The Universal Design and Mobility Empowered Garden

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The Universal Design Garden is an Easy Access: Able Pleasure.

 © 2017 Charles M. Schwab Architect

Universal Design implemented in the garden will allow everyone to enjoy it for their lifetime. Here’s some basic space planning guidance and details for a universal designed garden

A raised platform garden is a good universal design solution.
A raised platform garden is a good universal design solution.

Spring is here and gardening is not only America’s most popular outdoor activity it is also therapeutic. 84% of American households are involved in it in some form. Gardening provides a way to relieve stress, exercise and casually burn calories while helping us be creative at the same time. Gardening naturally brings people together and watching plants grow gives every gardener something to look forward to.

The therapeutic benefits of gardening have been documented for years. Programs known as Horticultural Therapy recognize and use the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of gardening to help their patients. A study at Virginia Tech Univ. showed that 40% of Americans find that being around plants and flowers made them feel calm and more relaxed. They also found that the view of trees alone might cut down on recovery time in a hospital by up to a full day. They add that a well-maintained landscape adds 7-14% to the value of a residential property.

When a garden is designed with universal design in mind it will add even more value as it will be able to be used by everyone. With t he increase of an aging population, and because gardening is a favorite of baby boomers, this is important for the long term value of the home as even the exterior landscape will be access:able.

Gardening for Everyone and for All Ages

Gardening is an activity that can be designed and adapted for people with all sorts of specific needs. With thoughtful consideration of users’ abilities and thoughtful garden design, people with various impairments, arthritis, limited vision, hearing etc. will enjoy the many benefits of gardening. Ironic is the fact that people with health issues are the ones who can benefit the most from working leisurely in the garden.

container gardens for limited spaceSeveral gardening styles that are popular alternatives to the traditional landscape and ground level planting. The various types include:

  • planting in pots and hanging containers,
  • window boxes,
  • raised permanent planter boxes,
  • rolling planter boxes,
  • vertical gardens using lattice.

These all have advantages in that they are equally adaptable to a small backyard, an upper level patio or roof space or lower level common grounds. Seated users can easily cultivate with each type. Bending over is not required to cultivate the plants with any of the above noted choices.

Some of the advantages of these types of gardens include the ability to start seedlings indoors and bring them outside when the chance of freezing temperatures and frost has past, planters produce early crops and problems with poor soil or soil borne disease can be easily overcome. Planters also offer opportunities for flexible landscape ideas and creative plant structures.

Careful Planter Selection Makes good Sense

Sitting on the edge of the raised garden is an option.
Photo courtesy of used with permission.

One of the first things to consider is the size of each planter and the garden’s overall scale and design. Take into consideration the abilities of the users. In order to accommodate all, select plants and features that also have sensory interest. For example, people who are blind or have visual impairments will enjoy the smell of plants such as fragrant roses, herbs, scented geraniums, to name just a few aromatic plants. Ornamental grasses and a simple bubbling fountain will add soothing sounds to the garden. A pond may be nice but it will need significant maintenance.

Locate hanging baskets on pulleys so they can be easily lowered and raised for plant care. If possible use lightweight plastic pots as opposed to heavy clay ones. Consider putting them on rolling platforms for easy moving. If you live in a temperate climate, remember pots will need to be emptied before freezing or the soil will expand and break them.

Rolling raised planters with open bottoms can be built or purchased, They should be no longer than six feet and have 4 x 4 inch wood corner posts at the ends and in the center and on wheels. This will offer 4, 3 foot-wide sitting positions. Make sure the bottom of the bed height is no lower than 30 inches to allow knee space and a wheelchair to roll under.

Raised planters should not be wider than 4 feet for a dual sided planter and 2 feet for a one-sided planter to allow adequate reach. Limit the length of each raised bed from 10-20 feet to prevent overexertion while circling the bed. It should be 28-30 inches high and should allow space for a sitting surface if a built-in seat is wide enough. An opening underneath provides for flexibility and the opportunity to maneuver and roll underneath. Plastic timbers and keystone walls are also good choices to contain raised planter beds. Railroad timbers may cause creosote stains and are not environmentally friendly so there not recommended.They will also stain your clothes if anyone sits on it on a hot steamy day.

Use mulch in raised beds as it slows evaporation of water. Use drip irrigation hoses for watering. You may want to move a water source closer to the beds. Remember, hoses can always be a tripping hazard and should never cross access paths.

Universal Design Garden Pathways offer Access: Ability

Raised Universal Design Gardening
Photo courtesy of book: Therapeutic Gardens , Design for Healing Spaces

Easy access: ability is essential to reach the garden with minimum difficulty and maximum safety. If any sloping paths are required they should not be steeper than a 1:15 gradient; 1:20 is even better (1 foot rise for every 20 feet long).

Grass alone is uneven and difficult for a person to navigate and maneuver over. Never create a path with bare dirt, as it may become slippery and dangerous when wet. A path designed for wheelchair use should be a min. of 4 foot wide. 5 feet will accommodate both two people walking side by side.

All kinds of great products can be used for universal design and accessible and safe pathways. Plastic mesh products known as “grass pave”  have an open area that allows grass to grow  in between the mesh but still provides a solid, level, strolling (both walking and rolling) surface.

Another similar product is privacy, long life lattice. It is plastic and also allows growth, and is available at a local home builder stores in 4 x 8 foot panels. Recycled rubber mats combine textured surfaces and give cushioned comfort. Roll-out path systems are also available and are used on beaches and sandy soil areas.

A hard non-skid surface such as exposed aggregate concrete or broom finished concrete or asphalt will also work. Don’t use wood as it will be slippery when wet. “Brick dust” and crushed limestone are also good choices. A great resource to research all kinds of outdoor recreation surfaces is: National Center on Accessibility-Recreation.  So enjoy the planting and the harvest and don’t ever stop being a “Green-Thumber”.

Photo courtesy of Used with permission

Remember that a mobility device (wheelchair, scooter, walking aid) needs space to turn around to return to the house from the garden. A five foot diameter is not really enough to make a full 360 degree turn as is often specified and misunderstood.In reality 5 foot six inches to 6 feet is necessary.

Most people who use manual wheelchairs, do not turn on a dime and people will take different turning movements, usually in three to four straight line segments, with a slight turn adjustment between each one. This process could be analogous to parallel parking so far as straight segments with short turns that allow maneuvering. The space needed will depend on the mobility device type. A scooter will need seven to eight feet to turn around. The pathway and turning diameters (full circle) all need to be planned for, for a truly mobility empowered garden

Visit for Universal home design and Universal Home landscape design plans.

I hope you have enjoyed this mobility empowered whirlwind through the garden. Remember to slow down, stop and smell the roses and enjoy the ride along the way. Happy pruning!

Enjoy and thank you for reading, Charles M. Schwab Architect

A few good books on this topic for Universal Design & Access:Able Gardening are:

Therapeutic Gardens,Design for Healing Spaces by Daniel Winterbottom, Amy Wagenfeld

Accessible Gardening for People with Disabilities by Janeen Adil

Enabling Garden by Gene Rothert

The Able Gardener by Kathleen Yeomans

Able to Garden by Peter Please

Horticulture as Therapy by Mitchel Hewson

The best website for accessible gardening I have found is

Author: Charles

Mr. Schwab is a home designer and licensed Architect specializing in universal and accessible design that is also sustainable and healthy. He also designs light commercial buildings.