Growing veggies in tune with your physical limits
Growing vegetables has many rewards including the pleasure of eating fresh, tasty veggies, as well as the physical and mental satisfaction that comes from working the soil and getting your hands dirty. The bending, stretching and lifting that goes into gardening is something that able-bodied people take for granted. But what about gardeners with back-pain, or who have limited strength and mobility, especially those in wheelchairs and using walkers? Is growing veggies with physical limits out of reach for these people? It doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, because it is possible to design or adapt a veggie garden (and your own expectations) to make it more accessible and easier to work in.
Location, location, location
The best position for vegetables is sun, or morning sun, and that should be the first consideration. Other aspects of equal importance to tick off are:
- A level site, or as close to level as possible
- Easy to reach from the house, and with ramps if there are different levels
- Nearby tap for watering, and tool shed or hanging space for garden tools
- Well-drained so there is no danger of slipping in wet weather.
Pay attention to pathways
Wider-than-usual pathways are essential for gardeners in wheelchairs or who use walkers. Designers of such gardens recommend a pathwidth of 1.2 – 1.5m, and there should be space to turn around as part of the garden design. Pathways should be smooth, non-slip and level, with handrails if there is a slight gradient. This is not only true for those in wheelchairs, but also for older gardeners with impaired vision or balance. A concrete or paved pathway is best, not gravel, woodchips or soil, which can become mud.
Garden beds – find the right height
The height of the bed needs to meet the specific needs of each gardener. For those who need to or like to sit while working, garden beds that are built up to waist level or slightly lower are the easiest to garden in. That’s because it is easier to work with one’s arms slightly downwards than reaching up. Lower beds also make it easier to harvest veggies and reach with a hose or watering can. The recommended height for a bed or planter (soil level) is 60 – 90cm and about 80 – 90cm wide, if it’s accessible from both sides. That’s because a narrower bed requires less stretching to the centre for planting, weeding or harvesting. For a bed against a wall or fence, the optimum width is 60cm. Make the edging around built-up beds broad enough to sit on, for gardeners who have difficulty bending.
Other flexible options for growing veggies with physical limits
Raised planters on stands or with wheels can be placed in easily accessible level areas close to doorways, on patios, balconies and courtyards. The planter should be at waist level or high enough for the gardener to sit with their knees under the planter if they prefer working forwards rather than sideways.
Try this: The Vegepod is a compact, self-contained plant box at waist level and comes in three different sizes. It is fitted with a permeable canopy that creates a micro-climate, while still allowing through sun and air. The canopy can be kept down to protect tender plants from cold in winter and to keep out pests in summer. Each Vegepod is fitted with water tanks that provide water to the roots through a water-wick system, with a mist sprayer for really hot days. The smallest pod is 1m by 500mm, and the largest is 2m long and 1m wide (about the size of a door). www.vegepod.co.za
Vertical planters are space savers and can be set at a suitable height on a sunny wall or be free-standing. Most have built-in watering systems.
Try this: Gardena has a mini vertical garden for growing herbs or small veggies. The Gardena City Gardening Vertical Garden Basic Set is made from weather-resistant plastic and has three rows of planters. The water drains down into a bottom drip pan for each planter. Being a modular system, it can be expanded. The light-weight planter can stand on the floor or be hung on a wall. www.gardena.co.za
Most vegetables and herbs can be grown in containers. Large containers up to waist height are suitable for tomatoes, brinjals and peppers or a medley of leafy greens. Alternatively, herbs or smaller veggies can be grown in pots on a sturdy waist-high table or an open shelving unit. Hanging baskets, especially those containing herbs, can be hung at a lower level for easy access.
Try this: Gardena has a micro-drip system with self-cleaning drippers for container-grown vegetables and herbs. The small starter set for five pots can be extended to up to 15 pots. www.gardena.co.za
Growing veggies with physical limits made easy
- Start small, with one or two small raised beds, smaller planters or one or two containers so that the garden doesn’t become a drain on limited energy. It should always be enjoyable.
- Make watering as easy as possible with automatic drip/mist irrigation or soaker hoses, or a good quality, light-weight hose that doesn’t bend and kink.
- For gardeners with back problems, only half fill a watering can or use smaller, lighter cans.
- Choose brightly coloured garden tools that stand out and are not as easily mislaid. Look out for light, long-handled tools.
- Mulch beds to reduce weeds and keep the soil moist for longer.
- Keep tools where they are easily accessible, such as hanging on a garden wall at the right height, on cup-hooks along the edge of a bricked-up bed, or in a bag that can be hung on a wheelchair or walker.
- Use a light trolley with raised sides to transport seed trays, potting soil and the like.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance: neighbourhood WhatsApp groups are a great source of help.
Be kind to sore backs!
- Before starting to garden, warm up with some back-stretching exercises recommended by the physio or chiropractor.
- Instead of bending to weed or plant, sit on a solid but small plastic chair designed for children.
- Don’t overdo the gardening: take regular breaks and stretch or walk around a bit.
- Vary your garden tasks to use different muscles and give relief to others.
- Avoid lifting or moving heavy pots, plants, bags etc. If you have to pick up something heavy, don’t bend from the waist and lift. Rather bend your knees and use the power of your legs to lift.