Accessible Gardening: Raised Beds, Containers, and Garden Tables
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By Kim Outing
Master Gardener℠ intern in Chatham County
Raised beds, containers, and garden tables are accessible, flexible, and productive ways to garden. Each method allows you to customize your garden to suit your physical needs, design aesthetic, available space, and resources.
Framed raised beds set into the sloping terrain and rocky soil of my backyard have made it much easier to manage my veggie garden, and the wood frames offer a welcome edge to perch on when I need a break! Raised beds also warm up more quickly in the spring, offer improved drainage, and can be an attractive option for smaller yards. Water and nutrients are focused in the bed, and by gardening intensively, you can increase yields.
You can customize your raised bed height and width to your needs. Choose a width that allows you to comfortably work the center of the bed (or the back of the bed if only accessible from one side). You should never need to step into your raised bed, compacting the soil. Typical widths are 3-4’ for a bed accessible from both sides. Even at just 8-12 inches high, a raised bed can offer easier access. Taller heights, from 2-3 feet, would be appropriate for gardening while seated, or standing with reduced bending. A trellis is an easy addition for vining plants and a platform along the top edge of your frame makes a comfortable seat.
Materials for building framed raised beds include treated or untreated wood, naturally rot-resistant wood (such as cedar or redwood), synthetic lumber, concrete blocks, and even straw bales. Research the pros and cons of each to understand differences in cost, performance, and safety (particularly regarding treated wood products and concrete materials). The University of Maryland Extension has this helpful information sheet on the safety of treated wood and other raised bed materials. Also, see the information on raised beds in the NC Extension Gardener Handbook, and the Community Food Gardening Handbook which includes guidelines on construction, materials, fill, planting and management, and refer to the North Carolina Planting Calendar for Annual Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs.
Containers also offer excellent flexibility and accessibility for the home gardener, and you can successfully grow a variety of herbs, vegetables, and fruits. In terms of maintenance, imagine no major digging or weeding! You avoid native soil issues because you will use quality container media for planting. On the other hand, containers will require more frequent watering and fertilization. Maximize accessibility with your choice of container heights and placement. Containers are great for limited space and can help you take advantage of patios, decks, balconies, and ledges. They can add visual interest to a landscape and give you another way to display your creative side. A well-placed (or sized) container may even reduce nibbling from wildlife. Check out the Handbook’s comprehensive guide to container gardening, including growing vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals, selection of containers, planting calendars, and maintenance.
Garden tables (also known as table planters and salad tables), are another type of raised bed/container garden. They consist of a shallow garden box on legs which can be sized to your needs. They are particularly suited to wheelchair users or individuals who garden while seated, as proper sizing will allow knee clearance under the table. Garden tables can also be a comfortable option for those who prefer standing access with less deep bending. In addition to accessibility benefits, garden tables have many of the same benefits as containers with respect to maintenance, flexibility, and thwarting critters. Garden tables are commercially available, or you can build your own using these plans and detailed recommendations for planting, growing, and harvesting. Hardware cloth and screening material are used for the garden table bottom, to allow water drainage without loss of planting media. While some garden table boxes can be as shallow as 3 inches, 4-6 inches or more is preferred in order to reduce watering and provide more space for root growth. Adding wheels to your table allows you to move it to take advantage of the sun (or shade). Aim for shallow-rooted herbs and crops such as lettuces, kale, radishes, scallions, Swiss chard, spinach, and mustard greens. Refer to this helpful table of recommended container depth for vegetables and fruits for other ideas.