Don’t let arthritis or chronic pain stop you from gardening: Raised, vertical and elevated beds and container gardens

Laura Akgerman Disability Services Coordinator for Ohio AgrAbility

If you have chronic pain or physical limitations, kneeling, bending or stooping to tend your garden may be difficult or impossible. Raising your garden with elevated or raised beds, using walls and trellises for vertical gardens, or using containers or hanging gardens could reduce your need to stop or bend, and make gardening accessible for you.  A few points to consider are that gardens that are not in the ground may require more watering, and soil and plants can stain concrete, wood siding or other wall or flooring surfaces, be careful where you plant your garden.

This article includes links to instructions to build your own raised or elevated beds, as well as where to purchase products. Ohio AgrAbility does not endorse or support any of the items listed, and has not reviewed or tested the instructions for building beds or containers.

Raised or elevated beds

A raised or elevated bed is typically a wood framed structure that raises the garden bed off the ground one foot or higher.  Depending on the need and mobility of the gardener, it could be raised a few feet off the ground, to minimize stooping or bending. It could also be built with a wide enough frame that it could be used as a seat, to allow the gardener to sit and tend it. Before building a frame that will act as a seat, consider that the gardener would have to sit on the frame and twist at the waist to tend the garden, which may be uncomfortable, and could cause strain or injury.

Beds can also be built to waist height, which would allow the gardener to stand or lean on the bed and work without bending. If you use a wheelchair or mobility device, the bed could be built like a table with leg room underneath, which would allow you to roll up to the bed and access the garden, just like sitting at the dinner table.  If you don’t use a mobility device, but would like to sit while gardening, you could use a chair to sit at the garden bed and work.

Before building or purchasing a raised, consider the height and depth of the bed. If the bed is against a wall, be sure that you can comfortably reach the back of the bed without straining or over-reaching. If the bed is free standing, it can be deeper, but you still want to be sure you can reach the middle of the bed comfortably. If you or someone else who will use the raised bed has limited or no feeling in arms & legs you will have to be careful that the wood or materials used to build the bed are smooth, and won’t cause abrasions or splinters.

Instructions for building raised beds can be found online. If you don’t want to build one, you can buy one that is already assembled.

Container gardens

A container garden can be a window box, potted plant, an old dresser, or any other container you have. You can sit tall containers on the ground, or raise them with a stand, table or plant rack. Ideally the planter will be at least 24” – 36” high. Container gardens work well for people who cannot bend or stoop, as well as people who may not have very much space for a garden. When choosing containers and stands, remember that soil, plants and water are heavy, so be sure the container and stand can handle the weight. If you have it on a raised patio or balcony, be sure the containers are not too heavy for the structure. If you will have to move the container around put it on a rolling stand, or keep the container light enough to be movable. Containers should have one good sized hole for every gallon of soil in the container (for proper drainage). Light colored plastic containers are good, they do not absorb light/heat, and are lightweight.

Hanging or vertical gardens

Hanging baskets and vertical gardens are good options if you cannot bend or stoop or have limited space for a garden. If you want to hang your garden plants use lightweight, sturdy baskets and hang them at different heights for ease of watering.  There are a variety of pulley systems available for raising and lowering baskets for watering and tending the plants; the pulley systems have very mixed reviews about their ease of use and usefulness, do your research and read the reviews before you invest in a pulley system.

Vertical gardens can be a structure or trellis attached to a wall, or plants can be trained to grow up a wall. Wooden pallets are popular for vertical gardens, with a few tools and supplies you could build a pallet garden to hold a variety of plants. If you are planting edible plants, be sure to use wood that has not been chemically treated, as the chemicals could seep into the soil, and the plants. You can use a heat-treated pallet, or build your own.

You can use a trellis, stakes, poles or other vertical structures for climbing plants, sprawling plants or vines.  If you are using a trellis or other structure that will be attached to the wall, be sure to leave space between the trellis and the wall for air to circulate, to reduce the risk of mold or disease.

The most important aspect of an accessible raised, elevated, hanging or vertical gardens is that is comfortable and safe for you to use. If you can garden without twisting, bending, stooping or reaching, that garden structure and method are a good fit for you.

For more information on accessible gardens see Green Thumbs Healthy Joints, from West Virginia University and Garden Smart, Garden Easy, from University of Delaware/ Delaware Extension.

For more information please contact Laura Akgerman, Ohio AgrAbility & OSU Extension Disability Services Coordinator, at akgerman.4@osu.edu, or 614-292-0622.