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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In the Garden: Enabling Garden offers ideas for accessible gardening

Elevated planters and raised beds are some of the features of the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. (SUSAN MULVIHILL/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

I’ve just returned from this year’s garden writers conference that took place in Chicago. I was so impressed with the city’s many green spaces, colorful container plantings and beautiful gardens.

One of the most memorable stops was the Chicago Botanic Garden, and I heartily recommend it to all of the garden-lovers out there. While strolling through the many different regions within it, I was most inspired by the Buehler Enabling Garden. Billed as a “teaching garden that encourages gardening for people of all ages and abilities,” it offers excellent take-home ideas for those with sensory or physical limitations so they can experience the many delights of a garden.

In one area, the designers focused on textures, fragrances and tactile cues to assist visually impaired gardeners. For example, soft, fuzzy plants such as lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), celosia spikes, and purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum Rubra) added both interest and texture to garden beds. Aromatic herbs, scented geraniums, heliotrope and chocolate cosmos provided fragrant ways to locate specific plants while pleasing the senses. One ingenious idea involved placing a large-holed metal grid – such as a cattle panel – on the surface of a bed so a gardener can count the squares in order to zero in on a certain plant.

Water features that included fountains, small pools and cascading waterfalls provided pleasing sights, sounds and sensations to increase one’s enjoyment of the garden.

There were plenty of useful ideas for gardeners who could use a bit of physical help in pursuing their passion for growing things.

Raised beds are a perfect example of this as they make it easier to reach plants. They can be as tall as is needed, provided the beds are narrow enough for reaching across without having to step, lean or kneel on the soil. Many of the walls of the beds in the enabling garden offered a comfortable place to sit while tending plants.

Tall containers filled with bright, colorful plants were another idea, both for folks who need to garden from a seated position and for those with limited vision. Plantings included intensely colored zinnias and Gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta), caladiums, the gorgeous silvery-purple Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), and many coleus in eye-popping colors.

One creative suggestion was to install a vertical wall garden where plants can be tended and enjoyed while standing or sitting. Elevated “shallow pan” containers also permitted seated gardening with clearance for wheelchairs underneath. I enjoyed seeing the hanging baskets that were each connected to an easy-to-use pulley system. This allows one to lower the baskets for planting, deadheading spent blossoms or pruning foliage and then raise them up to a safe height for head clearance.

The garden was paved with level, smooth bricks both to make walking safe and to provide easy access for individuals who use wheelchairs or walkers. The pathways were also wide enough to maneuver in.

The sign at the entrance to the enabling garden reaffirmed what I’ve always felt:

“No matter what your age or physical ability, gardening doesn’t have to be a challenge. This garden shows you that in a well-planned space, anyone can garden.”

I firmly believe that all individuals should have the opportunity to grow a garden and the ideas demonstrated at the Chicago Botanic Garden are a great starting point to make that possible.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at For a video tour of Anne Moore Knapp’s garden, watch this week’s “Everyone Can Grow A Garden” video on