Adaptive gardening has much to offer gardeners of all ages, interests, and abilities. Balance, strength, endurance, and flexibility can be compromised by physical limitations at any age — from …
Adaptive gardening has much to offer gardeners of all ages, interests, and abilities. Balance, strength, endurance, and flexibility can be compromised by physical limitations at any age — from injuries, accidents, arthritis, mobility issues, or simply years of hard use.
Garden design, work practices, and adaptive tools can help gardeners adjust to physical challenges and avoid future injuries. The goal is to continue gardening comfortably and safely throughout our lives.
Adaptive garden design and plant selection offer benefits of easier maintenance as well as a healthier, more sustainable garden. Simplify plantings, and group plants with similar needs for sunlight and water. Plant pollinator-friendly plants in clusters for foraging efficiency and ease of care.
Replace “needy” plants with lower maintenance native evergreen shrubs, meadow plants, dwarf conifers, or succulents that need little watering or pruning. Embrace resilient gardening — leave the leaves, twigs, moss, conifer needles, and other organic matter to form a duff layer that will suppress weeds, shelter beneficial insects, and build healthy soil.
Toni Gattone, Master Gardener and author of “The Lifelong Gardener: Garden with Ease and Joy at Any Age” (Timber Press 2019) is committed to helping gardeners create an easier, more sustainable garden for the long term. Key themes in her work include gardening with natives to benefit wildlife and using compost and mulch to improve soil, deter weeds, and eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides. “Let nature do the work,” advises Toni. But her first priority is taking care of the gardener!
Toni suggests the 20/20/20 rule: Do a specific task for just 20 minutes at a time. Cycle through a variety of tasks — switch it up instead of repeating the same motion. Her advice: “When we’re faced with life’s challenges, we can’t give in or give up. There’s always another way to do what brings us joy. My goal is to help gardeners of any age keep doing what they love.”
Adaptive gardens offer plenty of seating for work and rest. Place “perch posts” throughout the garden. They may be as simple as sections of an old log to sit on to rest, or to work on smaller shrubs or tall perennials. A five-gallon bucket can also serve as a movable perch post, and can be used to assist in getting up from the ground.
Elevated raised beds can be placed at a height to allow work standing or sitting, and to allow space for wheelchairs, walkers, or other mobility devices. The idea is to “garden up” — tall galvanized planters, vertical planters, arbors, trellises, or wall planters can be tended while standing or sitting. “The ultimate goal is comfort,” Toni says, “and anticipating the comfort you may need in future years.” For more insights, visit
At the senior living center Avamere at Port Townsend, container plantings can be found on the grounds, in common areas, and in residential rooms. Cody Griffith, sales and outreach director, explains that “when residents move in, they say their gardens are one of the things they’ll miss the most. Residents can adopt our outdoor raised bed gardens and plant container gardens. They want to be able to continue gardening throughout their lives.”
There are many useful tools for adaptive gardening. Experts advise keeping your gear small and light. Most garden centers offer lightweight cutting tools with gear assisted leverage, like ratcheting hand pruners, loppers, and hedge clippers. Ergonomic hand tools – trowels, weeders, or hand hoes – can help keep wrists level and offer more control and distribution of strength.
Long-handled tools or telescoping handles can be used in an upright position, helping keep the back straight. Long handled “leaf grabbers” act like scissors to pick up leaf or debris piles. A standing seeder tool can be fashioned from PVC pipe, cut at an angle at the base to dig into soil, perhaps with a funnel attached at the top to drop in the seed.
D-shaped or circular handles provide more space for both hands to help distribute strength. Foam sleeves — pool noodles or pipe insulation — can be wrapped over the handles to improve grip and comfort.
For many adaptive gardening advocates, the favorite tool is a reversible padded kneeler bench. Susan Mulvilhill, author and garden columnist for Spokane’s The Spokesman-Review recommends using the kneeler bench as a seat to pick blueberries or deadhead perennials. Susan then flips it around for kneeling tasks, using the handles to raise herself back up.
A small tool pouch can be slipped over one of the handles. Knee pads can be strapped on or inserted into the knee pockets of work pants to lessen the stress of kneeling. Find more information on Susan’s website,
susansinthegarden.com. Susan adds some sound advice: “Don’t hesitate to ask for help. You don’t have to do everything. Enjoy your garden!”
WSU Extension offers a free guide, “Gardening for Life: A Guide to Garden Adaptations for Gardeners of All Ages and Abilities,” with detailed information, plans, and plant lists. Visit WSU Gardening for Life or search for WSU Publication MISC545E.
(Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.)
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here