Accessible Garden Beds
Planning and Building Accessible Garden Beds
I live in co-op housing. For those unfamiliar with the concept, co-op housing is a membership based mini-community. All members own shares, are required to contribute to the community (by serving on the board, committees, or taking part in other ways) and the facilities are run democratically. Instead of rent, members pay a Housing Charge, which goes to paying the mortgage, if any, and the various expenditures such a complex may require.
The co-op I live in is called Artspace, and it is rather unique in various ways. One of them is the number of accessible units we have. In fact, it was built with accessibility in mind, thanks to the hard work of some very dedicated individuals, to create a place where they could live independently, rather than in institutions.
Being in a downtown location, we are also among the fortunate in that we have garden plots available for our members. Unfortunately, they are not accessible. A group of us got together to address this lack, with documentation of our plans and progress here, and updates added as things went along. The goal was to have accessible garden beds in time for the upcoming spring's planting. I hope you enjoy this journey, and learn along with us!
(updates added to the bottom as details are worked out)
Looking at what we have now - Existing garden beds and their issues
When the idea of having accessible beds first came up, things didn't get communicated very well. The resulting raised beds were set up, but didn't meet our memberships' needs.
This photo is taken from the end of the Eastern section of the bed, which is narrower and lower. The trees were planted to 1) help hold the soil down in high winds; a problem at this location, and 2) fill in areas that were not easy to reach.
Spacing problems - Almost, but not quite...
In between the two sections, this path was built. Unfortunately, it is not wide enough for someone in a chair to get into, and even someone with a walker would have difficulty.
It was also found that the thick wooden walls, as well as the wall in the back, added to the difficulty of reaching farther into the bed.
This is the bed from the West side. This section is one beam higher then the East side, and the same height as the back wall that stretches along the back of both sections. Again, the design works for people with greater mobility, but turned out not to be very good for anyone in a chair.
The North Wall
The wall on the north of both sections runs along a cobblestone patio. The patios are a great place for our members to enjoy a pleasant day, especially when waiting for their DATS (our city's wheelchair accessible bus line) rides. Some of our members have tried to do a bit of weeding while they wait, but have found it difficult to reach. Part of the problem is that the soil doesn't reach up to the top of the bed, so they have to not only reach beyond the wide wooden beams, but down to reach the soil.
It its first year, this bed has had flowers planted in between the trees, and there are solar lights scattered around. It looks quite lovely, and there has been a lot of positive feedback about it. Unfortunately, it's really just a big flower bed, and is not meeting the needs of some of our members.
This time around, we hope to get it right!
Providing assigned garden space that is available and accessible to all members with mobility issues, including those using wheelchairs and walkers, to plant whatever they wish, and that they can tend themselves as independently as possible.
The Planning Stage
Time to do some research
There are a number of things we need to take into account when coming up with the final design. Top of the list will be budget, of course. Whatever we come up with might have to change if it's going to cost more then we have available.
Location is another thing we need to take into account, and the location will be influenced by whether or not we can fit the design requirements into it.
What are the design requirements?
After going through some websites, there are a few recommendations to take into account.
Size - 1 meter wide for square or rectangular beds, or 1 meter in diameter for round beds. (1 meter is 3.28 feet)
Height - no less then 18 inches high, and up to table height
Potting areas - should have knee space
Paths - of hard packed material that wheels will not sink into
Path width - at least 1 meter between boxes
Other things to consider are water sources and drainage. For our location, we need to consider weight and what is under our locations, such as the underground parking garage (would the weight or extra moisture affect the ceiling?) or infrastructure (are there any city lines running below that might need to be dug up some day?). Growing conditions such as exposure to sunlight and the elements are also things to consider.
Accessible Garden links
Here are a few websites I found useful as I was doing my research.
- Plan an Accessible Garden
An informative article from Canadian Gardening
- Handicap Accessible Gardening
Many useful links to follow from here.
- Wheelchair Accessible Gardening and Adaptive Gardening with Raised Beds
A nice series of photos here.
- Accessible Gardening for Therapeutic Horticulture
An excellent article from the University of Minnesota, covering the therapeutic benefits of gardening, as well as different methods to achieve accessibility.
- Accessible Gardens for All
A wonderful blog, with an amazing resource list.
- Tips for Starting an Accessible Garden
A good article from the Gardening Channel.
- Accessible Gardening
This piece from Lee Valley Tools has some good information about materials, slopes, ramps, etc.
- Accessible community garden tears down barriers to growing food in Vancouver
Take the time to watch the video in this one.
- Create Your Own Vertical Garden
An alternative to raised beds.
Design Idea One - Raised Bed with Table Planter
After going through the websites, I came up with 3 sketches to present to the design committee. This one got the most positive response.
For each of my sketches, I thought of Square Foot Gardening, in that none of the beds will exceed 4 feet in width. This way, no one will have to reach more than 2 feet to tend their plot. Yes, that can be increased by using extended tools, but I didn't think it would be nice to present our members with beds, then tell them they have to buy special tools to use them!
So for this bed, one side is a basic raised bed and the other is a shallow table planter. The height is determined by the table planter side. The knee space under the table planter would be 27 inches. I don't know that members in power chairs would be able to go under it, though. Something to discuss with the design committee. The table planter would be 8-10 inches deep, which is adequate for many varieties of plants. Taking drainage into consideration, I thought that perhaps the table planter would either overlap or otherwise be open into the other side to allow for drainage.
Design Idea Two - Raised Bed with Potting Table
I don't know how much use a potting table would be, but the idea of having one opened up the possibility of storage. Like the table planter bed, this bed has half the bed being a simple rectangle. The potting table side would have knee space in the middle at 27 inches. Instead of legs at each end, there would be lockable storage drawers, so members wouldn't have to be constantly dragging their tools back and forth.
Design Idea Three - A Basic Box
It doesn't get much simpler then this. The box would be, at most, 4 feet wide, to give a reach from each side of 2 feet. The height can be variable. In fact, if it's built on a slope, it can be deeper on one side then the other, so long as the short side is at least 18 inches high. The length can be variable as well.
On to the next step
Looking at possible locations
With several possible design ideas to look at, we need to decide how they can be translated into reality. For that, we need to look at the spaces we have available, and figure out what our options are.
Location One - By the main entrance
This space is directly across the entrance path from the existing boxes. An accessible bed placed here means removing the juniper - a bush that seems to be both loved and hated equally by the membership! Perhaps there's a way to salvage it? I don't know.
Things to take into account. There are several objects that cannot be moved, such as the sign post in the photo, and a concrete and post structure just outside the photo. Below this is at least part of the underground parking. There is hose access near the front for water. Taking into account the location, it would make for a very small garden bed, but it would be an ideal location for a table planter bed.
Location Two - Front, East side
On the other side of the concrete structure is this strip of land. It has similar issues as the previous location, such as sign posts that cannot be moved. There is already a small flower bed in front of someone's unit, and we wouldn't want to block their sunlight with a bed.
Both of these front locations already have wheelchair friendly surfaces; additional paths would only need to be built alongside this concrete structure and the East end. If built farther down, closer to the willow tree in the back, the slope will need to be taken into account, too.
Both front locations get plenty of sunshine, and high winds are the biggest concern. In the winter, snow removal will also need to be taken into account. Once the beds are built, we lose much of the space used to pile snow shoveled off the walks.
Location Three - The East Side
This grassy area has varying degrees of slope. The underground parking extends under part of it. There is currently a small patio (which, I noticed, is getting uneven and needs to be fixed anyhow) and flower beds. On the down side, there is a balcony directly above the patio area. After I took this photo, I actually hurt myself slipping on some ice that had formed from snow that had melted off the balcony onto the patio, then froze. I saw the ice and was trying to be careful, but I still slipped.
Though this area is in shadow now, it gets lots of sunlight all morning and partly into noon. Building here would require building paths, which can add significantly to the cost of the project. It does have the advantage of more space to build in, however, and is my personal preferance for location (though we are not limited to just one location).
Location Four - The Back
This location has a few benefits. It's already concrete, so no paths would need to be built. A single large bed, which could be divided into plots, could be built, which would also reduce costs. It's easy access through the back door of the apartment building. Plus, there's the storage building. It is above the underground parking, which is both a plus and a negative; a plus, in that it would be easier to install water pipes, and a negative as weight would need to be taken into account. Drainage would also need to be considered.
Like the side, this location does get adequate sunlight all morning, but it is in shade throughout the day.
This location, however, is also being used as storage for those large items, like furniture and appliances, that need to be disposed of but do not belong in the garbage.
So this is what we have to work with! Over the next few weeks, we will be assessing our options, looking at design ideas and seeing what we come up with. I will update here as things move along, and hopefully our mobility challenged members will be enjoying the benefits of gardening, soon!
March 28, 2012 update
Today I was able to attend a meeting about the accessible garden beds. Unfortunately, there seems to be some debate as to what our actual goal is. About the only thing we agreed on is that we won't be building in the back. After discussion, I volunteered to call several contractors to discuss our plans and locations, and get some competing bids. That's my goal for tomorrow, and I hope to have estimates within a week. We don't have much time to get this done, but I'm afraid if we rush too much, we'll make expensive mistakes!
More updates to come.
March 29, 2012 Update
Three contractors have been contacted. Looking forward to hearing back from them soon!
March 30, 2012 update
Received a response and diagram of a rather innovative design idea from one contact. Did not get any estimate as to what the actual cost might be. Have replied with questions. Still waiting to hear from the other 2 contacts.
April 4, 2012 Update
Well, today is the deadline we've set for me to get plans and estimates from contractors so we can make a decision. Unfortunately, one contractor I talked to never responded to the email I sent. I was able to speak to another, who is our usual contractor for work around our co-op. He had some sketches for me and we spoke for a while. The two plans we have so far, however, are not enough to choose from. I quickly found several more companies through the BBB website and fired off emails. One of them contacted me right away and we will be meeting this afternoon.
If all goes well, I'll have at least one more plan and estimate to present to the committee. After we have made a decision, I'll post the design ideas that we got.
April 9, 2012 Update
Our Easter celebrations interrupted my updating.
Of the companies I found at the BBB website and sent emails to, one got back to me on the very same day. The next day, two gentlemen were able to come by and talk about the project. We spent some time talking over the locations and design requirements. Later on, I got an estimate emailed to me, which I sent on to the other committee members.
I have not heard from any of the other companies.
Unfortunately, we have not be able to get together to discuss things in detail yet. The holidays are messing us all up, I think. Tomorrow, I need phone them and find a time we can get together. Whichever company we choose, if we can make our decision right away, it can be started and finished within the week.
April 12, 2012 Update
Well, this should be my last update before I start posting photos of constructions!
The committee got together to go over the estimates that we had. It was down to two companies; I did get a contact from the third company that sent a design idea to say that they were not going to be able to take on our project due to a staff shortage. We went over the quotes we were given, and what was covered. It was really an easy decision. There was very little different in the cost, but the one that was slightly more expensive was a quote for 4 raised beds, if we wanted to have that many, constructed to the dimensions and materials we wanted, including wheel friendly crushed shale paths and a table planter. The other was for two beds, built to dimensions and with materials we were told we had to use, no paths, no table planter, and would not be fully accessible.
Once we decided which company to use, we got down to business. We decided that we did indeed want 4 beds built. One of the members brought out her tape measure and we hashed out the details. We even measured another member in a wheelchair to see how much knee space we need for the table planter (his chair is slightly higher then standard) and how much path width was needed for turning radius.
After figuring all this out, I put it together into an email to send to the company, with copies to the co-op members involved. The project isn't quite ready to go, yet. There's one step left: the board has to approve the amount to be spent. It's a formality, really, but such are the regulations. Once the project is officially approved, construction will start, I will post more about our final design details, and why they were important to the project.
As things stand, our members with varying degrees of mobility issues will be able to sign up for plots and will soon be getting their hands in the dirt - some, for the first time in many years!
May 24, 2012 update
Well, hopefully this will be the last update. We had a delay on the approval by the board and had to wait 3 weeks for the board to reconvene, but the problem has been resolved. The contracting company has been given the go ahead to build but, unfortunately, could not start right away. We currently have a date for the building to start on May 28, though they will come earlier if they can. I plan to take plenty of pictures, and will put them together for a separate lens. I will post a link here when it is done.
May 30, 2012 update
Construction has been slightly delayed yet again, this time due to weather. Progress of construction will be documented in another hub.
Have you built an accessible garden? Do you have mobility issues? Even if you don't have mobility issues, does having raised bed gardens interest you? Feel free to share any stories, experiences or comments!