For those who garden, a plot of plants is more than a pleasing decoration or mere food supply. It provides exercise, therapy, nature, healthfulness, creativity, peace, spirituality and more. As we age or cope with disability, these benefits can become even more treasured. The “bad back”, the “bum knee” and the “stiff hands” test our temper and stamina. But with planning, patience and some creative modifications, we can still enjoy the garden!

First, determine your abilities in terms of reach, balance, use of assistive devices, endurance and tolerance for different positions. Consider carefully what size, which kinds of plants and what kind of garden you can best keep. Start small to avoid overextending yourself. Locate the garden close to the house – half the battle can be getting there after all. Eliminate obstacles for safety and access. A water source, tools and compost pile should be handy to the garden as well. A chair in a shaded resting area can provide needed respite.

If you want a traditional garden, consider no-till gardening which uses layers of compost and soil to produce a healthy growing medium. The less you disturb the soil and expose it to oxygen, the more stable the nutrients and microbes will remain. Plus, you will not need to rototill or double dig! In the autumn or early spring lay down a layer of compost or manure and cover it with a layer of humus or garden soil. Pace yourself and monitor your load while doing this.

Alternative styles for a garden include containers, raised beds, vertical gardens and hydroponics.

Containers can be placed for easy access on steps, decks, patios, tables or hung from a wall or ceiling. They should be light or easy to move or on wheels. Do not limit your selection to typical window box plants such as lettuce or herbs. Many seed vendors carry “bush” size squashes, melons and berries designed for small spaces.

Containers on a deck.  Chapel Rock Farm, Goshen, CT

Raised beds can be elevated a few inches off the ground, terraced or built up on an elevated platform or table. Different plans and kits are available.

Raised beds. Chapel Rock Farm, Goshen, CT

Trellises are not just for roses and clematis! A large variety of squashes, peas, beans and tomatoes will grow better upright than creeping across the ground. A-frames and arbors are sturdy structures, while bamboo rods strung into teepees are lightweight and quite manageable.

Bean trellis

Near a wall, espaliers add beauty and interest as well as accessible fruit.

Espalier for an apple tree. Chapel Rock Farm, Goshen, CT


Finally, hydroponics – growing food without a soil medium –  is becoming more popular. Special equipment and knowledge is necessary but may be worth the investment of time and resources for those interested.

Irrigation needs to be part of the initial planning of a garden. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems are wonderful to have. Not only do they save water, but after you lay down the hose at the beginning of the season, all you have to do is turn the spigot on and off. (And if you have the system on timers you do not have to do even that!) If soaker hoses are not feasible, make sure your hose is on a carrier with wheels or use smaller well-balanced watering cans. Water-holding polymers can be mixed in with soil in containers.

Next in Part 2: Tools for the Trade and Planting the Garden.

Sources and Resources:

The books and organizations below, as well as many unlisted here, can provide ideas and sources of equipment and techniques to enable anyone who has the desire to garden to do so!

  • Adil, Janeen R., ​Accessible Gardening for People with Physical Disabilities: A Guide to Methods, Tools and Plants​, Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 1994
  • American Horticulture Therapy Association,
  • Arthritis Foundation,
  • Baras, Tyler, ​DIY Hydroponic Gardens: How to Design and Build an Inexpensive System, Minneapolis, MN: The Quartus Group, 2018
  • Bartholomew, Mel, ​All New Square Foot Gardening, 3rd Edition​, Minneapolis, MN: The Quartus Group, 2018.
  • Chicago Botanical Gardens, ​
  • Coleman, Elliot, The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools, and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, 30th Anniversary Edition,​ White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018.
  • Dowding, Charles, ​Organic Gardening the Natural, No-Dig Way​, N.P.: Green Books. 2018. Gardener’s Supply Company 128 Intervale Rd., Burlington VT 05401 (800) 427-3363
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds, ​
  • New York Botanical Garden, ​
  • Radius Tools ​
  • Warnock, Caleb. ​No-Till Gardening: The No-Till Method for Richer Soil, Healthier Crops and Fewer Weeds,​ N.P.: Familius LCC, 2015.
  • Yeomans, Kathleen, ​The Able Gardener: Overcoming Barriers of Age and Physical Limitations, Pownal, VT: Storey Communications 1992

Kristin S. Peters, MSPT, CHT is a Physical Therapist and Certified Hand Therapist who loves to see the joy in someone’s eyes when they realize they do not have to give up gardening!