Gardening in Raised Beds and Containers for Older Gardeners and Individuals with Physical Disabilities

Prepared by

Diane Relf, PhD, H.T.M.

Extension Specialist, Consumer Horticulture
Department of Horticulture
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Blacksburg, VA 24061
Publication 426-020 Reprinted 1995


Gardening is the number one outdoor leisure time activity of America, with 84% of households involved in at least one form of gardening activity. Gardening is a source of personal satisfac- tion and pride providing esthetic pleasure and opportunity for relief from daily stress. Gardening is an ideal preventative therapy to maintain personal well being. With a little planning and creativity, it can be available to everyone. Disabled and elderly who have never gardened can acquire a new and rewarding hobby. With proper modification to the site, gardeners who have lost physical ability can continue this valuable activity.
While most gardening is considered part of the traditional land- scape or ground level planting, an increasing number of gardeners are discovering the advantages of gardening in planters, contain- ers, and raised beds. These gardening styles can be readily adapted to make gardening easier for disabled and elderly gardeners. They are equally adaptable for gardening in a small backyard, a third floor apartment patio, on top of a hospital, or on the grounds of a retirement home.


The first step in planning a raised garden is understanding the needs and abilities of the gardeners. The garden area should be as small as possible to adequately meet these needs. As the gar- den size increases, the fun of gardening tends to change to drudgery. All of the raised beds or planters should be easily accessible and arranged in a fashion to fit together as an at- tractive landscape unit. Avoid the tendency to line up little garden plots in rows resembling grave yards. Trees and shrubs can be used to enclose one or more sides of the raised garden site, providing both privacy and a pleasing backdrop, but avoid shading the garden with excessive plantings. Beds and planters can be designed to fit individual needs; however, standard dimen- sions for raised beds are given in Table 1.
Table 1.
Standard dimensions for Raised Beds:
Wheelchair Semi-Ambulatory Ground
Height2-2.5 feet2.5-3 feet1/2-1 feet
2 feet2 feet2 feet
3-4 feet 4 feet4 feet
3-4 feet 4 feet4 feet
Raised beds are generally 3'-4' wide and as long as desired. However, depending on the individual's strength and endurance, it would be wise to limit the length of the bed to 10 or 20 feet to prevent over exertion in circling the bed.


Due to the many materials available and to the many types of raised planters, adaptability to the disabled individual's needs is great.
Planters can be located for easy accessibility and used in areas where plants would not otherwise grow, e.g., downtown on roof gardens).
Focusing attention on small, easily managed areas provides suc- cess and feeling of achievement and reduces frustration and feeling of being overwhelmed by a large garden.
The planter can be placed at a height which gives the disabled individual maximum gardening space within his normal reach.
Raised planters can be either permanent or temporary structures depending on the desires and needs of the gardener.
There is a wide choice of plants that can be used in planters. Planters can be built to be mobile if needed to adjust to avail- able sun or move out of the way during other activities.
Problems of poor soil or soil borne disease can be easily over- come.
Planters drain well, warm quickly, and thus produce early crops.
Seedlings can be started in small mobile planters indoors and brought out when the weather is appropriate, thus extending the growing season.
Planters offer opportunities for innovative landscape ideas and creative plant structures such as walls of plants.


Full sun or at least six hours of sun a day is recommended for raised planters and containers, 8-10 hours if vegetables are to be grown. If full sun is not available, then choose shade- tolerant plants such as begonias and impatiens.
All raised planters and container gardens will need more water- ing than a standard garden. A water source should be nearby and the hose should be light, accessible, and easily used by the physically disabled gardener. It may be worth the investment to install automatic or trickle irrigation systems in permanent planters. Attachments that are of value to any gardener include: on/off valve at the hose end, extension nozzles, water breakers, and easy to use lever controlled water faucets.
Fertilizer is usually incorporated into the soil at the time the planter is filled. Later applications are based on normal re- quirements of the plants.
Mulching is a must with most of the larger raised planters as it slows the evaporation of water from the bed and helps keep the soil cool for the roots. Mulching is also an excellent weed de- terrent. Weed-free organic material is preferred for mulching so that it enriches the soil as it decays.
Most pest control should be done by hand and without chemicals to avoid the danger presented by working with toxic substances. However, if chemicals are needed, contact your local extension agent for specific recommendations.
Careful observation and prompt action can alleviate most pest problems. If weeds are kept down through mulching and pulling as soon as they are identified, they will not become invasive. Insects can be a big problem with some plants. Make sure all plants are insect-free before planting. Remove by hand any pest that is found. Disease can also be a problem with certain varie- ties. Use plants that are resistant to problem diseases in the area. If just one portion of the plant is infected, remove and destroy that portion, do not compost. If the whole plant has become excessively damaged, then remove the plant and replace. Only use pesticides if absolutely necessary and carefully follow the directions for application amounts and frequency.


It is essential that the disabled individual be able to reach the garden with a minimum of difficulty. All gates or doors must be wide enough (36 inches) for a wheelchair to pass through without difficulty. Gates and doors should slide rather than swing, and they should be light enough to move easily. Stairs are better for those who walk with aid but ramps are required for those in wheelchairs. Ramps, along with gates, doorways, walks, and space between raised beds, should be a minimum of three feet wide for single-person travel and six feet for two persons. The ramps need to have a slope of no more than 8% and should be edged to prevent the chair from rolling off the ramp's sides. All surfaces should be non-slip and have a 2% slope for water drainage or be made of porous materials. The surface should be continuous and should not have any bumps. Brick walk- ways are discouraged because they are very susceptible to heav- ing. If a grassy area is desired, open-work paving stones which have holes for the grass to be seeded through are available. A traditional lawn is too uneven and not appropriate for the per- son in a wheelchair or with impaired walking.
At the garden site, mobility and access to planting area are equally important. In addition, a place to rest and recover from the walk to the garden may be critical for continued partic- ipation and enjoyment by many disabled or elderly gardeners. Provide benches, sturdy chairs, or a flat surface for a wheel- chair in a shaded location.


Over-exposure to the sun can cause problems for gardeners taking certain prescription drugs so pre- cautions should be taken. In the summertime, the mid-afternoon sun should be avoided and work encouraged in the morning or evening. Hats should be worn to protect the head and eyes. Sunscreen should be used on exposed areas and appropriate beverages provided before and after work- ing in the garden.
Physically disabled and elderly gardeners should avoid over- exertion. One way to avoid this problem is to rotate jobs so that the same activity is not performed for more than half an hour. If the gardener feels tired, then a rest in the shade should be taken before attempting to return to work. The gardener should not attempt to do too much in one work session.
Safety is important in the garden. All debris and equipment (tools, hose) should be removed from paths in order to avoid problems with wheelchairs and walking aids. Gloves and long sleeved shirts should be worn if working with thorny or woody material. If using pesticides, directions on the label should be followed and cautions heeded.
Tools can make gardening tasks easier so it is important not to let them get lost or damaged. Make sure that all tools are brightly marked so that they can be found easily. Have a spe- cific place to store them so that they are there when needed. A bag on the side of the chair or a basket will adapt well for small tools. Close pruners and pocket knives before setting them down. Keep tools such as knives, pruners, and hoes sharp for easy and efficient use.


Raised ground beds are only 8-10 inches in height. These beds are especially suited for physically disabled children or adults who prefer to work on mats or dollies. Ground beds are also used to grow more permanent deep rooted plants which would be too confined to grow in raised planters. Espaliered dwarf fruit trees are very popular in ground level beds because those in wheelchairs are able to care for these trees. Often long, light- weight tools are used by those who are chairbound or who have difficulty bending while they are working in ground level beds. Truck tires have been used successfully as ground level planters for children.
A deep raised bed can be built at a height and width that will provide the physically disabled individual with easy access from a sitting position. Raised beds can use almost any kind of ma- terial and they may be permanent or temporary structures depend- ing on the material used. A border or edge wide enough for a person to sit upon can be helpful to the semi-ambulatory indi- vidual who would rather sit than stand while working. Many raised beds are rectangular but they can also be L-shaped, T- shaped, or circular. Combinations of shapes can lend interest to the gardening area. Buttressing may be required in structures longer than four feet. Raised beds are best adapted to annual crops because permanent plantings are vulnerable to winter in- jury of roots in the exposed raised bed; however, certain rock garden plants are well adapted to this culture. Limited space calls for compact crops. The limited reach of a physically disa- bled gardener generally requires plants which will not achieve a height of more than two feet.
Terracing and retaining walls are two ways to tame the sloped areas of the garden while providing growing space for the phys- ically disabled gardener. A retaining wall can be made to the height indicated by the raised garden dimensions and the actual growing space is the same as that for one-sided raised beds. Ground space adjacent to the wall needs to be accessible to the person with the walker or wheelchair. The retaining wall is usu- ally made of brick or stone. If the wall is stone and the dry wall technique is used, then plants can be put into the wall. A terraced garden is a series of small retaining walls or raised ground beds forming steps. The retaining wall and the terraced garden can give advantages of both raised beds and ground beds. The plants grown in these beds depend on the preference of the gardener and the height of the bed.
Elevated beds are shallow beds which are raised off the ground upon legs These beds are especially good for the chair-bound in- dividual who wants to be able to get his legs underneath the bench so that he can work comfortably from his chair. The height from ground level to the bottom of the bed should be as low as is comfortable for the individual. Thirty inches is usually satisfactory for an adult. If the bottom of the bed is much higher, the soil level will be so high as to cause excessive fa- tigue of the arms while working. However, this bed can be con- structed higher for those who prefer to stand. The elevated bed should be at least eight inches deep and is usually made of wood. The plantings within the bed should be shallow-rooted an- nual vegetables and flowers.
The water feature/planter is a combination of small pool and planter. This structure is a permanent addition to the garden because of the expense of materials and construction. Dimen- sions for the planter portion of the structure are the same as those for the one-sided raised bed. Dimensions and shape of the pool will vary. The larger the pool, the more it will cost to build and the harder it will be to maintain. Water evaporation from the pool will create a more humid environment in the direct vicinity of the pool so plants that need moisture can be located there. The pool, if it is large enough, can be planted with aquatic plants; a fountain can be installed; or fish can be added. An important consideration before installing a pool is maintenance. The disabled gardener may want to do it or arrange for others to be responsible. A dirty, unkempt pool will be a distraction, rather than an attractive focal point in the gar- den.
Almost anything that can hold enough soil to sustain a plant's growth can be used as a planter. This quality makes container gardening a good starting point for the physically disabled gardener. The major considerations given to container gardening are the size of the container, adequate drainage, and the re- quirements of the plants. Small containers such as ceramic pots and large institutional food cans can be placed on benches for accessibility. Larger containers such as wheelbarrows, baskets, barrels, old sinks, bathtubs, and even modified hospital carts can act as small raised beds.
Containers are especially good because they can be moved around and even started indoors before the weather is warm outside. Plants suitable for containers include annual vegetables and flowers, indoor plants (if the container is to be taken in dur- ing the winter), and strawberries. The plants in the container will need to be watered frequently.
Miniature garden planters can be constructed for persons in wheelchairs that allow them a great deal of individuality in de- signing landscapes. These miniature gardens can be complete scale models of larger gardens using cuttings from small leaved varieties of boxwood, rosemary, or teucrium to prune into hedges or topiaries. They may be planted as a Japanese garden complete with Pagoda. Or the gardener may choose to plant the smallest of vegetables or annual flowers for seasonal display. Pathways, fences, and buildings to scale add interest to these gardens.
Window boxes may be especially good for the individual who does not have an accessible outside area in which to work or is una- ble to work outside. Window boxes are usually made of wood but can be made of painted aluminum. It is important that consider- ations for proper drainage are given in the construction of the box. Plants can be directly planted into the soil in the box or pots can be put into the box to be removed in the winter months. Annuals, herbs, and salad greens are popular plants for window boxes. The path to the window box should not be obstructed by furniture.
Plastic bags of artificial soil mix specifically designed for culture directly in bag are now available from some garden cen- ters and catalogs. Plant through slits in the side of the bag; water using a watering wand or long nose watering can to fit into the opening; and fertilize weekly. Most small flowers and vegetables perform well, including peppers, broccoli, lettuce, begonias, and salvia. With stakes attached nearby, tomatoes can be grown in the bags. Bags can be placed on ground, benches, or tables of any convenient height. They can be easily moved from one location to another. Although the planting bags are tempo- rary and relatively expensive, they can produce a small garden where other methods are difficult.
Hanging baskets are not much different than any other container in their cultural requirements. However, their small size may require more frequent watering. Normally, hanging baskets are inaccessible to the physically disabled, but a pulley system easily solves this problem. The system needs to be designed so that the rope and its attachment is accessible to the person in a chair or with a walker. The basket must not be too heavy so artificial soil mixes are recommended. This system can be used both indoors and outdoors.


WOOD: Wood (aged railroad ties, logs, boards) may be the easiest material to work with and the planters fit well esthetically into the natural environment of the garden.
Problems: For long lasting beds, pressure treated lumber may be desirable. Other wood preservatives have drawbacks: copper sulfate leaches away; copper naphthenate has a gummy residue; creosote and pentachlorophenol damage plants. Some woods such as redwood and cedar are considered relatively rot resistant but expensive. Or you can line a planter that does not come in con- tact with the ground with plastic, add a few drain holes, and it will last an extra 2 years. Often people are ready to move beds every 3-4 years, and most untreated wood will last that long.
STONE: Stone (blocks, slabs) is another natural material which blends well into many gardens. There is a wide selection of stones and cuts available. Stones may be put together using a dry wall technique or with mortar.
Problems: Due to the heaviness and the skill needed to build stone structures, a contractor's services may be needed. This sort of expense can be prohibitive. A stone structure is likely to be a permanent structure making design an important consider- ation. Depending on the stone and the cut, the abrasiveness of the material must be considered.
CONCRETE: Concrete (construction slabs, sewer piping, poured concrete) is a very adaptable material. It is available pre- molded or can be poured at the site. Colors, textures, and ma- terials can be added to concrete to give it variety. Concrete structures can blend tastefully into an urban environment.
Problems: Concrete must have appropriate foundations so that it will not be damaged by natural contractions and expansions of the soil. Pouring concrete takes some skill and the concrete must be properly aged so that it will not crumble. This may call for a contractor's service which may be expensive. The finish on the concrete is an important consideration due to possible abrasion factors. Preformed concrete is relatively inexpensive and offers satisfactory planters.
CINDER BLOCKS: These blocks are heavy and large, but relatively easy to work with. They are also relatively cheap. The gray color is not appealing to everyone but they can be painted. Cinder blocks are used in building walls but the holes also make them adaptable for planting.
Problems: Cinder blocks are not the most appealing material and they are bulky. They may take up more gardening space than is desirable but as mentioned earlier the holes can be used for planting spaces themselves. Even painting them can be a problem because they might have to be painted every few years due to peeling and chipping. Soil in them dries rapidly and requires frequent watering.
BRICKS: Bricks have the potential of being the nicest looking material to use for construction. They come in a variety of colors and are usually put together with mortar.
Problems: The skill of a brick-layer may be needed to build the planter. Due to the expense of the material and the type of con- struction needed, brick planters are usually permanent. Bricks may be the most expensive material unless used bricks are avail- able. Make sure any used bricks are suitable for exterior use.
SALVAGE: Salvage materials (broken sidewalk) result from tearing down some previous construction or scraps from a construction project. The major positive aspect of salvage material is that it is either cheap or free.
Problems: Salvage material is frequently a combination of odd sizes and unfinished jagged edges. There may be both con- struction and safety problems.
TERRA COTTA: Terra Cotta (flues, sewer tiles) is very attractive and can be inexpensive if damaged materials are obtained. Smooth surfaces are advantageous to those with delicate skin.
Problems: The weight of terra cotta materials makes them diffi- cult to handle.


Soil preparation is the key to successful gardening. To grow close together, plants must have adequate nutrients and water. Providing extra synthetic fertilizers and irrigation will help, but there is no substitute for deep, fertile soil, high in or- ganic matter.
As raised ground beds are only 8-10" deep, double-digging the beds will give best results. This is a very strenuous task and may require volunteer or paid labor. Remove the top twelve inches of soil from the bed. Insert a spade or spading fork into the next 10"-12" of soil and wiggle the handle back and forth to break up compacted layers, repeat this motion every 6"-8" in the bed. Mix the topsoil with a generous amount of compost or manure, and return the mixture to the bed. It will be fluffy and several inches higher than ground level. To raise the bed to 8 to 10 inches, take topsoil from neighboring path- ways and mix it in as well.
For containers, elevated beds, and deep raised beds, a fairly lightweight soil mix is needed. Soil straight from the garden usually cannot be used because it is too heavy and does not al- low proper drainage. Clay soil consists of extremely small (mi- croscopic) particles. In a container, the bad qualities of clay are exaggerated. It holds too much moisture when wet, resulting in too little air for the roots, and it pulls away from the sides of the container when dry. The container medium must be porous in order to support plant growth since roots require both air and water. Packaged potting soil available at local garden centers is relatively lightweight and may make a good container medium if it is not too high in organic matter. Soilless mixes such as a peat-perlite mix are generally too light for container vegetable gardening, not offering enough physical support to plant roots. If the container is also lightweight, a strong wind can blow plants over, resulting in major damage. Soilless mixes are sterile, thus insect, disease, and weed free. How- ever, no trace elements are available for good plant growth and must be added. For a large container garden the expense of pre- packaged or soilless mixes may be quite high. Try mixing your own soil with one part peat moss, one part garden loam, and one part clean coarse builder's sand, and a slow release fertilizer according to container size. Lime may also be needed to bring the pH to around 6.5. A soil test is helpful in determining nu- trient and pH needs, just as in a larger garden. Deep raised beds can be filled 1/3 to 1/2 full of broken concrete and stones to reduce the volume of soil required.


By their design, raised beds are a form of wide-bed gardening, a technique by which seeds and transplants are planted in wide bands of several rows or broadcast in a wide strip. The goal is to space plants at equal distances from each other on all sides, such that leaves will touch at maturity. This saves space, and provides shade which reduces moisture loss from the soil and di- minishes weed seed germination.
There are several methods for making the best use of space in wide-bed planting. Growing two or more types of vegetables in the same place at the same time is known as interplanting.
Proper planning is essential to obtain high production and qual- ity of interplanted crops. This technique has been practiced for thousands of years, but is just now gaining widespread support in this country. To successfully plan an interplanted garden the following factors must be taken into account for each plant: the length of the plant's growth period, its growth pattern (tall, short, below or above ground), possible negative effects on other plants, optimum growth season, and light, nutrient, and moisture requirements. Interplanting can be accomplished by al- ternating rows within a bed (plant a row of peppers next to a row of onions), by mixing plants within a row, or by distribut- ing various species throughout the bed. For the beginner, alter- nating rows may be the easiest to manage.
With interplanting, long season (slow maturing) and short season (quick maturing) plants like carrots and radishes, respectively, can be planted at the same time. The radishes are harvested be- fore they begin to crowd the carrots. An example of combining growth patterns is planting small plants close to large plants, (radishes at the base of beans or broccoli). Shade tolerant spe- cies like lettuce, spinach, and celery may be planted in the shadow of taller crops. Heavy feeders, such as cabbage family crops, should be mixed with less gluttonous plants. Root, leaf, and soil-building crops (legumes) may be mixed to take advantage of available nutrients.
Interplanting may help reduce insect and disease problems. Pests are usually fairly crop-specific; that is, they prefer vegetables of one type or family. Mixing families of plants helps to break up large expanses of the pest-preferred crop, helping to contain early pest damage within a small area, thus giving the gardener a little more time to deal with the problem. One disadvantage is that when it does come time to spray for pests, it's hard to be sure that all plants are protected.
Individual plants are closely spaced in a raised bed or inter- planted garden. In beds of more than two rows an equidistant spacing pattern calls for rows to be staggered so that plants in every other row are between the plants in adjacent rows. The distance recommended for plants is the distance from the center of one plant to the center of the next. This spacing results in an efficient use of space and leaves less area to weed and mulch. The close spacing tends to create a nearly solid leaf canopy, acting as a living mulch, decreasing water loss, and keeping weed problems down. However, plants should not be crowded to the point at which disease problems arise or competi- tion causes stunting or reduced yield.
Succession planting is another excellent way to make the most of an intensive garden. To obtain a succession of crops, plant something new in the spots vacated by spent plants. Squash af- ter peas is a type of succession.
Relaying, a common practice to increase yield, consists of over- lapping plantings of one vegetable crop with an older planting before the old one is removed; for example, planting squash in the rows between peas several weeks before the peas are removed. This technique can gain several weeks of growing time for a crop but requires good coordination on the part of the gardener to avoid damage to the new crop as spent crops are removed.
Trellising or caging of crops can saves space. However, it may make harvesting more difficult for some individuals as raising the hand above the head is very tiring. For tough vines such as peas and pole beans, a string trellis could be modified so that the top support bar is suspended from a pulley allowing the vines to be lowered for easy harvest.
Plant height is an important consideration in planning the lay- out of the planter. Generally the higher the bed, the shorter the plant needs to be. This is to make it possible for the dis- abled gardener with limited reach to adequately tend the plants. Smaller plants are put at the front of the planting so that they can be easily seen and won't be shaded. Vines and small trees used in raised ground beds are often pruned heavily to maintain small size. Herbaceous vines or other rampant growers should be trained to cages, stakes, or trellises for easy access and for space conservation. If supports are needed, provide them when the plants are very small to avoid root damage later.
These planting techniques can be adapted to planters and other containers as effectively as to raised bed culture. Container crops should be planted at the same time as regular gardens. Clean containers should be filled to within one-half inch of the top with slightly damp soil mixture. Peat moss in the mix will absorb water and mix much more readily if soaked with warm water before putting the mix in the container. Seeds should be sown or transplants set according to instructions on the seed pack- age. Each container should be labeled with the name, variety, and date of planting. After planting, the soil should be gently soaked with water so as not to wash out or displace seeds. When the plants have two or three leaves, the seedlings should be thinned to obtain proper spacing.
To make planting easy, transplants should be strong, healthy, and vigorous to withstand rough handling. They should be wa- tered several hours before transplanting so the soil is damp but no longer wet. Some elderly or disabled individuals may find it helpful to have the plants removed from containers prior to set- ting them out, particularly if the roots are heavily overgrown. Simple measuring sticks to mark the spacing and depth for seeds or transplants can make the job go smoothly.
Digging tools that fit the hand and strength of the individual gardener are valuable. For someone with arthritis, it is help- ful to enlarge the handle size with soft padding. A dibble or tool that simply punches a hole is easier to use than a trowel when setting plants in light potting mixes. Many gardeners pre- fer to simply use their hands to dig a hole.
When starting plants from seed, select large seed (nasturtiums) rather than small (begonia) or seed that have been adapted for easy planting, e.g., seed tapes, encapsulated seed. Pregermination of seed is not only easier for some gardeners, it is innovative and leads to interesting discussions. The pregerminated seed can be mixed in a gel medium and dispersed from a squeeze bottle.


Vegetable production provides as rewarding a hobby in raised beds and planters as in traditional gardens. By selecting com- pact varieties and following the planting and cultural recommen- dations given earlier, disabled gardeners can take pride and satisfaction in growing food for the table.
The beginning gardener should start with fast and easy crops such as radishes, spring onions, or leaf lettuce. These can be washed and eaten right in the garden and give encouragement to wait for the slower crops such as beans and tomatoes.
The garden can be designed to provide additional activities be- sides planting, maintenance, and harvest. It can provide food for picnics, holidays, or theme parties. Jack-O'Lantern type pumpkins can be grown in half of a 55 gallon drum if there is patio space for the vine to climb across. Growing sweet pota- toes for Thanksgiving and red and green peppers for Christmas add interest to the garden. Produce can be dried, frozen, or canned for future use. Seeds can be saved from some crops for starting next year's garden. Compost can be made to enrich the soil. For wood workers, signs, bird houses, and whirligigs can enhance the garden.
Herbs are plants that are grown for use as seasoning in foods, for medicinal purposes, and for their fragrance in the garden. Most aromatic herbs enjoy full sun and fertile soil. As they are shallow rooted, they fare well in raised beds and containers. Invasive herbs like mint are better in containers where their growth is confined. There are both annual and perennial herbs.
Annual culinary herbs include dill, parsley, summer savory, and sweet basil. Perennial culinary herbs include chives, mint, rosemary, and thyme. Perennials are mulched in late fall to pro- tect roots and rosettes from winter injury. Many herbs grown in containers can be brought inside to provide a fresh supply of herbs during the winter months. Some herbs are harvested, bunched, and dried for later use. A cool well-ventilated dark area is good for drying. Herbs are useful for a multitude of projects from making herb vinegars to sachets and scented pillows.
Culinary herbs can also be ornamental. Some provide color like the purple-leaf basils or texture, like curly parsley. Many herbs have delicate flowers which can be pleasing up close, while others such as chives are quite showy. A border of herbs can make the vegetable planting more pleasant to work in. Mixed with annuals in a window box, herbs become a delightful retreat from household chores.
One attractive way to display herbs is the knot garden, in which the various colors and textures of herbs are used to create the appearance of cords looping over and under each other. Herb plants are closely spaced and trimmed to form low hedges. The knot garden is most effective when viewed from above, especially from a second story window.
Strawberries are a fruit crop treated as an herbaceous perennial crop because they do not have woody stems and they grow low to the ground. Strawberries require moist, fertile soil and pro- tection during the winter months. They are shallow rooted and don't need much soil for growth.
Containers such as hanging baskets, barrels (illus), and wheel barrows are very attractive planted with strawberries. A plant- ing of strawberries can last for about three to four years if well maintained. The first year, pinch off the blossoms to let the vegetative growth accumulate. The second year production is best.
There are three types of strawberries. The first type is called June bearing. These strawberries are the most productive. They produce for about three weeks in early June and are well suited to ground beds and large raised planters. The second type are day neutral, which means they are not dependant upon day length and produce at six-week intervals throughout the summer. These are best for some of the container planters like barrels and strawberry pots. The third type are everbearing which sporad- ically produce through the summer. These are the least produc- tive.
Many bushes produce edible berries or fruit. Some popular bushes include: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, and gooseberries. Selective pruning must be done to keep the bushes in their designated areas and to enhance fruiting. Blue- berries require an acid soil. Raspberries, blackberries, and gooseberries are often thorny and thornless varieties are recom- mended. The everbearing red raspberry, Heritage, is especially suited to low maintenance gardening because it produces a fall crop on current season growth. This means that the entire patch can be cut to the ground each fall after harvest and the new canes that grow the next spring will yield that fall. Generally grown in traditional ground level beds, all of these fruit give limited production in large containers.
Grape vines are usually trained to wires similar to espaliered fruit trees. The training can be on two wires fixed to heavy posts at approximately 2 and 4 feet from the ground or on over- head arbors. Grapes can be grown in large containers and pruned to the Head system as an interesting, but low yielding, activ- ity. Severe pruning is required to maintain appropriate size and vigor. The vine that is removed can be useful for propa- gation or for crafts projects such as wreaths and baskets.
Fruit production is a long-term and time consuming activity. Fruit trees will produce for many years if properly maintained. Woody material needs to be heavily pruned to keep the growth within dimensions suitable for a physically disabled gardener. The first few years of training of the plant material are the hardest as the tree acquires its permanent structure. Later, pruning is done just to keep the growth back. Diseases and in- sects must be monitored in order to keep the plants healthy and fruit quality high. Weeds need to be controlled with mulches.
All fruit trees should either be genetically dwarf or on dwarf- ing root stocks. The trees need to be selected and pruned to keep them the size desired, ideally no more than 3.5 feet tall. On apples, this can be accomplished by using a combination of dwarfing root stock, dwarfing interstem, and spur type fruit. Even with the newer cultivars, it may be three or more years be- fore any fruit is produced. These trees lend themselves well to culture in half of a whiskey barrel or half of a 55 gallon drum.
Apples and pears are often trained to cordons and espaliers when grown in ground level beds. Cordons are single stem trees grown at a forty-five degree angle. Many trees like these can be grown in a relatively small space. Espaliers have selected ver- tical branches trained to wires. Both cordons and espaliers take much pruning and work in the early years but are better suited to limited space than other trees and can be maintained at a height close enough to the ground to be cared for by someone in a wheel chair.
Annuals are very popular in gardens for many reasons. They are generally easy to grow, fast blooming plants which can provide quick, if only temporary, color to the garden. Many annuals are shallow rooted, adapting well to the shallow elevated planters. The wide selection within many varieties provides diverse col- ors, flower types and sizes from which to choose. An annual can be found to suit almost any garden need, be it a border for a vegetable garden, cut flowers, or a vibrant floral display. An- nuals can be used to fill gaps in the blooming sequence of per- ennial plants and are more desirable in unprotected planters in which perennials could not survive the winter. Some annuals are mistaken as perennials because they can self-seed easily. Most should be dead headed (flower heads removed) after bloom to in- crease length of flowering period, reduce self seeding, and keep the plants attractive.
Set out as bedding plants, annuals provide nearly instant grat- ification and feelings of pride and success. They also provide the opportunity to learn a wide range of cultural skills. Al- though annuals are associated with summer, activities based on annuals can continue throughout the year with such indoor prac- tices as starting seed, dried flower arranging, and garden plan- ning.
Snapdragons prefer the cool, moist parts of the growing season. Treated with care and snipped back, these plants can be helped through the hot summer months to thrive again in the fall. Portulacca, on the other hand, is a fleshy annual which seems to thrive in the hot, dry weather. Zinnias are also heat tolerant and bloom in late summer and fall. Breeders have developed dwarf varieties of zinnias for the small garden. These are better for raised planters than older varieties which tend to get leggy. Cockscombs come in two different shapes. Both can be used to add colorful texture to the garden and dried for winter crafts. Coleus are grown primarily for their foliage. Pinch off the floral stalks to help keep the coleus from getting too leggy. Coleus is also popular because it tolerates some shading. Impatiens are also shade tolerant and are often grown in areas of a garden in which more sun-loving plants will not thrive. Strawflowers are grown not only as an ornamental addition to the garden but so they can be picked before full bloom in order to be dried and used in fall and winter arrangements. Marigolds are one of the most popular of the annuals. They are very easy to grow. They can be started ahead in seed flats and transplanted, directly seeded in the garden, or bought from nurseries, grocery stores, or garden centers in cell packs. Depending on the vari- ety, marigolds adapt well to use as border plants, as filler in a mixed display or as cut flowers. Their color range extends from the deep, warm shades of red, to bright yellow and orange. These plants are also tolerant of both the warm and cool parts of the growing season and need little special care except some dead heading. Pansies are actually biennials but in most cases they are treated as annuals. Pansies and their smaller cousin, the viola, are often used to bring blooms into a garden in which other plants have not started flowering. Pansies come in a wide color range and are usually obtained as plants. They are com- monly planted early in the growing season but can be planted in the fall if winter protection is available.
Many believe that perennials, because they have the ability to persist for many years, are easy to grow and are very desirable for the raised planter. This is not always true. The biggest problem with perennial plants in the raised planter is over- wintering. Even plants that normally have no trouble surviving winters in standard ground beds may not survive a winter in a raised planter. This is because the soil is more exposed to temperature extremes. This in turn exposes the roots to colder temperatures and to heaving or crushing damage due to the in- creased freezing and thawing of the soil in the planter. An early thaw or warm spell is more likely to cause a premature growth spurt in a raised planter than in ground soil which acts as a temperature buffer. If perennials are to be grown in raised planters, precautions should be taken to find plants that are very cold tolerant. A good layer of mulch is often used to help protect roots and crowns and the planter should be located so that it is protected as much as possible from cold north winds.
Many perennials need special cultural practices. Woody and semi- woody perennials need pruning in order to keep plants within bounds and to insure maximum bloom. Plants may have to be sprayed to rid them of persistent pest populations even though manual methods of pest control should be tried first.
The herbaceous perennials which are grown from bulbs or bulb- like structures are often popular in raised planters. Most spring flowering bulbs will increase in population over the years if good care is provided. Raised planters present the chance to enjoy some of the smaller and more delicate bulbs that are lost within large gardens. Many of the popular bulbs such as tulips and daffodils can be found in miniature varieties. Tulips tend to deteriorate in quality year after year so many gardeners plant new bulbs every fall. Spring bulbs are planted in the fall and summer bulbs are usually planted in the spring after the soil has warmed. Many summer bulbs such as dahlia and gladiolus are not hardy and must be dug up in the fall and stored over the winter until it is time to plant in the spring again. Neither the spring or summer bulb's foliage should be cut back until the foliage has browned naturally. There are some bulbs like the autumn crocus which bloom in the fall. They are usually planted in late summer. The planting depths for bulbs depend on the bulb size and will determine their suitability to raised planters.
Some of the popular herbaceous perennials, e.g., bergenia, columbine, astilbe, are not heat or water stress tolerant. Care must be used in placement of these plants so that they won't be exposed to the direct sun during the hot summer months and so that they will be close to a water source.
Many of the popular herbaceous perennials, e.g., iris, yarrow, shasta daisies, need to have their roots divided periodically. Division is a method to increase the population of the plants, to prevent over-crowding, and to prevent the plant from becoming invasive. The job of division can be taxing so sometimes it is better to find species which require little or none of this cul- tural practice.
Specialty gardens are gardens which center around a specific theme or technique. Examples of this are the English cottage garden, Japanese gardens, and alpine or rock gardens. There are books available and local or national organizations which focus on specific types of gardens. Many botanic gardens and arboretums have classes on starting and maintaining such gar- dens. With imagination and real interest even the more phys- ically restricted individual can participate in this activity.
Japanese and alpine gardens are permanent installations with little maintenance once they are established. They are sites where the gardener can rest and contemplate, or spend as much time as desired on small but rewarding tasks of removing dead flowers and leaves, pulling weeds, and otherwise grooming the garden.


There are plant societies and garden associations for most of the popular garden plants and gardening styles. Membership in the organizations and participation in their local chapter ac- tivities bring the rewards of new skills and knowledge and new friends. Participation also leads to the exchange of both ideas and plants.
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