Opening up the garden
Landscape designers make gardens accessible for all
Marketing executive-turned-landscape designer Astrid Gaiser has plenty of experience catering to client needs, but nothing prepared her for the challenge she would face in her own backyard.
Two years ago, her husband, John Gaiser, a systems engineer, became paraplegic after suffering a spinal-cord injury. He was an avid gardener, and — once immediate concerns were settled — she set out to make their Mountain-View garden accessible to her husband, now a wheelchair-user. The solutions she devised have made their way into her designs for three other wheelchair-friendly gardens in the Bay Area.
"In principle, it's the same every time," Gaiser said. "Give more flat space."
That was the first step she took on her own plot, a whimsical, tropical-inspired garden with plenty of open space. She gave the front yard a full makeover, widening paths to 4 feet, removing stepping stones and gravel and flattening uneven mounds. To return a relaxed ambiance to the triangular yard, she superimposed a half-circle on the ground and added a recirculating ceramic fountain in the center, with two comfortable chairs along the wall.
"This is combining accessibility with good design," she said.
In place of gravel, which swallows wheels, Gaiser installed decomposed granite, or "fines," to create a smooth ride. She used a blonde hue that resembles gravel, but the material also comes in a compacted form and shades such as dessert rose and charcoal grey. For groundcover, Gaiser also recommends standard bark mulch and drivable grass, which consists of a grass grid lining a lattice of concrete squares.
To help her husband resume gardening, Gaiser planted everything from New Zealand flax to Chinese windmill palms in over-sized ceramic pots. He can rest tools on one of several lightweight metal side tables and tend to the plants on his own.
"Helping to get independence back is really a super-important thing," she said. "We had to go through a whole learning process. ... It's more in your brain than a real limitation."
When a pot breaks ("It's mainly a function of too happy a plant," Gaiser said), she uses remnants to cleverly mask sprinklers.
A variety of low-maintenance succulents fill the pots and nestle among larger plants bordering the garden's expansive lawn.
"It doesn't need a lot of care but gives you a ton of color," Gaiser said. One agave plant had not had water for two-and-a-half months.
Form and function also combine in the garden's abundant furnishings, most of which are lightweight "faux wicker" and easily transportable. Wider than a standard lawn chair, a low-rise double chaise allows Gaiser's husband — who has limited control of his trunk — to transfer safely from his wheelchair and recline in the shade of an Atlas cedar.
He can also easily wheel up to join friends in a living room-like outdoor patio or around a fire pit, which are arranged on flat pavement and can be moved around.
"It's a cool party garden," Gaiser said. "It's just made for hanging out. I'm happy that he doesn't need to miss that."
The fire pit, sun-shading umbrellas and a handy stack of blankets also help her husband warm up or cool off — the spinal-cord injury has affected his ability to regulate body temperature.
Gaiser has found that minor adjustments like these, not necessarily sweeping overhauls, can make a garden accessible. "With small changes in your house, your garden ... you can actually do everything again you could do before," she said. "It makes you feel good about yourself."
Specific modifications should depend on a client's needs and abilities, she said. For a wheelchair-user who could stand for limited periods, Gaiser crafted a raised garden bed with a knee-rest and strap that helped her stay upright.
Five raised beds were also the central feature of a native-plant and vegetable garden that Gaiser designed last year for special-education students at Mountain View High School, where her daughter was a student. Three-feet high and 4-feet deep, the beds had a cavity that allowed students to roll into them and reach for strawberries, kale and other harvests as part of a horticultural therapy program.
Gaiser left a career in product management and consumer marketing five years ago to pursue landscape design full time. She gardened copiously while growing up in Germany and intentionally avoided it until Palo Alto's 10-month growing season tempted her back into the craft 10 years ago.
"I'm not big on cubicles, to be honest," she said.
Now, there is only one place in the garden that her husband cannot reach: a canopied couch secluded atop a stepped mound, once a favorite place for Sunday-morning coffee.
She will get to it one day, she said.
"There's always a good way to get a ramp in."
Palo-Alto based landscape designer Fran Adams would agree. Adams, who teaches at local colleges and has designed accessible gardens during 20 years in practice, insists that accessible yards need not feel clinical.
"A lot of people think of an accessible garden with this ugly, straight wooden ramp leading up to the front door, and it doesn't have to look like that," she said. "You can create something really pretty, and nobody would notice."
She suggests camouflaging ramps with a perennial flower border or mounds that incorporate a slow incline into a landscape.
Accessibility does not spell boring, Adams said. She designed an intentionally intricate space for a disabled client who was frequently outdoors. "He wanted ... a beautiful, complex environment, not just one that was easy to access, but one with a complex system of paths where you don't see everything at once."
Adams recommends that everyone consider ease of access when planning a garden.
"It's a good idea when planning a garden to make it accessible as possible for all ages and people who might come to it or live in the house in the future," she said.
It can also be a smart pre-emptive move. Adams was glad that her own garden had wide paths and lacked steps when she was in a wheelchair for six weeks after a surgery last year.
The same design elements make it easier to age in place, Adams said. Raised beds eliminate bending, while wide paths and solid paving accommodate people who have poor vision or walk with a cane. In the meantime, these features keep pests out of vegetable gardens and make room for wheelbarrows and compost bins.
Advance planning makes it easier to design a garden that is both accessible and artful, she said. With the exception of steps, "good design does turn out to be accessible."
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Editorial Intern Katia Savchuk can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.