grower that one should water for 15 minutes every other day.  That's fine for sod growers, who expect to cut off short roots, roll it up and sell it to homeowners.  It's not accurate information for homeowners who plan on permanent lawns.

A residential lawn needs about 1" of water each week (depending on grass type).  And little 15 minute or ten minute bursts of water are going to create short roots that will not tolerate a bit of drought or unusually high temperatures.  Those little soggy sessions will also set the stage for disease and insect attack as well. 

I am very unhappy about that sprinkler remote.  It should not be offered for sale to the general public since it's really for the convenience of the installer to make sure each station runs okay.  It's also not cheap.


Getting myself back into the garden after amputation and physical therapy was to be a two-step process: buy a scooter, and build raised beds.  Raised beds hold a huge amount of soil, and itís a herculean task to fill them. My husband had recently had surgery, so I sought an alternative. 

Years ago, I had built raised beds that were oriented east-west, and five feet across.  Thatís far too wide for me to care for, so when we set out to build more raised beds, I narrowed the beds to 4 feet wide.  I was told this was too wide, and really it is a bit too wide.  I plant things down the center that don't need a lot of tending.

I hired a fellow with a front loader on his tractor, and he scraped up my garden soil (that I had been improving for over 25 years by adding organic matter every year) into ridges, leaving four foot pathways between ridges and at each end.  We started out with four raised beds, 4 feet wide by 17 feet long.  We bought 2X10 and 2X6" fir and 4X4 cedar fence posts for corners, then hired a handy fellow to build containment boxes around those ridges.  Paths were now four inches lower than the adjacent lawn after the scraping off of the topsoil, but that was not a problem for my scooter. It easily made its own ďrampĒ into the garden. Once the containment boxes were finished, I got on my scooter and got a rake, and started raking the ridges down into the containment boxes.  That worked just perfectly. 

That left quite a bit of ground-level garden that was too low for me to access, so this year we had more raised beds built, including some low ones for my tomato patch.  I grow my tomatoes in a Vee shape, two beds each about 20 inches wide and made of 2X10" fir.  Last year I grew tomatoes in the ground, and couldnít keep them weeded.  This year I could at least keep them weed free about 3/4 of the way around each plant. 

We use soaker hoses for watering, with quick connects for the hose at one end of each bed.  Weíre still thinking of refining this, so Iíll keep you up to date. The connecting hose necessarily bows out into the path, and I have hooked it as I passed, pulling the hose loose. Some of the four feet wide beds have four lines of soaker hose running the length, others have six lines.  When you first plant out, it looks as though you can use all six lines, but the reality is that four lines works better.  Bush beans, for example, seldom remain bushes.  Most varieties tend to develop runners, and sprawl or overcome other things planted in the bed.

The way I deal with the hard-to-reach middle is to plant things there that will not need frequent attention until harvest.  Thatís usually peppers or eggplants. 

My raised beds are used to grow vegetables, since that's what I most enjoy raising. They could be used for flowers or other ornamentals, of course. As an alternative, you could plant in tall pots or troughs such as those made of hypertufa that would be reachable from the seat of an electric scooter.

I had a rock garden bed built that is primarily vertical, but we're still working on that, so will include information about that later.

About tools for raised bed gardening: Extendable tools are available at many garden centers.  Zamzows is carrying Corona brand, that when the ends of the handles are twisted in opposite directions, the trowel/rake/claw at the end may be pulled out, extending the handle two more feet approximately, or it may be used as just a long-handled hand tool.  Some of the dollar stores are carrying barbecue tongs that are 14 inches long, and they're very useful for handicapped people, indoors and out. 

Each handicapped gardener has a different disability from others.  Some aids are not useful for some gardeners, but are for others.  It would be nice if there were a library where one could check out this wrist-braced trowel or those side handles that fasten to a rake handle.  Then a gardener could try these tools and if they worked for him/her, they'd rate purchasing. 

Other handicaps:

Folks with eyesight impairment may want to garden in containers, or they may garden in the ground.  Varying the texture of the ground leading to the beds will alert the sight-impaired gardener which bed he or she is approaching.  One bed may have a gravel path, another a wooden path, still another have pavers on the approach, for example. 

It's probably a good idea to grow plants with tactually different textures, some with smooth leaves, others with fine "furry" feel to them.  The gardener should know how to maintain the plants before beginning.  If you live in an area where there are apt to be poisonous snakes or scorpions, you should probably have a sighted person go over your garden bed before you start.

If one just has difficulty kneeling then rising, there are stools available with handles that would aid one in rising.  There's no real reason why you should have to kneel, if you use troughs to put seeds or plants in the ground.  Botanist Kay Lancaster pointed out that plants started in styrofoam coffee cups  could be slid into a hole made by a bulb planting tool, and firmed with the foot.  Seeds could be planted by letting them slide or tumble through a pvc pipe.  It just takes a bit of practice to space seeds using this method. 

See Favorite Tools for specific tools.

Rose Marie Nichols-McGee, owner of Nichols Garden Nursery, was in charge of the award-winning Garden Writers' of America "Plant a Row" For the Hungry display at the recent Pacific Northwest Flower and Garden Show.  For that display, she used straw bales as raised beds.  This is a great way to get inexpensive, easy and fast raised beds.  Reprinted here with permission:

Straw Bale Culture

Salad Greens growing in straw bales were featured in our display garden at the 2004 Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle. I designed this vegetable garden to promote Plant A Row For The Hungry, a project of the Garden Writers Association. Over 75,000 people visited this five day gardening extravaganza to see beautiful gardens, attend lectures, shop, and learn new gardening techniques.
Our garden, constructed and prepared by fellow GWA members, Pierce County Washington Master Gardeners and Lake Washington Technical College students, friends and family earned a gold medal and the prestigious “People's Choice" award. We featured a few ideas that you will see in our demonstration garden here at Nichols this summer. Foremost among these is gardening on straw bales. The old adage “necessity is the mother of invention" certainly applied, because all display gardens are required to have a kickboard or barrier separating the garden from the show floor. Hating to relinquish valuable planting space to a concrete or wood structure, I thought why not straw or hay bales?
I learned Dr. N.L. Mansour, retired from Oregon State University had done a research project on straw bale culture. He assured me this was an excellent medium for growing vegetables and offered several tips.
1: First purchase wheat straw bales, as they will be freest of weed seeds and have no perennial weeds. Give the bales a through soaking. They heat up when wet and the heat will potentially harm seedlings or transplants. If weather is warm you'll need to water more than once. After 5 to 7 days the bales will cool back down and you can begin planting. There will be some sprouting of wheat seeds, they can be pulled at any stage and in some instances ignored. They gave us an early green haze but then seemed to not put on much growth. Since I was growing salad greens I did one major cleanup of wheat seedlings.
The bales can last for two seasons so it is important to purchase bales tied with synthetic twine.
2: Set bales with the strings wrapping horizontally and the straws set vertically which I think allows better root penetration. Once the bales are wet they will be extremely heavy so place them before soaking. How many bales do you want to place together? It really depends on your growing space. You can place a single row end to end to make a boundary in your garden or make a table of several bales grouped together. As you begin planting and harvesting you will suddenly discover this is a nice ergonomic technique for backs that are not growing younger and more supple. Also it is a good height for wheel chair gardening.
3: When the bales cooled, I roughed up the surface with a three-tined hand fork. I wasn't trying to dig grooves but wanted a rough surface to top-dress with 3-" of compost. This top-dressing is your seed bed and should have fine crumbly texture. A commercial bagged potting soil will also work if you don't have compost.
4. What can you grow? According to Dr. Mansour, bales will grow a wide variety of vegetable crops including, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and greens. I am now experimenting with various salad greens, and two types of peas. The peas were planted with an inoculant so they won't need supplemental nitrogen. Later this season I plan to try tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and other crops and will report my experiences with photos and comments. I also plan to seed in a few nasturtiums, our favorite edible flower, and think they will look very pretty dangling over the side. Root crops, such as carrots, parsnips and onions don't seem like good candidates for straw bale culture because the roots will be too crowded by the straw and would be hard to harvest. I also would not recommend corn or pole beans. Annual herbs such as cilantro, basil, parsley and chervil should all thrive. Mixed salad greens and mesclun blends will do well, sow sparingly and then plan to resow every few weeks.
5. How to transplant. Small transplants will be easier to handle than large. A good sharp trowel will penetrate the bale and allow you to pull back sharply creating a space to drop in a transplant. If it seems to tight go ahead and hollow it out a little and add more compost. This is what you'll need to do with larger tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. I'd suggest no more than two tomatoes per bale and no more than three pepper plants. Transplants, such as a seedling tray of lettuce or kale are easily transplanted into the seed bed.
6. What about watering. I will use an inexpensive system of drip irrigation and periodically give the bales a thorough drenching. I have some concern about the bales becoming too dry in summer without a drip system or at least a soaker hose laid upside down.
7. Is fertilizing necessary? I think some supplemental fertilizing promotes healthy plant development. I will alternate with applications of liquid seaweed, fish emulsion and compost tea. I've not found research that documents a natural approach so I'm relying on what I consider good gardening practices. It is also one that won't overload the plants with nitrogen.
8. The advantages of straw bales are many. If you have poor soil or excessive weeds, you can take an end run around some of the soil prep by planting on bales. When the bales are exhausted after one or two years remove the twine and let the straw cover the ground and start over with fresh bales or consider planting directly into the mound and moving to a no-till technique. Drainage is never a problem as it often is in heavy clay soils. A good population of worms will build up under the bales and they will help condition your soil. The parking strip is often the sunniest spot for many gardeners but poor soil and animal waste can make this less than desirable for food gardening. Bales may be the solution. If you are concerned about how attractive they will appear, sow some white alyssum and tuck in a few marigolds around the base. Sow nasturtiums on the corners of the bales. Make your planting colorful, with Bright Lights Swiss Chard, Merlot Lettuce, Emerald Oak Lettuce and perhaps a cucumber such as Fanfare or Lemon spilling a few fruits over the side. An adjacent bale can have the same skirting of alyssum and marigolds, a repeat of the nasturtiums but could feature a pepper and a tomato plant along with some basil and parsley. No one will complain about your aesthetics but they may hope to be invited to dinner.
There will be a further update in March.
Rose Marie Nichols McGee

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