Enabling the Disabled to Attract Wildlife at Home

Create an inviting outdoor space where individuals can be active and enjoy the physical and intellectual rewards of gardening

  • Michael Lipske
  • Jun 01, 1997
HEAR GENE ROTHERT talk about his garden and it's obvious that attracting wildlife matters to him. "I use trees with persistent fruit—berries that bring in the birds in the wintertime," he says. "I plant a lot of coneflower; the goldfinches in our area flock to it in the fall. And I've always got a butterfly bush or two to attract tiger swallowtails."

In his efforts to attract wildlife, however, Rothert also demands something more from his half-acre Illinois lot: that it provide no impediment to his role as a serious gardener who uses a wheelchair. From the raised berms he relies on to bring his plants up to a convenient working level, to the coiled hose and watering wand he keeps hooked up on each side of his house (to minimize unnecessary lugging of equipment), Rothert has taken steps to create what he calls an "enabling" garden--one that lets him be an active gardener and not just a garden visitor.

A registered horticultural therapist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Rothert oversees a demonstration garden plot in which a variety of methods and tools have been researched to make gardening easier for everyone. Rothert has poured this information into The Enabling Garden, his 1994 book on creating barrier-free gardens.

Among people who can benefit from enabling gardens, Rothert lists not just those who use wheelchairs, but also the millions of Americans who find tasks more difficult to do because of arthritis, because they are recovering from an illness or surgery, because they are blind or simply because they are older.

"I think in many cases aging adults are forced out of their primary homes because of a perceived lack of ability to take care of a yard anymore," he says. Planning ahead by adapting a yard for easier gardening could allow some older people to stay longer in their original residences and continue enjoying the physical and intellectual rewards of home horticulture.

Gardening for wildlife can be especially appropriate for disabled gardeners. "Most areas that attract wildlife are a little bit more natural," says Rothert, "so they tend to require less maintenance overall."

A wildflower or herb garden designed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, for example, can be easy to maintain. Such gardens work well in a small courtyard near the house or even on an apartment balcony. They can be planted entirely in containers such as whiskey barrels that may be more accessible to gardeners who are unable to work comfortably at ground level.

Add a dwarf evergreen shrub in another large pot for shelter, and put out a small birdbath or just a water-filled saucer, and you will provide the basic requirements for wildlife without taking on an enormous gardening commitment.

The first step in creating any enabling garden, says Rothert, is for the gardener to measure his or her abilities. "How much strength do you have? How far can you reach? Can you get up and down from the ground without assistance?" he asks. Knowing the answers will help a disabled person customize the garden to exploit her or his abilities.

Positioning plants at a comfortable working height is often one of the most important requirements. "We use ropes and pulleys to raise and lower hanging baskets to accessible heights," Rothert says of the Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. In the same way, a birdfeeder can be brought into reach for refilling.

Raised beds bring soil and plants to a convenient height for people who cannot bend or who use wheelchairs. Used extensively at the Chicago Enabling Garden, these are large bottomless boxes (to contain soil while allowing drainage) roughly 2 feet high and made from landscape timber and other materials. Permanent structures, raised beds can even be used for growing small trees.

At his home, Rothert has opted for a simpler style of raised-bed gardening: mounding up soil to create berms about 1 foot higher than surrounding ground. He limits each berm's width to 5 feet, the maximum distance he can reach with most garden tools.

Paving may be essential for getting into and around the garden. "For wheelchair users, you're going to need a firm, level, well-drained surface that does not get muddy," says Rothert. "For someone who's ambulatory, turf or woodchips work okay because of their resiliency. They will cushion a fall."

In adapting a garden for someone who is blind or visually impaired, Rothert recommends marking entrances or other important locations with indicator strips on paths. These can be made from any contrasting material laid crosswise in the path—a row of bricks across asphalt, or of wood across crushed stone—any textural change that someone caning or walking along would notice. A wind chime, an ornamental grass that rustles in the breeze, or even a highly fragrant plant can also work as an orientation aid, identifying a garden entrance.

If both of a gardener's hands must grip a walker, Rothert suggests wearing an apron with lots of pockets for carting around small tools, or hanging a bag off the walker itself. Want to maintain a birdbath but can't haul a hose or watering can? "I'd hook a little drip line up to the birdbath to keep it filled all the time," he says.

Enabling gardens also must be safe places. "Eliminate anything that might be a problem, like a lip on a curb that might be a tripping hazard," says Rothert. "Make sure paths don't collect water in shaded areas where algae might grow and create slippery spots."

Easing your own or a disabled relative's return to the garden should be that much more enjoyable if you find ways to make a place for wildlife. A border of shrubs that provides food and nesting habitat for birds, or a small planter filled with thyme, lavender and other butterfly-attracting herbs will help ensure that wild creatures will visit your yard.

"No one," says Rothert, "should have to miss out on the satisfaction of digging their hands into sun-warmed soil." Gardening, he notes, is an activity that enriches both body and soul.

Find out how you can turn your garden into a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

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