Gardeners adapt to changes in life

May 13, 2010

by Pat Blanchard
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Editor's note: Last week's article highlighted possible adaptations to a garden for more accessibility to those challenged at gardening. This is the concluding article on adapting the gardener and types of plants to address changes that take place in the life of a gardener.
Adapting tools used in the garden will enable gardeners with less mobility to function well.  Wearing an apron with pockets for holding clippers and gloves keeps the tools nearby.  A kneeling pad or bench (that also inverts to a padded seat) and special gloves to deter thorns and protection when working in beds.  Small, child tools are lighter weight and shorter for seated gardening.  Tools with extending handles and poles also help to enable the gardener whose life and abilities may have changed.
Gardeners' Dirt
Victoria Educational Gardens is designed with sensory elements for gardeners of all types.  Shown here are wind chimes and a blue vase water feature for hearing;  complementing plants and foliage placed to enhance vision;  grasses, landscape plants with thorns and plants with bladed edges that are each a different touch;  and numerous fragrances throughout the garden for smell.
Last week's article focused on adaptations to gardens for accessibility issues. There are also various ways to adapt to changes in the life of the gardener.


Traditional garden tools are actually a means to enhance our strength or mobility, if one thinks about it. Yet any item used in an unconventional way can become an enabling tool.

Tools can be adapted for those with limited reach, grasp or hand strength, by simply taping pipe insulation or spongy bicycle handles to the handle of a tool.

Enlarged handles provide comfort as well as joint protection.

Extending or telescoping handles can provide better wrist positioning and reduction in back strain.

Aluminum conduit or an old tennis racket handle can be used to lengthen a hand tool. Don't we all use the extended wand or handle-hoses for watering?

Long handled barbecue tools also work well as gardening tools. Child-sized gardening tools are often lighter weight and just the right length for seated gardening.

Adding an extra handle to a tool or watering can help to distribute weight and torque.

Moleskin or tennis racket grip tape adds tension to the grip and Velcro straps can secure handles for a weak grip. Of course, ergonomic garden tools can also be purchased.


Adaptations can be made for those with sensory limitations. Wind chimes, water fountains and large blocks of color and shapes, as well as the variety of textures provided by nature help to orient the visually impaired in a garden.

Seed tapes, toilet paper gardening, flower carpets and vegetable rings assist in proper spacing of plants.

Light-colored or fluorescent string with properly spaced knots can also be used.

Large seeds, seed shakers and powdering seeds with flour or talc enhance their visibility.

Tool handles can be painted a bright color for easy finding and a handle cord aids in easy retrieval if dropped.

Tasting and smelling fruits, vegetables and herbs can be enjoyed by all, and yet texture and smell of soil is intoxication to some.


Gardening in short sessions with frequent stops before getting tired is recommended to pace oneself. Gardening that is spaced out over a maximum of one to two hours in 20 minute segments helps to avoid fatigue.

Warming up the body by stretching, varying the tasks, changing positions frequently and using good body mechanics will help to avoid stiffness and over stressing of joints and muscles.

Kneepads, kneelers and hard-shelled athletic pads can protect joints.

Gloves should be worn for protection although many gardeners need to feel the texture and smell the soil.

Hats, sunscreen and sunglasses are essential equipment for avoiding over exposure to the sun.

Umbrellas for wheelchairs, carts or kneelers provide much needed shade.

The sun can also interact with medication use or make the gardener more susceptible to the effects of the sun.

Adequate hydration with water or sport drinks that replenish sugar and salt are necessary before the gardener starts to get thirsty.

Energy drinks are not sports drinks and have a high content of caffeine or other stimulants that can raise heart rate and blood pressure and may need to be avoided.

Although extremely rare in the United States, the tetanus bacterium does reside in manure treated soils in hot damp climates and, therefore, a current tetanus vaccine (and adult boosters every 10 years) is necessary.

Although there is less pollen at mid-day and during cloudy cool days, the heat of South Texas can be unbearable. Energy conservation is the key to gardening here.

Tools should be stored in a central location or duplicate equipment can be stored in several locations, like mailboxes or tool belts, aprons or vests.

Scooters, small garden carts, golf bags or even a plastic garbage pail on wheels can make moving and storing garden tools easier.

Tools should be kept sharp to minimize the amount of pressure needed to use them properly.

Metal tool handles or mobility aids can get hot quickly in the sun.

Gene Rothert of the Chicago Botanical Gardens asks, "Why do we say 30 minutes of aerobics is exercise, but gardening is work?"

Paying attention to these safety concerns can extend the body and life of any gardener.


While researching this topic I looked up adaptive gardening and found plants uniquely adapted to the South Texas landscape.

Wrong: I thought, but then on further study, I found that we can actually consider adapting the plants, too. Any plants can be grown in the accessible garden that grow in any other garden in your area.

Toxicity - Non-toxic plants are best for the gardener with special needs. Stay away from those with a milky white sap.

Brightly-colored ornamental peppers that likely could be enticing to small children or pets as something to chew on could also negatively effect the disabled gardener who was deadheading or trimming a bush, acquiring the oil on the hands by accident, getting it on sensitive skin or even rubbing one's eyes.

Thorns - Thorny landscaping plants can cause rashes and pricked places on skin. Cacti and some roses, as well as bladed plants like some palms and yuccas are best avoided for those with tactile sensory loss.

Look for soft-textured plants like lamb's ear or scented geraniums.

Other considerations - Heavy blooming shrubs can wreak havoc with allergies.

On the other hand, fragrant landscaping plants and those in an herb garden stimulate the senses and make gardening more rewarding.

Vines that grow on trellises or hanging baskets enhance accessibility.

Mobility restrictions may limit the plants that require higher maintenance. But beyond these considerations, the sky is the limit: Anything goes that grows.

William Shakespeare perhaps said it right, "Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners."
Umbrellas for wheelchairs, carts or kneelers provide
much needed shade
Gardeners with less mobility and more sensitivity to allergies or skin reactions should avoid some plants.

Milky white sap:
Oleanders, plumerias, tropical butterfly weed (aesclepias), poinsettia
Thorny landscaping plants:
Holly, juniper, pride of Barbados, pyracanthas, durantas, bougainvilleas
Heavy blooming shrubs:
Ligustrum, viburnum, photinia or pittosporum
High maintenance plants:
Fast-growing ginger, fern, lantana and even bamboo
On the other hand, fragrant plants stimulate the senses and make gardening more enjoyable.

Fragrant plants:
Banana shrub, almond verbena, star jasmine, gardenias, antique or heirloom roses, (watch the thorns), society garlic, (depending on one's taste)
Herb garden:
Rosemary, basil, mints, lemon balm or lavender
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at