The Definitive Guide to
Making Your Garden Accessible
Garden Design and Adaptations
If you have always enjoyed spending time in your garden it can be very frustrating if you can no longer do what you once did because of a disability, illness or advancing age. Whether gardening itself is your passion, or you simply take pleasure from being outside, reduced mobility can limit the tasks you can do in the garden and restrict the parts of your garden you can access.
Most gardens have hazards that make them unsafe for people with mobility issues, such as uneven ground, slippery surfaces, slopes and steps. According to the Accident Advice Helpline, slips, trips and falls are among the most common accidents to occur in the garden. Injuries range from relatively minor cuts or bruises, to serious fractures or broken bones.
Data from the DTI shows that 13%of non-fatal falls from stairs or steps occur on outside steps, either in the garden or leading to the front door.
Fortunately, there are several ways to adapt a garden to make it accessible to everyone. There is also a good range of adaptive tools and equipment to help you carry on gardening. Read on to get ideas on things you can do to continue enjoying your garden.
Table of Contents
Paths should be widened, on level ground and have a non-slip surface.
Ideally, a path should be wide enough for two people to walk alongside each other (1.8m) or wide enough for a wheelchair and one person (1.2m). If a path passes the side of a building, any windows that open outwards need to be taken into account. Overhanging trees and shrubs need to be cut back to ensure they don’t impede access.
An even surface with a good grip makes it easier for someone using a walking stick, walking aid or a wheelchair. Gravel and cobbles are unsuitable. Wood, although an attractive natural material, can be slippery in wet weather. Concrete and tarmac are low cost and low maintenance options. Patio slabs and flagstones with a rough surface are another option to consider, providing they are laid correctly.
Another idea is to use roll out tracking. This can be rolled out when needed over uneven surfaces such as gravel or grass to make walking with an aid or stick easier. This can be a more cost-effective solution than constructing a new path.
For short, gentle gradients ramps can be installed to enable safer access between levels.
A ramp should be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair (at least 1.2m wide so that there is space for someone to walk alongside the wheelchair). If a slope is long or changes direction, it is a good idea to include a flat landing. A landing provides somewhere to stop for a breather. In gardens where several ramps are required to zigzag between levels, having a level spot at each turn is a good idea to break up the journey.
As with pathways it is essential to choose a ramp with a good grip. Materials that become slippery when wet or icy are dangerous, especially on sloping ground. Materials with a textured surface, such as concrete, provide a good grip, if you’re looking to build a ramp as a permanent feature. Alternatively, modular ramps with slip-resistant mesh decking can be installed over existing surfaces and offer a quicker solution. Modular ramps can be assembled with minimal effort without having to re-design a garden.
Handrails should also be installed. These should be placed at the right height for the user. They should be comfortable to grip. Good quality hardwood is preferable to metal, which can feel cold and wet.
Steps in the garden can prevent someone with limited mobility from being able to access their outside space. However, outdoor stairlifts are available. Installing a stairlift in the garden can transform the accessibility and enable the user to continue enjoying their garden.
An outdoor stairlift works in a similar way to one inside the home. The main difference is that it is designed to be weatherproof and has a waterproof cover. It can be operated by a remote control and will continue to work for a limited number of trips in a power cut. It will have safety sensors to detect obstructions. For security, outdoor stairlifts have a key lock.
For places where there is just one step that is too high for someone with limited mobility to negotiate, half steps with non-slip surfaces are available. These are designed to break up a large step into two smaller steps, which are easier to manage.
Half steps made from metal or plastic can be used outside a door or in other parts of a garden where there is a step between levels. Half steps have adjustable feet so you can adjust them to the required height. Some are large enough to be used with a walking frame.
Raised Beds and Containers
Raised beds or tall containers can be used to raise the soil off the ground and bring it within easy reach. This makes for easier planting and reduces the need for digging. They can be built to the most suitable height for the user and can be accessed from standing, sitting or from a wheelchair.
Raised beds need to be narrow enough for someone with mobility issues to reach comfortably. The width can be around 1m if you are able to access a bed from each side.
If there is only space to access a bed from one side, try to restrict the width to 500cm. The length isn’t so important and it can be determined by the size of your garden and you personal preferences.
There are various ways raised beds can be designed to meet particular needs. For instance, if you have problems with balance you could attach a handrail to your raised bed. You could incorporate recesses for your legs or feet if you prefer to work sitting facing the bed. Some people find it uncomfortable to work sideways on and have to twist to reach the soil. Remember that a table top style bed with legroom beneath will have a shallower soil level, so this may restrict the types of plants you can grow and you will need to water more frequently.
There needs to be enough space around raised beds and containers so you can comfortably reach without stretching. Plants will require more watering than those grown in the ground, so make sure you locate raised beds or containers near a tap or water butt.
Readymade raised beds and self-build kits can be bought from garden centres and online. Or you could get a professional gardener or builder to construct one to your specifications. An advantage of raised beds or containers is you can fill them with compost or other growing medium. This can help your plants to thrive, particularly if you have poor quality soil in your garden.
As well as being easier to look after, raised beds and containers can give form and focus to your garden. You may even be able to strategically place them to screen off less attractive garden items like compost bins, water butts or sheds.
Low Maintenance Planting
Ground level planting should be designed to be low maintenance, requiring minimal weeding and digging. Borders should be easy to reach, ideally 60cm wide, or 1.2m if there is access from all sides.
Ground cover plants are a good choice.
Following the no-dig method you could use a mulch such as leaf mould or bark to help prevent weeds growing and retain moisture in the soil.
Alternatively you could use a weed-suppressing membrane covered with gravel or bark. You can then plant perennials or annual bedding plants through holes in the membrane.
Sowing seeds in modular seed trays avoids the need for pricking out, or you could sow directly into raised beds. Another idea is to buy plug plants instead of raising plants from seed.
Try to allow room for seats to rest on at various spots around the garden. Although it’s nice to have a relaxing seat in a sunny position, make sure some seating is in the shade to escape the heat on very hot days in the summer.
It’s a nice idea to position seats to take advantage of views, either of your own garden or of views outside your garden, if you live in a pretty area. Planting scented flowers, such as roses or honeysuckles, near to seating areas is a nice touch that can make a spot more inviting.
In addition to standard wooden benches, picnic tables that are wheelchair friendly are available. These have gaps in the seating to accommodate a wheelchair at the table.
When choosing garden furniture look for materials that are durable, weatherproof and low maintenance. Popular materials for seating include teak wood, stainless steel and aluminium. Plastic chairs tend to be cheaper and have the advantage of being easy to move around the garden. Be aware that lightweight plastic seating has a tendency to blow around in windy weather!
Lawns and Hedges
Lawns and hedges generally require a lot of effort to maintain throughout the year, so it can be worth finding someone to do this work for you.
You may consider replacing your lawn with paving or another hard surface that is easy to look after, or reducing the size of the area covered by grass. Straight edges are easier to maintain than curved ones. Some people prefer to let their lawn grow wild and just cut a wide path through it for access.
Alternatively, robot style automatic lawn mowers are available. They are quite expensive but require little effort to use once they have been set up. A robotic mower can be driven by remote control from a shed to a lawn. It will then cut all the grass within a prescribed area at the touch of a button. This type of mower is really only suitable for a level lawn without any slopes.
Hedges should be kept to a manageable size that can easily be trimmed. It’s best to avoid fast growing hedges and shrubs.
You may want to consider using walls or fences instead of hedges. These can look attractive with climbing plants growing up them, which will also attract birds and wildlife.
Watering can take a lot of time and effort, so try to plan your garden to keep the need for watering to a minimum.
If you have a big garden, consider putting taps or water butts around the garden to save the need to walk back and forth to get water. If you have the budget, you may want to install an automated watering system.
Things that help retain moisture include mulching the soil, standings pots in trays in dry weather and using gel or granules in container compost. Plastic containers and pots retain moisture better than clay ones.
If possible, place containers together in one place to avoid the need to walk a long way between them.
Focus on only watering the things that need it, such as pots, containers, seedlings and newly-planted plants.
It is best to water in the evening when the weather is cooler.
Tools and Equipment
A folding kneeler stool with grip handles can be used to sit or kneel when doing tasks such as weeding or planting. Look for lightweight hand tools such as trowels and forks with easy hold grips. You may be able to buy easy grips to adapt your existing tools.
Lightweight, long reach tools can make it easier to perform tasks if you have difficulty bending.
A long handled gripper can be useful for picking up debris from the ground.
A cut and hold flower gatherer with long handles can be used to pick flowers or for deadheading. The mechanism holds the stem after it’s been cut so you can collect it neatly in a container rather than letting it fall to the ground.
If you are unsteady on your feet, look for a lightweight watering can that you can carry easily. Flat sided ones are easier to carry than round ones.
Decide on one job you want to tackle and make sure you have all the tools you need to hand. There are various ways to carry tools, including a tool belt or apron for smaller items. Carts and trays are available that can be attached to walking aids or wheelchairs. A two-wheeled barrow with a walking stick handle is easier to maneuver and can be operated with one hand.
It is possible to adapt a garden to meet the needs of someone with limited mobility and allow them to access their garden with ease. The following organisations can provide further help and advice on adapting gardens for elderly or disabled people.
Thrive is a national charity that helps people with a range of disabilities carry on gardening. They offer practical advice on making gardening tasks easier. They provide useful information about tools and equipment for disabled gardeners.
Arthritis Research UK
Arthritis Research UK provides useful tips on gardening with arthritis and protecting your joints.
Gardening for Disabled Trust
The Gardening for Disabled Trust is a charity that provides financial assistance in the form of grants to help disabled gardeners adapt their gardens.
Designed2enable sells ergonomic tools for the garden and daily living aids.
NRS Healthcare sells a range of gardening aids, including easy grip and long handled tools.
Royal Horticultural Society
The RHS has lots of useful advice on finding a reputable professional gardener or contractor.