Accessible garden ideas – Mark Lane on gardens everyone can enjoy
Does an accessible garden only matter to people in wheelchairs? Or to the partially sighted, or to someone with a chronic illness?
What about mothers with small children, or grannies…or those who worry when paving or decking gets slippy in winter…?
Mark Lane is the UK’s first garden designer in a wheelchair. He is also one of the presenters on BBC Gardeners World.
And Mark is also the author of Royal Gardens of the World, reviewed here. It’s a fascinating book, placing some of the most influential gardens in the world in their political, historical and geographic contexts.
Mark showed me around the garden he shares with his partner, Jason, as well as talking to me about how you design an accessible garden.
That means a garden which is beautiful, safe, secure, welcoming and (preferably) usable for 365 days a year.
How long do you plan to live here?
Most of Mark’s garden design work is for private gardens where accessibility isn’t a specific element of the brief.
However, he still asks people to think about how long they plan to live with the garden. ‘None of know what’s round the corner,’ he says, ‘so it’s worth future-proofing your garden to some extent.’
Interestingly, there’s legislation around how accessible new homes must be but it doesn’t extend to the garden around the home.
So if you’re doing a re-design, think beyond the next year or so. In five years’ time, will your needs be different? What about thirty years’ time? Of course, you can make changes further down the line, but sometimes it’s cheaper and better – in the long run – to get it right first time.
Key areas for accessible garden design
Mark talked to me about paths, edging, lighting, garden furniture and planting, and how you can maximise safety or accessibility. These issues apply to all gardens, not just gardens which need to be accessible for specific conditions.
The first thing that surprised me when I arrived at Mark and Jason’s house was the wide gravel path that leads all round the garden.
But Mark says that gravel is a cost-effective choice for paths. If you’re creating an accessible garden, you’ll probably want a path that goes everywhere in the garden, and that can get expensive. Mark and Jason’s garden is nearly an acre (middle-sized!), so that’s alot of path.
If you lay a gravel path properly, it will be fine for wheels (and that means wheelbarrows and buggies, too).
You need what’s called a secure MOT type 1 base. This is a sub-base made of crushed recycled concrete, consisting of lots of different-sized chunks. It is compacted down to make it very secure (it’s used as a base for roads, too).
Then Mark had a layer of gravel added and pounded down, so that it, too, was very secure. This was followed by a top layer of gravel (‘so it’s only top few inches that move’, he says).
‘The National Trust uses a self-bonding gravel, for example,’ he says, ‘because it’s easy to lay and repair.’
More accessible garden path advice
Under the pergola, the gravel path slopes slightly. To stop gravel sliding down to the lowest part, it has been laid in lateral sections. This is a grid below the surface level of gravel so it can’t be seen.
Other options include poured rubber or even Tarmac. If you use pavers, remember that they can get uneven over time, which could be a trip hazard or be difficult for wheelchairs.
Paths need to be wide enough for two people can walk along them together. That also makes them wide enough for a wheelchair, a wheelbarrow, a buggy or perhaps for someone using a stick or walking frame or who has someone else walking beside them.
Edging is important
Edging is important in accessible gardens. Someone using a wheelchair or walking frame, the visually impaired or those using a stick need to feel where the path ends and the border begins. Mark has raised timber edges around his paths.
On top of the low timber edging, there is a small overhang (made of a fence topping, in fact). This means that his wheelchair can sense where the border is. And it also conceals a long run of LED lighting. ‘When it’s dark, the paths are lit and the whole garden seems to float above it,’ says Mark.
He also has privet hedging at around hand height. This stops plants from flopping over the ground. It’s also at the right height – Mark can cut the privet edging himself.
Accessible garden seating
Seating is one of Mark’s bugbears. ‘Everyone is a different height, so why don’t we have different heights of seating in a garden?’ he asks. ‘
He suggests varying the heights of your seats, benches or perches around the garden, so that they are equally comfortable for children and very tall or small people.
In fact, this is something we do without thinking inside our homes. As an exercise, I’ve just checked the heights of the chairs and sofa in my sitting room. There are five different heights. Although they don’t vary hugely, one chair is much more comfortable for tall people. Another is my favourite (I’m the shortest in my immediate family).
He also suggests having some garden benches with arm rests and others without, because if you want to transfer from a wheelchair to a bench, an armrest can get in the way.
And tables need to be a specific height for wheelchair users – you can’t get a wheelchair properly under some tables, even tables in restaurants.
A new look at garden lighting
Lighting is obviously a big safety issue, not just in accessible gardens but for all of us.
Mark says you should think of your garden lighting the way you think of the lighting in your home.
You’ll need big spotlights where you need to do practical things like take out bins or clear away tables, accent lights to outline a tree and atmospheric lighting at the table. But think about the height of a wheelchair – a row of bollard lights, for example, is at absolutely the wrong height. It will dazzle a wheelchair user.
He also says coloured lights should only be used decoratively – ‘it’s impossible for a wheelchair user to negotiate a path lined at ground level with rows of blue lights,’ he says. (I get the feeling he is thinking of a specific path here, as I’ve never seen a path lined with blue lights. But that might just mean I’m a bit behind the fashion.)
Should you choose easy-care planting?
Mark believes its important to get the structure of a garden right first, and then to consider the planting.
Like most garden experts, he just doesn’t really believe in what is called ‘low maintenance gardening’.
But he does point out that grasses and perennials are relatively easy care: ‘you chop them down once a year, and they pop up again the next’.
He also says it’s important to think about where branches and plants overhang – something that you might brush your hip against could hit a wheelchair user in the face.
More of Mark’s garden on video
See more of Mark’s garden here on this video:
In the end, Mark says that there’s no such thing as a ‘fully accessible’ garden. People’s needs are so different. But he advises thinking in a logical way about the needs of the person or the group of people who are going to use the garden. Specific charities, such as Age UK can often advise on tools and equipment.
Find Mark Lane Designs here or catch up with BBC Gardeners World here. Mark is also involved with a number of charities, including Accessible Gardens.org, who have a directory of accessible gardens. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine she asked – aren’t they obliged to be accessible by law?
Well, there’s the law, and there’s commonsense – Mark says that designers may make an entrance wide enough for a wheelchair, but still have a small lip on the ground which stops the wheelchair in its tracks. And I don’t suppose that lip is much fun for those who have to trolley a wheelbarrow full of compost over it…
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