For Pam Dickens, gardening is her own form of meditation.
“If I’m looking at the garden and pulling weeds up, I’m mindfully focusing on that and not thinking about anything else,” Dickens said. “It’s soothing. It’s so good.”
At her home in Hillsborough, she’s been working on her flower garden for decades. Yellow blooms here, purples there. A raised bed herb garden — a new installment to her front yard — sits near the mailbox.
The whole yard doesn’t bloom in the spring; she planned her garden so that her flowers would blossom year-round. Some (like her hellebores) even emerge in the winter. And when they do, no matter the season, she pulls her iPhone out of a pocket on her wheelchair and snaps a picture. Her camera roll has hundreds, if not thousands, of photos.
“I really have to clean these up! I have too many duplicate photos from past years,” she says, scrolling through photos of colorful blooms and watercolor paintings of flowers she’s made over the years.
Best path material? Try ‘Chapel Hill grit’
Dickens wants everyone to know that with the right tools, and with accessibility in mind, gardening is available to everyone.
A lot of her physical needs mirror the needs of elderly people, and she hopes the way she’s created her garden can be useful for others who are elderly or have mobility disabilities, too.
Dickens, a lifelong North Carolinian who grew up in Wake County with farmer parents, had a spinal cord injury in 2004 that caused paralysis.
She began her garden before the injury, and she’s since been able to mold the garden into a mostly wheelchair-friendly haven.
By putting boards around the front yard and using a special kind of gravel in the back, she can roll around with ease.
She uses Chapel Hill grit, a decomposed granite native to the Chapel Hill area, in her backyard, as her wheels don’t get stuck. The NC Botanical Garden also uses Chapel Hill grit on its accessible pathways.
Tools to help make gardening more accessible
Marcia Mills has been a part of the Carrboro Community Gardening Club, an informal group made up of about 65 members that meets in member’s gardens, since the 1980s.
She’s now 77 and recently has had a total hip replacement surgery. Tools like long-handled rakes and garden carts have become especially helpful for her — and others in the club, whose ages range from early 20s to late 90s, she said — in the past few years.
Here are some tools Dickens and Mills said can make gardening easier and more comfortable for anyone, including those who are elderly or have mobility disabilities:
▪ Long-handled tools: Almost any small garden tool you need can be found in a long-handled (and sometimes, adjustable) version. Rakes, shovels, trowels, trimmers and weeders and more can be found and purchased through a quick Google search — that’s how Dickens has found all her gardening tools.
“I keep my long-handled weeder inside,” Dickens said. “It’s my most prized possession!”
Gardener’s Supply Company, an online shop with a seemingly unending supply of gardening tools, is another helpful resource for making gardening more accessible, she said.
▪ Raised beds: Lots of bushes and shrubs sit at good heights for those who stay seated while they garden, Dickens said. But vegetables and other kinds of flowers that stay low to the ground can be difficult to access. If you’re beginning a garden and are keeping accessibility issues in mind, remember that raised beds can accommodate many needs, Mills said.
▪ Wagons: One-wheel wheelbarrows can be heavy, endurance-testing yard tools.
Instead, opt for wagons with long handles — and especially ones that can be pulled (as pushing can be a difficult task, Mills said). Those are helpful for elderly people and people with mobility disabilities.
Supply carts are helpful too, as they don’t need to be lifted to roll. Just push or pull, and the large wheels make the cart seem light, even when it’s really heavy.
▪ Kneelers: Deep seat garden kneelers have long handles on both sides to help pull you up. Plus, if you flip the kneeler over, it becomes a cushioned chair.
Mills got her deep seat garden kneeler from Gardener’s Supply Company.
“As you get older, your knees lose some of their padding, so kneeling really hurts,” Mills said. “Though anyone can experience knee pain. Not only us older people.”
▪ Hose extensions: These extensions can attach to your hose’s nozzle and can help you water your garden while staying seated. These are typically long, rigid wands that can extend your hose by a few feet, Mills said.
How to accommodate those with disabilities
Dickens is a member of the Carrboro Community Gardening Club, but since meetings take place in members’ gardens and homes, the meetings are sometimes inaccessible for wheelchair users. Before attending these meetings, she calls the hosts to find out about accessibility.
When people are removed from mobility disability issues, it can be difficult to understand how to make spaces accessible.
“Sometimes people may think a space is accessible, but it may not actually be for a wheelchair user,” Dickens said. “The yard might be too steep, or my wheelchair could get caught in the kind of dirt used around the house. Then, of course, there’s always the issue of stairs.”
Emilee Weaver, the NC Botanical Garden’s therapeutic horticulture program manager, agrees that there is a lack of outdoor spaces and gardens for those with mobility disabilities.
“Just the other day, I took my grandmother, who uses a walker, to a large public garden, and even though many of the paths were concrete or asphalt, the hills were a major barrier to our visit, and at times we ended up off roading it on slippery, unstable sand paths that proved dangerous and discouraging to us both,” Weaver said.
“If there had been a very visible map or sign that interpreted the garden by letting us know the most handicap accessible route, we may have stayed safer and focused more on our enjoyment of the garden instead of our fear of it. This is the everyday reality for someone who uses a wheelchair, walker or has balance or endurance concerns,” Weaver said.
Here’s how to make your space more accessible for people with a variety of mobility disabilities:
▪ Think about Universal Design: Universal Design promotes inclusion, ensuring people with different abilities can enjoy a space in the same way.
“The concept of Universal Design should be employed whenever humanly possible so that people of all abilities and walks of life have equal access to their world,” Weaver said. “This could be on a small-scale home garden design level or a multi-million dollar public park level.”
▪ Be upfront about your space: Mobility disabilities take many forms, and may include the need for a wheelchair, cane or walker.
Think about all the entrance points to your home, the terrain of your yard and the way you’re setting up your gathering space to accommodate everybody. Make sure your guests know ahead of time what to expect when they pop in.
▪ Avoid the need for stairs: Make sure guests can access every part of activities without the use of stairs. Bring the grazing table outside and on a flat surface. If you can only access the bathroom by stairs (or via some other uneven surface), get boards to make a ramp.
▪ Think about surfaces: Chapel Hill grit works for wheels, including wheelchairs and strollers. Weaver recommends putting down three to four inches of pea gravel underneath, as it’ll help the grit keep shape with rain.
▪ Have signs: This is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to promote accessibility in a space, Weaver said.
At public gardens, having a map of the space on your website (then more signs there to help you interact with the space when you’re there) can help give those with disabilities — including invisible disabilities — more agency over the visit, she said.
“You might visit the NC Botanical Garden and think, ‘This is a garden? It looks like an overgrown field.’ So you need signage to interpret the space, and it can help someone feel more secure in their visit,” Weaver said.
Gardening for those with developmental disabilities
Two local farms that work with gardeners with developmental disabilities share the same theme: Gardening is available to everybody.
▪ Blawesome is a flower farm in Chapel Hill that’s run by Raimee Sorensen, who has autism, and his mother, Rebecca Sorensen.
One of Blawesome’s defining characteristics is its Good Karma Bouquet. For each bouquet purchased, another bouquet is given to someone in the community who has been nominated to receive it. Raimee hand delivers each bouquet — over 100 so far, Rebecca said.
“We’re not just trying to sell this beautiful, locally grown product, but also the message that just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute to this world,” Rebecca Sorensen said. “Raimee sees his value in this work, and it’s a way we can help build and rebuild connections in our community.”
For more about Blawsome and the Good Karma Bouquet (and to nominate a recipient), visit beautifulblawesome.com.
▪ Peacehaven Community Farm is located in Whitsett. The property includes a vegetable farm and shared living space for a few adults with disabilities, who are known as “core members.”
“The farm is a common ground,” said Mary Lang McDade, Peacehaven’s director of development. “Everyone can experience getting their hands in the dirt. A garden is a place of commonality, allowing everyone to be equal, bringing people with and without disabilities together.”
Peacehaven’s current core members have varying intellectual and developmental disabilities. Assisted by staff members, they do daily tasks on the farm together, and during their shared meals each day, they enjoy the fresh produce they’ve harvested.
“You forget all about the fact they have a disability when working side by side,” said Dana Roseboro, Peacehaven’s coordinator of community engagement. “One of our members is nonverbal, and he’s the hardest worker out there. He likes to wash cars, water plants, do other kinds of hands-on labor. When you’re working with him, you really don’t even realize there’s anything different between you two.”
For more about Peacehaven, visit peacehaven farm.org.
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This story was originally published May 13, 2022 9:00 AM.