University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Everywhere we go we see efforts to make life easier for those with physical challenges.  Examples we're familiar with include handicap parking places, ramps, and special signage (even talking street crossings for the visually impaired).  So why not plan a fruit garden that is accessible if you, or someone you know that could be visiting or helping out, might have a physical challenge?  The extremes would be no vision, or mobility in a wheelchair for instance, but many may just not be able to see as well or bend as well as in the past.  As our population ages, more will find they want to garden and now have the time, but don’t have the physical abilities they once had.  Enabling fruit gardens can be planned with this in mind.

I have a friend who has lost most his vision, but can still see silhouettes and the color blue.  So he paints the stakes on his fruit trees blue, and prunes them by feel, having dwarf trees he can easily reach.  Another friend needs dwarf trees too, as he has developed feet problems that don’t let him stand on ladders for very long.  This past season I saw a couple in wheelchairs picking raspberries along the edge of a lawn where they could be reached from their chairs. These examples may give you some clues on how you can start planning your fruiting landscape, orchard, or berry patch to be accessible.

First, determine what the needs are, such as relates to vision, physical mobility, or other.  Maybe you just need fruits you can pick without much bending or climbing. Some of the berry bushes fit here, as well as dwarf fruit trees, espaliered fruit trees, or grapes on a trellis.  Even if there is some ground labor, such as pruning out canes of brambles, there are pruning tools such as loppers with extension handles to make the job possible without much bending.  This applies to the slightly taller semi-dwarf trees too.  If growing the latter, perhaps you’ll only pick what you can reach and leave the rest for wildlife.   If you want even the higher fruit, there are small baskets on poles you can use to reach and pick ripe fruit without climbing a ladder.
If you want fruits requiring some ground labor, such as strawberries, consider raised beds.  These can be low if the access will be with a seat or garden scooter, or higher if by wheelchair.  If for children or scooter access, make the sides about 18 inches high. If for wheelchair access, sides should be 24 inches high, or 30 inches high if you’re standing and have trouble bending. Consider a wide edge, particularly if a wooden bed, for sitting.

Keep such raised beds narrow, with paths on each side, so they can be reached easily.  For access by only one side, make beds 24 to 30 inches wide, or twice that if accessible by both sides.  If access is by wheelchair, consider the path width, and the surface to make moving about easy—soil with packed wood chips would be much easier to wheel along than small gravel. Provide direct routes for wheelchairs, easy corners, room for U-turns, and a grade of no more than 5 to 8 percent.

Most these latter tips apply to those with walking challenges as well, for whom you may want to provide handrails and seats.  Provide backs and arm rests on chairs and benches, and locate in shade and out of wind if possible.  If able to still garden on the ground around strawberries, as with a kneeling pad, keep rows between plants wider to allow room to maneuver.

Other small fruits for raised beds, even large pots, are lowbush blueberries, cranberries, lingonberries, and trailing blackberries.  The latter are best for southern gardens, as they’re only hardy to about zone 7.  Strawberry pots— those tall pots with side holes for planting runners— are another option for strawberries, as are beds in tiers.  Using metal or similar edging, even straight lumber about 6 inches wide, make a series of beds, one on top of the other, more narrow with each step.  If straight, this resembles steps.  If circular, envision a wedding cake. 

Some dwarf fruit trees can be grown in large pots or containers, as grapes can too.  The latter may be surprising if you’ve ever seen grape vines on a trellis reaching 8 feet or more wide.  Grapes, however, only grow on top what their roots can support, so less roots in a pot results in less on top.  An alternative to pots is growing grapes up an A-frame tent trellis, tall enough so a wheelchair can pass underneath for the gardener to tend the vines and pick the hanging grapes.

Unlike flowers and other plants in pots, grapes prefer a sandy loam or equal parts topsoil, peat moss, and compost.  Grapes don’t need much fertility the first year, and even less the second, and don’t fertilize past mid-summer so plants can harden for winter.  Reduce watering in mid-summer, and keep the potting medium barely moist through winter.  In northern climates you’ll need to protect pots over winter, such as moving into an unheated garage.  Heavy duty casters on large pots or supporting frame make them easier to move about.

For grapes in containers, provide a central stake anchored to the sides of the pot with wires.  Train the stem to the stake, and each winter prune back leaving only a few buds to develop fruiting shoots the next year.  Remove flowers the first two or three years until plants are established, then plants can support 10 to 15 flower (and fruit) clusters per year. 

For those visually impaired like my friend, use contrasting colors or colors they might see best for marking posts to identify plants and edges, gates, pots, tools and latches.  Use contrasting colors as well as textures for surfaces, such as walks, and indicator strips along paths to identify various parts of the garden.  Audible clues help orient these gardeners in the garden as well as providing pleasant sounds, whether from a water feature or wind chimes.

You may need to upgrade tools too for more accessible gardening.  There are wheelbarrows with two wheels, easier to lift and roll.  Already mentioned are the loppers with extension handles, but there are other ergonomic tools such as pruners with swivel handles, trowels with padded and curved handles, and shovels with padded and enlarged loop handles for those with arthritis. 

Since water is heavy to lug about, have hoses with watering wands for reaching, drip irrigation, or soaker hoses.  Dry low-analysis organic fertilizer (such as 5-3-4) may be easier to scratch into the soil surface early in the season than repeated liquid applications, lugging heavy watering cans. Use levers on faucets, as well as any gates, as these are easier to manipulate than turning round handles.

Aging doesn’t mean the end to gardening, just gardening differently.  Proper planning and plant selection can enable fruit gardening even for those with physical challenges.  While enabling gardens generally focus on flowers, herbs, and vegetables, consider growing fruits too.  Pick fruits hardy for your area, those cultivars (cultivated varieties) best adapted, and two or more cultivars for tree fruits.  Although some tree fruits are self-fertile, most of these bear better with cross pollination.

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