The Ultimate Guide to Adaptive Gardening for Seniors

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Gardening is a popular activity that many older adults enjoy. But the physical challenges of gardening and mobility issues that increase with aging can make working in the garden difficult. Although garden activities may need to be done differently, there’s no reason to give them up. Embrace the change and allow adaptive gardening for seniors to make life in the garden easier and more enjoyable. 

Gardening supplies used for adaptive gardening for seniors

What is adaptive gardening?

Adaptive gardening is not a new concept, but it has become more popular in recent years. I like to think of adaptive gardening as finding solutions to make gardening less strenuous and more accessible for anyone. It includes various garden modifications, tool selection, and adjusted techniques. While changing garden activities may become a necessity for elderly gardeners, adaptive gardening techniques are helpful for everyone. 

    • Want to decrease stress on your joints? 

    • Would you like to garden from a seated position? 

    • Does back pain linger after a day working in the garden? 

    • Can’t bend over to tend to your plants or struggle to get back up again?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, adaptive gardening strategies are for you. Create a garden space that works for anyone using it and supports gardeners’ limitations or preferences. 

As a Home Health Physical Therapist, I’ve helped many clients discover creative ways to continue gardening despite injury, illness, or the effects of aging. Often an alternative gardening technique, different garden tool, or modified garden space is all it takes to overcome a gardening obstacle. 

Who is adaptive gardening helpful for?

Adaptive gardening is great for anyone because it customizes garden tasks for each person’s needs. During a lifetime, a person’s abilities change many times, whether due to injury, illness, or the process of aging. Therefore, everyone could benefit from adaptive gardening techniques, strategies, and ideas to get the most out of their time in the garden, from a child to a senior citizen.

Example of who may benefit from adaptive gardening for seniors

    • Individuals with arthritis

    • People with disabilities

    • Those with visual impairment

    • Individuals with mobility issues

    • Anyone who experiences discomfort or struggles while gardening

Benefits of adaptive gardening for seniors

Senior gardening is a popular activity, and the benefits of gardening for older adults are plentiful. Gardening activities are a great form of exercise and provide health benefits in various ways. Additionally, gardening is a lifetime hobby that anyone can enjoy.  

Adaptive gardening takes traditional gardening to another level. 

    • The design of the adaptive garden is tailored to suit the needs and abilities of those who use it, including people with physical disabilities and mobility issues.

    • Anyone can do it without any specialized knowledge or training.

    • Encourages physical activity, which can improve overall health.

    • Time spent outdoors and with nature is linked to improved mental health, cognitive benefits, and emotional well-being.

    • Promotes a sense of pride and accomplishment

    • Growing fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs encourages healthful eating.

How to create the best garden for seniors

Creating an adaptive garden is an exciting project. There are many things to consider when making a garden of any kind. With adaptive gardening, the main goal is to customize and personalize the garden so it is easy to use, no matter the ability of those who use it. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, and creative solutions come into play.

Garden planning

Making a plan before beginning can make all the difference. Many difficulties can be overcome by thinking things through rather than starting quickly and haphazardly. For an adaptive garden, a plan is highly recommended. 

Type of garden  

The most challenging aspects of traditional gardening are bending over, kneeling, and being on hands and knees to be at or near the ground. This activity is challenging for many people and typically gets harder with age. Luckily, there are many alternatives to in-ground gardening and ways to create more accessible gardening surfaces.

Examples of raised gardens

    • Raised planter beds such as elevated garden bed boxes or garden tables – Some raised beds have enough space underneath to fit a seat or wheelchair comfortably, so gardening can be completed while sitting.

    • Container gardens – Raised plant pots raise gardening spaces. Add wheels to the bottom of the pot or place the planter on a plant dolly or plant caddy for ease of movement and location flexibility.

    • Hanging planters – Elevating pots by hanging them makes them easier to tend to and keeps little critters from eating the plants.

    • Trellises and garden arbors – These are great for climbing plants or suspending a hanging planter 

    • Window sill garden with potted plants – This is one of the simplest ways to garden and can include as many pots as is desired

    • Window boxes – Access these elevated planting surfaces from indoors or outside.

    • Wall gardens – Sometimes referred to as living walls, this type of garden has gained popularity in the past few years. Hang pots or plant boxes from the wall. 

    • Fences – Plants can grow up, and planters hung from fences or containers are placed on the top of the fence.

Smart gardens

Smart gardens are a newer technology that allows people to grow plants with less time and effort. They work by using sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor and water plants automatically. A smart garden could be located inside or outdoors.

Garden location  

Make convenience the priority when deciding on the best place for an adaptive garden – the more accessible the location, the better. Survey space options available for gardening activities. And choose the best spot considering convenience, soil and sunlight needs of plants that will be grown, access to water sources, and proximity to garden equipment and tools.

Indoor

Indoor gardens usually require less maintenance than outdoor ones because they do not need to be watered or weeded as often.

Outdoor

Outdoor gardens have more opportunities to grow fruits, trees, and shrubs, which may not be possible indoors or in a courtyard due to space constraints and inadequate sunlight. They also require more maintenance than indoor ones.

Avid gardeners often have indoor and outdoor gardens to enjoy at different times, depending on the climate.

Size of the garden  

Gardens come in all sizes, and bigger isn’t always better. The size of a garden depends on many factors: the type of plants you want to grow, the space available in your yard, your commitment and ability to care for it, and your budget. A good rule of thumb is to start small and gradually expand your project once you see how much work is involved in garden care and maintenance. 

Garden safety

For the most post, gardening is a relatively safe activity, but there are some hazards to be aware of. Injuries can occur from things such as repetitive movements and sharp tools. Illnesses are also possible from insect bites. With a bit of caution and prevention, you can minimize most garden risks.

Garden design

Garden design is a process that can be as simple or complex as you desire and will be determined by various factors. There are a few essential elements to consider for accessible garden design. 

Needs and preferences of gardeners  

First and foremost, the person’s physical limitations, such as mobility or strength deficits, or cognitive such as memory loss, should be considered.

Garden access  

Consider how gardeners and garden visitors will move to, from, and within the garden. What garden pathways will be needed to optimize the use of garden spaces.  

Look ahead and think about how the garden may expand or decrease in size or scope in the future. 

Garden maintenance

There are many ways to decrease the amount of care that a garden needs. The work required to care for the garden can fit the gardener’s preferences by anticipating garden maintenance before creating a gardening space.

Some examples of ways to reduce garden maintenance:

    • Choose low maintenance plants such as trees and shrubs instead of annuals or perennials

    • Install automatic plant watering systems

    • Use weed reduction techniques

Creating an adaptive garden is an exciting project. A good rule of thumb is to start small and gradually expand your project once you see how much work is involved in garden care and maintenance. 

When is the best time to create an adaptive garden?

Anytime is a great time to create an adaptive garden or change an existing garden. As with many things, most people will wait until they have difficulty or cannot use their gardening space to make changes. 

But the very best time to create a flexible garden that can accommodate change is when the garden is built initially. With the future in mind, some additional planning, and a few design tweaks, a garden can be made accessible from the very beginning. 

Senior-friendly garden tools

The rise of gardening technology has led to the creation of various tools to make gardening easier and more accessible for those who may find it difficult or impossible. One such tool is a raised garden bed or box, which elevates the garden height. This is especially helpful for those who are unable or have difficulty bending down or standing back up or are seated in a wheelchair. 

Besides elevating the gardening surface, raised garden boxes have other benefits, including improving drainage, water retention, and aeration. Many different raised garden beds are available, or you can even make your own.

How to choose the best gardening tools for seniors

The right garden supplies and collection of gardening tools can make a world of difference for the adaptive gardener. Ergonomic tools will create efficiency and comfort while performing gardening chores. Just because a tool is called ergonomic does not mean that it will work for everyone. Try out a tool before purchase to see if it’s right for you. Other features to look for include lightweight tools and simple ones to use. Adding automatic mechanisms makes the job even easier. Some of my favorite garden tools are multi-functional and can serve double or triple duty.

The key is to find the best garden tools for the specific needs of each gardener. This may take some time but is well worth the effort. For example, a person with arthritic hands and reduced grip strength will likely benefit from hand tools specifically designed for weak grip or two-handed tools. People with disabilities that limit their mobility may benefit from a garden scooter with adjustable seat height. Those with visual impairment may benefit from color-coded tools.

Luckily, with the growing (pun intended) population of Baby Boomers, there are many gardening products specifically designed with the needs of the elder gardener in mind. Products developed especially for seniors gardeners can be just as helpful to younger garden lovers. Who doesn’t want to work smarter rather than harder? 

Examples of adaptive tools for senior gardening

Gardening gloves: There are many garden gloves to choose from depending on the garden job at hand (pun intended). Popular varieties include cloth, leather, and nitrile gloves in various lengths and styles.

Pruning shears: Trimming and clipping plants is a frequent gardening chore, so a good pair of pruners is necessary. Several types of pruning shears are available depending on the gardening task. The most common are anvil and bypass pruners. They come in manual, rachet, and powered versions.

Grabbers: These come in many varieties and are handy for many jobs, such as gathering garden debris without excessive bending and stretching.

Garden cart: These wheeled devices are easier to use than wheelbarrows when moving items around the garden and yard.

Dump cart: A wagon attached to a lawn tractor to haul garden tools, garden waste, and supplies.

Garden kneeler & knee pads: Prevent sore knees with a padded surface to rest them.

Garden stool: A comfortable seat from which to perform gardening chores.

Hand tools: Look for tools with ergonomic handles and a comfortable grip.

Garden apron: This wearable garden organizer can be beneficial for keeping essential gardening tools within easy reach. 

Long-handled garden tools: Tools that list ergonomic grip, non-slip handles, back-saving handles, or easy-grip handles are likely rakes, shovels, and hoes that will be easier and more comfortable.

Lightweight garden hose: Replace a heavy-duty hose with a lighter-weight version that’s easier to move around. 

Wide-brimmed hat, comfortable clothes, sunscreen, and bug repellant: Essentials for safety and comfort in the garden. 

Examples of adaptive gardening ideas

    • Buy materials in smaller containers and bags to prevent heavy lifting 

    • Use an ergonomic hand weeder tool instead of pulling weeds by hand

    • Perform garden chores from a seated position

    • Use vertical gardening surfaces or raised garden beds

    • Garden organization using a garden journal, plant labels, and instructions

    • Install railings in the garden 

    • Grow perennials instead of annuals for less care and maintenance

    • Use automatic garden tools 

    • Work in the garden during cooler morning hours to avoid the heat of midday

    • Replace gravel or stone garden paths with solid surface material

    • Use self-watering plant pots

Conclusion

Gardens are a wonderful extension of the home. Just like a home should be adapted or modified as needs change, so does a garden. Older adults can continue to garden successfully throughout the golden years with a bit of planning and effort and the right tools and techniques. This adaptive approach to gardening can be an excellent way for seniors to stay active, improve health, and enhance well-being. Ready to discover the joy in an adaptive garden?

FAQ

What is the difference between accessible gardening and adaptive gardening?

Accessible gardening and adaptive gardening are similar and often interchanged terms. Accessible gardening eliminates barriers or obstacles that would prevent someone from using a gardening space. An accessible garden can be used successfully by anyone of any ability level. They are beneficial to senior gardeners and younger gardeners with limitations such as injury, disease, or illness. You’ll find paved pathways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, raised garden beds, table planters, or vertical gardens for ease of use. Accessible gardens are sometimes referred to as elder accessible gardens and handicap accessible gardens. Adaptive gardening includes accessible gardening and modified techniques, tools, and strategies.

About the Author

As a home health Physical Therapist for over 20 years, I help clients solve home dilemmas so they can live their best life.

I'm here to use that same problem-solving expertise and training as a Certified Aging in Place Specialist to help you create an optimized home that's forward-thinking and future-ready to support you and your loved ones well for a lifetime.

Ready to discover your Golden Girl strategy for a retirement-ready home?