Do you remember watching butterflies floating through the garden when you were a child, and your amazement at their skill and grace? How about the first time you tasted a fresh homegrown tomato? Gardens bring nature into our backyards so we can appreciate its wonder without experiencing the dangers of the wild. We love our gardens because they feed our bodies and renew our spirits. In this article we explore the benefits of school gardening (especially the benefits to youths) and why everyone needs a green retreat. For individuals with challenged mobility, school gardening opportunities may at first appear limited, but as you'll see, there are many ways to create a garden that's accessible to everyone!
Gardens provide many benefits. They add beauty to our world, provide fresh fruits and vegetables, clean air, and a therapeutic setting. Young people benefit from gardens and the activity of gardening in a number of important ways. Here are just a few:
- Gardens provide a safe place for them to experience nature and discover the cycles of life. Gardening helps kids develop an understanding of the environment, and instills love and respect for the earth.
- Gardening exposes kids to fresh fruits and vegetables, providing them with motivation to try these healthy foods and improve their nutritional attitudes and behaviors.
- Gardening is a source of physical activity. Too many young people spend a majority of their free time in front of a TV or computer screen, but gardens give them a reason to be outside and be active, and offer an opportunity to work off their excess energy and stress.
- The garden provides a peaceful spot to relax and reflect. It is also a place of beauty that they can be proud of and share with others.
School gardens are a marvelous hands-on teaching tool for kids of all ages, and researchers are gathering more evidence every day of other advantages of gardening. You'll find more information about these research findings here: “What have plants done for you lately?”
With so many positive effects, who would argue against giving children a chance to stick their hands in the soil and to nurture a plant? However, questions arise about the accessibility and safety of gardens for kids with special needs. The ‘traditional’ garden with narrow paths and ground-level planting presents physical challenges that limits or even eliminates some youths' ability to enjoy and work in a garden. Not to worry! There are plenty of creative people who are constantly working on adaptations to open gardening opportunities to kids with special needs. Below you will find a few ideas for creating an accessible school garden for individuals of all abilities. Pictures for this article were taken at the Accessible Garden at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, which is directed by Dr. Joe Novak.
Tips for Creating an Accessible School Garden
1. Install Accessible Pathways
Navigation to and through the school garden requires careful consideration.
- Optimum accessible pathways are 5 feet wide; they should be no narrower than 4 feet.
- The surface needs to be smooth and level. Fill large holes or cracks that may catch a toe or impede a wheelchair.
- Check to make sure water drains properly to prevent muddy or slippery spots.
- Avoid steps and create a gently sloping ramp if an elevation change is needed. Handrails are a great addition.
- Concrete is an excellent choice, however there are many crushed rock products on the market providing similar surfaces.
2. Build Raised Beds
You can build raised beds from many materials -- wood, rock, concrete blocks, plastic timbers, and old tires, to name a few.
- Choose the height of the bed based on the audience you plan to serve.
- Beds with a large ledge at a comfortable sitting height allow gardeners to sit rather than stand or squat while they work.
- Beds resembling tables allow gardeners in wheelchairs to slide under them so the work surface is in their lap.
- Even a large clay pot or smaller pots set on a raised surface will suffice.
- Make sure beds are no more than 3 or 4 feet wide and accessible on multiple sides for optimum utility.
|Type of Raised Bed||Example|
|Raised beds for wheelchairs|
|Multi-tiered raised beds (top bed is tall enough for someone to stand and garden if more comfortable)|
|Raised bed with a ledge for sitting|
|Raised bed with toe space for feet to help with balance|
3. Plant Vertical Gardens
Plant up instead of out! There are a number of different types of vertical gardens.
- Create a raised bed with a trellis at the back or in the center to support vining plants.
- Secure containers to a wall at varying heights.
- Create a garden "wall" by placing plastic-wrapped soil between strong, secured wire fencing. Plant by cutting holes in the plastic and inserting transplants.
|Type of Vertical Garden||Example|
|Raised bed with trellis background|
|Vertical garden designed so someone in a wheelchair can work on both sides of the trellis|
|Old gutters attached to a fence and planted with herbs|
|Growing wall with soil wrapped in black plastic and secured with wire fencing|
|Top of growing wall|
|Growing wall with mature herbs|
4. Place Hanging Baskets on Pulleys
Hanging baskets are simply container gardens raised in the air. They can be positioned within reach or suspended with a pulley so you can easily move them up and down for planting, watering, and maintenance.
5. Avoid Garden Clutter
Tools, empty pots, and piles of pulled weeds and spent plants are not only unsightly, they are also a safety hazard for all gardeners, especially children at play and individuals with impaired movement and vision. After each work session, put away all your tools and place plant matter in a compost bin or trashcan. Make sure that garden storage is close by and accessible.
6. Purchase or Create Adapted School Garden Tools
You can find a number of tools for sale that are adapted for safety and ease of use, such as:
- light-weight tools and hoses
- tools of varying heights and sizes
- tools with padded handles for a looser grip
- tools with Velcro straps to secure tools to the arm help distribute weight and steady tools in the hand
- kneeling pads with handles
- tools with bright-colored handles for those with impaired vision
You can also adapt regular tools -- try wrapping padding around a handle and securing with strong tape. Experiment with household items to see if they can replace traditional tools (e.g., use an ice cream scoop instead of a trowel).
7. Choose Sensory Plants
Plants with bright colors and strong fragrances engage all gardeners, and especially those with visual impairments. Avoid plants that can cause skin irritation, that have thorns or briars, and those known to be toxic if eaten in small quantities.
8. Use Cultural and Mechanical Pest Control
Although pesticides are safe when you apply them properly and follow all the label instructions, cultural and mechanical pest control methods are prefered for gardens used by children and people with special needs. This decreases the amount of oversight and instruction needed for a safe gardening experience.
9. Incorporate Places to Sit
Seating areas placed throughout the garden not only allow spots to enjoy and reflect, they also provide a spot to rest.
With a little bit of planning and consideration, you can transform your garden into an accessible space for everyone. Conduct an accessibility inventory to evaluate your current site.