Living With Polio


Designing a garden, planting, tending and then enjoying the results leads to a sense of peace, serenity and fulfillment. An accomplishment all our own, restoring our self-esteem, with results we can share with others. Is there anyone who doesn’t find pleasure working with the earth? And yet gardening is often the first activity people give up at the onset of a chronic condition. The prolonged gripping, bending, and stooping can intensify pain in muscles and joints throughout the body. Fatigue creeps in and lessens one’s endurance for all activities.

Pleasurable but optional activities like gardening may take a back seat to just getting through the necessary self-care chores each day. However, people with chronic conditions are probably the ones who can benefit the most from the therapeutic effects of gardening.

When I wanted to feature gardening tips on my web site I asked for input from people in the disability community who have found solutions that enable them to continue enriching their lives with gardening.Their replies proved that gardening is possible and rewarding no matter how you do it.

If you are ambulatory.
If you are able to bend, squat, or kneel, there are correct ways to do this so you do not injure your back. If your legs are not strong enough to squat, sit on a low stool or on the ground and lean forward from the hips, not rounding your back. If you prefer to kneel, purchase a combo bench/kneeling platform which has handles at both ends to assist in getting up.

Take time to warm up before you work in the garden. A few minutes of stretching exercises will prepare your muscles and joints for activity.

Bring the Garden to You.
Almost everything that can be grown in the ground can be grown in containers. Many people constructed raised gardening beds, planters, or containers which can be tended to while standing or sitting in a wheelchair or scooter. Other choices are window boxes, large pots, or vertical wall gardens on upright trellises, walls or fences.

Raised beds for flowers and vegetables have been used for a long time to overcome soil problems such as heavy clay and poor drainage. Raised beds do not allow standing water to collect which could rot the roots. Another advantage is that insects find these beds harder to invade.

Planning the garden.
Raised beds should be narrow enough so you can reach the center easily; no more than four feet wide if you want to access it from both sides, or 2 feet wide if approached from one side. If the bed is too wide you can use extended tools to lengthen your reach but they require more strength to manipulate. Put the length of the bed on an east-west axis for optimum sun exposure.

Paths between the planters should be at least 5 feet wide to allow wheelchairs to turn around easily. Use smooth non-slip materials such as brick or flagstone paving (not wood chips or gravel) on paths to eliminate mud and allow easy rolling or walking.

Give a lot of thought to what you’re going to plant in the garden. How far will the plants spread out when they mature? You don’t want them to obstruct walkways when they are fully grown. Annuals or perennials? Annuals are gratifying because they provide color so quickly but need to be re-seeded every year. Perennials take longer to get established but they require less care and do not need to be replaced every year.

The suggested heights of raised planters ranged from 2 feet to waist high. One person used shallow containers perched on saw horses and old chairs. Another person used a Radio Flyer red wagon. One person built a raised bed in several sections with different heights. Some garden boxes were high enough to allow leg room while facing the box in a wheelchair. The height should be within your easy reaching range: 28-30 inches for wheelchair users and waist high if you are ambulatory. Consider how tall the shrubs or flowers will be when they mature. If you start with the planting beds too high, the mature plants may tax your ability to tend to them.

Materials used for planters included landscape timbers, railroad ties, concrete blocks or treated wood. One easy design using two-by-eights with four-by-four posts at each corner and a raised bed can also provide a ledge to sit on.

Hanging Baskets.
You have lots of options when choosing hanging baskets. They can be round, oval, or rectangular; made of plastic, wood, or metal wire; they can have open, slatted, or solid sides. Baskets can be put on a pulley system so you can bring them close for watering and pruning.

Open-sided baskets need more frequent watering, but they allow you to plant through the openings so the sides of the basket are covered more quickly. Usually some type of liner is needed to keep the soil mix intact but you can create notches in the liner to allow planting.Traditional wire baskets dry out quickly. Wooden and plastic boxes retain water better than wire, but wooden boxes can be heavy when wet so they need to be suspended securely.

Water requirements.
Container gardens need more frequent watering than conventional gardens. Mulch, mulch, and more mulch will reduce water evaporation as well as weeds. Place plants with similar requirements together: those that need the most water closest to your water source and the drought-tolerant ones farthest away. The area around the spigot should be paved so the ground does not get muddy. Water faucets should be at least 24 inches off the ground and have lever handles for easy operation.

Use energy-efficient tools.
Choosing the most appropriate implements depends on your individual situation. If you are able to garden from a standing position, your rakes, hoes, and other tools should be as tall or taller than you are so you can stand upright and not bend over to move the implement. No need to bend over for planting seeds, either. Just twist a long handled trowel around a few times and, for larger seeds like beans, use a PVC pipe to roll the seeds down into the hole and use the trowel to cover them back up. Commercial products such as Garden Claw, Garden Weasel, and Weed Hound enable you to dig, cultivate, plant, and pull weeds without bending over.

If you garden from a sitting position, children’s gardening tools work well as they are lighter and the shorter handles don’t get in the way. If you want to alternate between short and long handles, Corona manufactures hoes, trowels, cultivators, and rakes with adjustable handles that can vary between 18 and 32 inches by twisting the handle and pushing or pulling to the desired length.

Use tools that ease the work and reduce strain and pain. Fiskars PowerGear® tools have a variety of loppers and pruners with a mechanism that increases leverage to make cutting 3 times easier than single pivot pruners. Their tools have been awarded the Ease-of-Use Commendation by the Arthritis Foundation. Corona sells a ratchet pruner that cuts through branches up to 1″ thick without using much power.

The Easi-Grip® Line of Ergonomic Garden Tools made by PETA-UK are light weight and have a soft non-slip grip that prevents tools from turning in the hand. The trowel, fork, weeder and cultivator have large handles that are angled to keep the wrist in a neutral position. They also have arm support cuffs to maximize strength. Their products are available online from You can also be a do-it-yourselfer by building up handles of tools with pipe insulation, tape, or rubber handgrips that are made for crutches. (In case you’re wondering, PETA-UK stands for Practical Ergonomic & Therapeutic Aids, not the animal rights organization).

Keep blades clean and sharp so you don’t have to work as hard. Corona sells a blade sharpener with a 5 inch super carbide file for use on all blade types. And no, I don’t own stock in Corona, Fiskars, or PETA-UK. I mention these companies because they have seen a need and fulfilled it.

Protect your hands.
Why is it important to keep your wrists in a neutral position? Grip strength, for one thing. Deviating the hand toward the little finger diminishes grip strength by 40%, and 27% if deviated toward the thumb. This decrease in grip is significant if you don’t have normal strength to start with. Maintaining a neutral position also prevents repetitive stress injuries which impact function even in normal hands. You can purchase handles which clamp onto the shaft of your implements and improve the wrist position and leverage. Gloves protect your hands from cuts and scrapes but thick gloves can cut down on sensation, causing you to grip objects with excess force.

Practice Pacing.
Gardening is so enjoyable that you can easily overdo it. You may become so absorbed that you don’t notice when pain or fatigue sets in. As with other activities, don’t start anything that you can’t stop in the middle of doing. Take a timer outside and set it for 30 minutes. Then stop, sit back, put your feet up, and relax for at least 15 minutes. Savor what you’ve already accomplished. Keep interspersing rest and work periods. During a rest interval you may become aware that fatigue is setting in so stop for the day. Resist the urge to hoe just one more row or pull a few more weeds. You want to feel good tomorrow.

Accessible Gardening: Tips & Techniques for Seniors & the Disabled” by Joann Woy. 1997. Advice and information for gardeners with special needs.

“Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space With Less Work” by Mel Bartholomew, has a chapter on “Special Gardens” describing a wheelchair garden and a waist high garden.

The Enabling Garden: A Guide to Lifelong Gardening” by Gene Rothert. How to create a user-friendly garden for the elderly and disabled. The focus is on establishing an environment that allows anyone to enjoy gardening. Ideas about helpful gadgets, modified techniques, and other tips.

“Accessible Gardening for People with Physical Disabilities: A Guide to Methods, Tools, and Plants” by Janeen R. Adil

Hanging Baskets, Window Boxes, and Other Container Gardens: A guide to Creative Small-Scale Gardening. David Joyce. 1992.

Container Gardening for Dummies by Bill Marken. IDG Books. How-to advice for all types of container gardening. Extensive mail order resources for seeds, plants, fruit trees, tools, supplies, and structures; web sites about container gardening.

Colorful Hanging Baskets & Other Containers. 1997. Debbie Patterson, et al. Sterling Publications.

Container Plants: For Patios, Balconies, and Window Boxes. Halina Heitz. 1992.

The Ultimate Container Gardener: Over 150 Glorious Designs for Planters, Pots, Boxes, Baskets and Tubs. Stephanie Donaldson. 1997.

© 1999-2008 Grace R. Young
Courtesy of Diane Young and Sharon Lark.

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