Several years ago, I wrote a column, not one of my better efforts, about gardening for the disabled. It was this column that convinced me to stop writing about things I knew nothing about, a rule I have followed.
It is time to revisit the topic, now with better insight. They swapped out a hunk of my spine with some dead guy who didn't need his anymore, and they'll be doing another hunk. I hope it is the same guy's, because if part of my spine is Republican and part is Democrat, I'll never get my dahlias in the ground.
There are many techniques and tools for those whose mobility is compromised, but the most important is not sold in Walmart – not yet. That is a spouse or spouse equivalent who is caring and cosseting to help. I've got one of those, though she has yet to fully understand that I want to do what I can, no matter how clumsily, despite the occasional yelp, myself.
My particular and hopefully temporary problem is that a garden is at ground level, down by my feet, not by my hands. I can't garden very well with my feet, and my usual method of working on my knees was suddenly not an option.
Actually I can get down on my knees, but then I stay there until someone comes along. Then I discovered a garden kneeler/seat for 10 bucks. It works so well that I went back and got a second one so there was a better chance that there would be one near where I needed it.
Placed one way, it is a 15-inch-high stool to sit on. This is just about right to tend plants that are up and growing, pruning and pinching, deadheading, staking and such. And under the seat is a tool compartment too small to hold anything useful. But that doesn't matter much because you can't open it when you are sitting on it.
To get closer, to get your hands dirty in the earth, you can flip it over so that the bottom of the seat, which has a soft pad, becomes a place to kneel and what had been the legs and feet for the seat become handles to grab on to and stand back up. That puts you right down at soil level, and you don't need to wait for someone to come by to get back up.
The adage of aging still applies, though: as long as you are down there, see if there is anything else within reach that needs attention. My bet is that you will see weeds that need pulling.
When this all started, I tried turning a five-gallon pail over to sit on. This is not advisable, and I have several five-gallon buckets with cracked bottoms to attest to that.
One small difficulty is that planting usually is not done all in one spot, so you must either awkwardly hop it along the row or keep standing up to move it, which is what I was trying to avoid. So I got another little seat with wheels. Frankly it is not as comfortable as the kneeler/seat, and if you don't sit carefully you end up unintentionally at ground level, but it has a bigger storage compartment.
It is not at all good for moving things like pots and flats though; I got a wagon – one like they have available at nurseries to encourage people to buy more – and it wasn't cheap. But it works. Dahlias potted up in one place can now be moved, several at a time, to their planting bed instead of making the trip several times with one pot in one hand and a cane in the other. I was watching for a little red wagon at yard sales, but I didn't see one until I had put down the money for the nursery cart.
I have quite a collection of long-handled tools which I seldom used. I like to be close to what I'm doing, not a hoe's length away. I actually like pulling weeds and getting my hands dirty.
But long-handled tools not only reach down, they reach out. Sitting on the stool, I can reach the middle, even the back of the border where there is not space to put the stool down. Scraping weeds is not as much fun, nor is it as effective as pulling them, but it will have to do for now.
For decades, one of my favorite tools has been a border fork, like a spading fork but smaller. It is perfect for lady gardeners or for guy gardeners working in a tightly planted flower border. Lately it has become indispensable because you can actually spade sitting down. Not very well, maybe, but it works.
Don't disparage your full-sized spading forks. Stuck firmly in the ground in spots that have proven problematic, they give you a handle to grab on to.
I have raised beds, but raised only a few inches. That doesn't help me. But I have seen beds, often in community gardens, large deep boxes actually, raised on legs to wheelchair height. Maybe you could leave this column lying around where someone who is handy in your family might happen on it. Using a yellow highlighter is gauche.
I would be remiss not to mention container gardening, especially since it takes me back to my earliest days as a gardener, when my vegetable garden consisted of 15 five-gallon pails on a blacktop driveway. These pails are often free if you can find a business that gets bulk supplies in them – cleaning companies, doughnut shops, restaurants, whatever. Or you can buy them cheaply if you don't mind a big box store logo on the side.
You can grow just about any vegetable in a five-gallon pail with holes drilled in the bottom. I even rigged an automatic watering system, novel at the time, more common and available now. Or a recycled 55-gallon barrel cut in half easily with a jig saw gives you two large containers. I have two that have been out in the garden for thirty years with little sign of wear. If you want to gussy them up, you can spray paint them.
During my more nimble decades, I have enthusiastically promoted container gardening for reasons that had nothing to do with back pain. You can fill them with better soil than your garden probably has. You can move them wherever you want, whenever you want. You can control the watering. You can grow plants that may not be quite hardy here and move them into the garage or basement for the winter. Plants that have short blooming seasons can be moved from center stage to a less prominent spot. And it is fun.
Vegetables are easy, but my particular favorite is flowers in terra cotta. A two-dollar six-pack of common blooms, hardly noticed along the walk, make an impression planted together in a large pot. A seating area just outside the back door has more than two dozen pots, large and small, carefully staged. While much of my large border planting is overgrown with weeds I haven't gotten to, that seating area is still something I can enjoy and take some pride in.
I am an optimist. I expect that this five-month disability will be over by the time this sees print, maybe a tad longer, but if not, I have at least learned some techniques that keep me outside. And keep my hands dirty.