Straw bales. Pallets. Raised beds. When it comes to creating an alternative garden — ones grown above ground — options abound.
Some save money while others allow gardeners to accommodate different mobility needs or improve the health of the soil.
Regardless, more people are gardening these days than ever before, and experts say alternative gardens go a long way toward providing accessibility for people who may not want to or can’t have a traditional garden in the ground.
Ellen Gibson is an avid gardener and AgrAbility specialist with Maine AgrAbility, a nonprofit collaboration of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Goodwill Industries Northern New England and Alpha One. The organization works to help farmers, farm workers, fishermen and others who have chronic health issues or disabilities.
For her, “accessibility,” with respect to growing food and flowers, means designing gardens as places for everyone, regardless of ability. It may mean creating spaces designed to accommodate people who can’t walk, are blind or are cognitively impaired.
They may have wider walkways, raised beds or feature flowers and plants with different textures and fragrances to increase the enjoyability for someone with a visual impairment. Features such as circular paths or fenced-in areas also can help people with memory loss or dementia.
“I think of it similarly to the concepts of universal design in architecture, designing gardens for everyone, regardless of age or ability,” Gibson said.
Leilani Carlson, a project coordinator with MaineAgrAbility, added alternative gardens are great for able-bodied people, as well, and can go a long way to making use of different growing spaces.
“Alternative garden designs [are] really a nice concept to consider for all ages, lifestyles and garden settings, for example, [in] schools, suburban or city settings, apartment living or retirement complexes,” she said.
Types and purposes
Donna Coffin, an educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Penobscot County, said alternative gardens often come in trends. A few years ago, there was a big movement to create lasagna gardens, layered spaces made with compostable materials that slowly turn into soil.
“Every year there’s new techniques,” Coffin said. “This year the new thing is straw bale gardening.”
Straw bale gardening: Straw bale gardening involves growers turning bales on their sides, decomposing a few inches of the straw using a nitrogen-based fertilizer, then planting seeds in the top layer of composted straw. As the garden grows, the straw continues to decompose and support the plants. At the end of the season, the entire bale can go straight into a compost pile. Because the straw bales are tall, they’re also a great option for people who may need a higher bed but don’t want to spend the money or time making raised beds.
Raised beds: Coffin said despite changing trends in alternative gardens, the one constant has been raised beds, a type of accessible growing space popular for the past few decades. A raised bed often is created by using stacked wood planks that create a box about a foot deep and allow gardeners to avoid bending over. The beds also offer a controllable growing space, because soil can be added or changed if necessary.
“Sometimes the raised beds are even double the height of normal raised beds for people who have trouble bending over,” Gibson said. “I’ve heard about some nursing homes that actually have beds that are 3 or 4 feet high.”
Container gardens: According to Carlson, container gardening provides an alternative to raised beds and is great for growing food, herbs or flowers. Because container gardens are mobile, she said they provide some flexibility for gardeners who can move them if the weather turns inclement. Types of container gardens include window boxes; hanging baskets; repurposed containers, such as washing machine tubs or horse troughs; and planting directly in bags of soil.
Smaller containers can also be kept high on a table for people who want to stand and garden or are in wheelchairs. Horticulturist Kate Garland said one thing to keep in mind, however, is that containers — especially shallow ones, such as window boxes or bags of soil — dry quickly and need daily watering.
Sensory gardens: Sensory gardens are a great option for children or for the blind but are a “delight of all,” Gibson said. In sensory gardens, plants are placed close to pathways and often have contrasting colors, texture and smell. Gardeners also may include sculptures or other hardscape materials to help visually impaired people orient themselves in the space, Gibson said.
Want to create an alternative garden? Here are a few tips and tricks:
Gibson recommends people interested in creating an alternative garden consider how much time they’ll have to manage the space and how large or complex a garden they want to keep. She also recommends making a list of accommodations needed. For example, is mobility a challenge? If so, gardeners should keep in mind what paths are made of, how wide they are and if there are any slopes on the property.
For people using wheelchairs, Gibson recommends building beds on legs and making sure beds are no wider than 2 feet if accessible from one side or 4 feet if they are accessible from both sides.
Also, consider purchasing ergonomic tools to ease strain on hand joints or telescoping tools that allow the gardener to stand and work.
Want to learn more?
Anyone interested in creating a more accessible garden can find a number of resources and additional information on the Unviersity of Maine AgrAbility website, umaine.edu/agrability. In addition, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension website has resources and videos about how to build raised beds. For more information on straw bale gardening, visit strawbalegardens.com.