There are many reasons to want tall, 24 inch high raised beds in the vegetable garden.
• They keep rabbits, moles and voles out.
• You can manage weeds more easily.
• You don’t walk in them so you avoid soil compaction.
• You can control water input and drainage.
Raised beds also warm up faster in the Spring and stay warmer longer in the Fall making for a longer growing season.
Having the plants at a height where you can sit to tend them is more than a convenience for some. It can be a necessity.
I recently spoke with Carol Whitelaw, a horticultural therapist with Cornell Cooperative Extension at the Unlimited Garden in Ballston Spa.
She has worked with handicapped and special needs gardeners for more than two decades. Her suggestions came from her experiences making gardening possible for everyone.
What should be included in a garden designed for handicapped accessibility? What height was best for someone in a wheelchair, what pavement surfaces worked well, what tips did she have?
But our conversation got me thinking about the needs of all gardeners as we age. Friends of mine have arthritis in their hands, painful joints, back aches or trouble getting up and down because of a bad knee. Whitelaw noted older gardeners are a driving force behind the availability of tools, raised beds and specialty items designed to help gardeners keep on gardening. She said the baby boomer generation has made popular garden catalogs consider what older gardeners may find useful, especially if they are planning to age in place and continue enjoying their hobby.
Whitelaw’s suggestions can be applied to any garden.
To begin, she said, firm and stable pathways are essential. This can be accomplished with pavers, concrete or compacted stone dust. Having an edging to keep the stone dust from drifting outside the path makes for a neater, tidier look.
For a handicap garden, she recommended 8 to 12 foot wide pathways. A wheelchair user needs five feet of space to turn around. Two people walking side by side need about six feet. Of course, the space you are working with will dictate width, at least to some extent.
Whitelaw noted that many people are sensitive to the “coffin look” of raised beds especially in winter and she included concrete pipe planters and triangular beds at the Unlimited Garden to break up the rows of rectangles. There’s nothing to say that raised beds need to be rectangular.
I have been thinking of using livestock watering troughs as vegetable containers and after talking with her, I started thinking creatively about their placement. With the right space, you could arrange oval troughs in a circular pattern to create a daisy petals and use a round concrete pipe as the center.
The ideal height for raised beds is between 24 and 30 inches. One problem Whitelaw has found in our cold climate is the damage done by poor drainage in early Spring when the ground is still frozen, but the soil within the wooden beds has thawed. The retention of water within the bed causes rot and pushes the sides outward.
“Most of our wooden raised beds have needed repairs because of the thawing,” she said. They’ve also needed sanding to keep them splinter free over the years.
Her suggestion was to incorporate a perforated PVC pipe drainage system into the design of tall wooden beds. In the case of the standard 24 inch tall metal troughs, if you drilled holes in the base and placed the trough on concrete pavers to elevated them a little more, you get a bit better height and better drainage, which may mean longer lasting troughs.
Whatever raised beds you choose, fill the base with a layer of gravel, then sand and then a soil/compost mix.
One other take away from my visit to the garden, was to make a cart 24 inches tall with big wheels that could be set up right next to the gardener, eliminating the need to bend over. The cart acts like a wagon and becomes a shelf for plants, an easy to reach place for tools and an easy way to transport both. I can imagine many uses for a cart like this in and out of the garden. Garden party server, for example.
Whitelaw also noted that tools can make gardening easier for everyone. There are petite trowels and narrow rakes with long handles or ergonomic designs.
Other suggestions: Replace those round wheel faucet handles that can be hard to turn with levers that are easier to use. Lift up the different watering wands while shopping and look for very lightweight wands with squeeze lever controls about 30 inches in length. Dramm makes one and they are available at hardware stores, Amazon and big box stores.
“Children’s tools are the perfect size and brightly colored plastic tools can make gardening easier for the visually impaired,” she said. Another idea, go for a 1 gallon watering can instead of a large watering can. “Water is heavy.” she noted.
By the time I drove away my head was sprouting idea after idea. These ideas will be put into action. There’s nothing like getting tips from a professional passionate about keeping gardeners growing.
If you have other tips that make gardening life easier, let me know.