Sprain your ankle or throw out your back and suddenly working in the garden is difficult, or impossible. What if accessibility is a constant issue? A lifestyle? As we get older, all of us will need a little more help getting around. Planning ahead for accessibility will make it easier to continue spending time in the garden.
A few years ago, while at Burning Man, I participated in an obstacle course set up at Mobility Camp. Part of the course had to be completed while on crutches and part in a wheelchair. The simplest tasks, things I normally do without thought or care, suddenly became difficult barriers. It was a good learning experience.
Imagine gardening in crutches or from a wheelchair. For many, it is a reality. There are ways that you can make your garden more accessible.
You can’t work in a garden if you can’t get to it. Accessible walkways need to be clear, stable, and wide enough for wheelchairs. Most wheelchairs are 30” wide, so paths should be at least 36” wide and wider is better. Turnaround space and ramps may be needed, as well. The surface should be hard and smooth. An added bonus: wheelchair accessible walkways make using a wheelbarrow easier, too!
The tools used in gardening are often cumbersome: shovels, hoes, and rakes can be difficult to manage from a wheelchair and even harder if you are using crutches or have hand problems. Lightweight hand tools can help, as long as they are durable. Tools that telescope can also make gardening more accessible. Make sure garden tools are kept sharp and stored in an accessible location.
Accessible growing spaces
Raised beds are an excellent way to make gardening more accessible for everyone and they can support some pretty deep-rooted plants. The height and width of raised beds can be adjusted to suit the needs of the person gardening, reducing or eliminating the need to bend over or kneel on the ground. And they make weeding so much easier for all of us! Just be sure that your raised beds are not so wide as to make it difficult to reach the center. Container gardening, hanging plants, and vertical gardening are other ways to make gardening more accessible for everyone. Pulley systems can be used to raise and lower hanging plants.
Garden tables can make gardening far more accessible for wheelchair-bound gardeners. Garden tables are shallow planting beds raised up on legs. This allows wheelchair users to treat the garden bed like a table, roll up underneath and work with plants at a convenient height. There are also garden tables that feature deeper sides that are still accessible.
Low maintenance plants
Bending over and kneeling are common activities in the garden, but not everyone can do those things. Low maintenance border plants, such as yarrow, sweet alyssum, or creeping phlox, look nice without requiring a lot of bending over. Other low-maintenance options include native plants, succulents, bulbs, herbs, slow-growing shrubs, such as rosemary and lavender, and edible perennials, such as asparagus and artichoke. These plants add texture and color to a landscape without a lot of effort. Self-seeding marigold and cosmos will come back year after year.
For those times when carrying water, tools, or seedlings is necessary, a towable garden cart can make it all possible.
Gardening is good for you. Making your garden more accessible is good for everyone.
The primary nutrients used by plants are nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). Without these minerals, plants cannot grow.
While all nutrients are important to plant growth, primary nutrients are used in the greatest amounts. Before you add more fertilizer, however, you need to find out what is already in your soil. Adding too much of a nutrient is just as bad, or worse, than not enough.
The only way to know about the nutrients in your soil is with a lab-based soil test. Over-the-counter soil tests are not accurate enough to be of any use. Soil tests are inexpensive and extremely valuable.
Each of the primary nutrients supports different aspects of plant growth and health. The more you know about what they do for your plants, the better you will be able to spot deficiencies and toxicities.
Nitrogen is the single most limiting factor in plant growth. Nitrogen is used to make chlorophyll as well as plant enzymes and proteins. Nitrogen is responsible for lush, green, vegetative growth. Without nitrogen, photosynthesis cannot occur.
Stunting and chlorosis are the two most common signs of insufficient nitrogen. Nitrogen is highly mobile within the soil and in plants. Too much nitrogen can be just as bad as not enough. Excessive nitrogen is seen as darker than normal leaves and more vegetative growth than fruit or flowers. Too much nitrogen can burn plants, and it can cause erratic or reduced budbreak. Too much nitrogen can also stimulate new growth that may be vulnerable to pests, disease, and injury.
Phosphorus is another primary nutrient, second only to nitrogen in plant health. Phosphorus helps plants use and store energy. Most important to the home gardener, phosphorus supports flower, seed, bud, and root growth. It is the reproduction nutrient, the in-between stage between growing and fruiting.
Despite being so important, phosphorus is rarely found in a form plants can use. Mostly, phosphorus exists as phosphates. Organic sources of phosphorus include animal manure, urine, guano, fish emulsion, compost, blood meal, and bone meal. Phosphorus is commonly applied around seeds at planting time in a process called banding.
Phosphorus is a mobile nutrient. This means that deficiencies are generally seen in older leaves first, when they occur at all. Phosphorus deficiency is practically unheard of in California home gardens. Since phosphorus is an important part of genetic information transfer, deficiencies ultimately result in smaller and fewer leaves, and fruit set failure. You may also see leaves turn darker and more purple or red than normal, especially on the underside, with a shiny almost metallic appearance on the top surface. These same symptoms may indicate several other conditions, so get you soil tested.
Potassium (K) is the third primary nutrient and it dictates the size, shape, color, and sugar content (brix) of your fruit crops. It also boosts photosynthesis and respiration, helps plants stay upright, and promotes healthy root systems.
There’s a lot of potassium on Earth, but most of it is unavailable to plants. Plants can only use potassium that is in solution. As plant roots absorb mineral-rich water from the ground, potassium is pulled in and put to work. Potassium, also known as potash, is concentrated in leaves and growing tips. Also found in bat guano and wood ashes, potassium is a highly mobile element.
Potassium deficiencies result in reduced nitrogen absorption and a build up of sugars that can give leaves a burnt appearance. Other signs of potassium deficiency include wilting, brown spotting, and discolored veins. These symptoms move from older/lower growth to higher/newer growth.
Potassium is one nutrient that plants can absorb at levels higher than they can use, in an action called ‘luxury consumption’. If you see a white crust developing on leaf margins (edges), it is the sugar and potassium residue from guttation.
Nutrient imbalances and high temperatures can interfere with nutrient absorption. Before you toss another bag of fertilizer at your plants, make sure they really need it. The only way to know for sure what your plants are working with is to invest in a soil test from a local, reputable lab. It will save you a lot of money in terms of replacement plants, reduced harvest, unnecessary soil amendments, and chemical treatments.
So just remember: nitrogen promotes lush, green growth, phosphorus helps plants prepare for reproduction, and potassium promotes healthy crops.
And too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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