This week we're in the Heartland of the country at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This oasis sits on 385 acres, offers display gardens, educational gardens, a new plant introduction program, a native prairie garden and flowers galore.
Sue Markgraf is the spokesperson for the Chicago Botanic Garden and tells us a little about this beautiful and unique public garden. It is located 30 minutes North of the Chicago Loop. From beautiful waterways to gorgeous plants it welcomes visitors. There are 23 display gardens ranging from a Japanese Garden to more informal cottage gardens to an English Wall Garden to their spectacular Rose Garden, their Railroad Garden and a Horticultural Therapy Garden. There is something for everyone regardless of taste. They also have a very special garden where people can learn to garden no matter what their physical limitations are.
Many gardeners have aching backs and sore wrists. Of all the gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden perhaps the most unique is the enabling garden. It features raised beds, containers and vertical wall gardens designed to reduce the stress on your arms, legs and back. Today we learn how to design your garden to be more body friendly, how to select adaptive tools to reduce joint stress and how to select sensory plants to create an unusual and unique garden.
Gene Rothert heads this garden and today takes us on a tour. Gene has been working at the Chicago Botanic Garden for 27 years, 6 years in the Enabling Garden. It is a beautiful place to work every day. This garden is all about making it easy and accessible for everyone to garden, but particularly for those with disabilities and children. One of the main ways he does that is with raised beds. Depending on one's abilities and possibly age it often isn't as easy to get to the ground as it once was. Raising the soil by using raised beds or containers is one of the main ways to address this issue. Gene has raised beds with edges that are ideal for sitting, this allows easy access to the bed. It is about 18 inches high, a comfortable height for sitting and it has a wide ledge on one side which also makes it comfortable for sitting. On the opposite side it has a narrower ledge allowing people to sit closer to the bed allowing them to reach further into the bed making it easier to keep a garden up. This allows one to get into the garden and work and not really stress your body. Containers are another way to allow easy access, possible the easiest way. The containers are between 18 and 24 inches in height, a variety of materials can be utilized, a five gallon plastic bucket is excellent, a whisky barrel works. Anything that would fit your budget, the main objective is to create an accessible gardening space.
This garden is very easy to move around. They have used very level, wide pathways that are easily navigated. Bricks were used here but aren't necessary, anything from crushed stone to asphalt, concrete, textured concrete or pavers-all work well.
This area features different gardens that don't require any bending at the waist. One, may be a little high for the seated gardener but works perfectly for the standing gardener. It is easy to construct at home. All that is needed is as container, a wall or some structure that's a little higher. Gene has raised beds that are approximately the same height. Gene has beds at different heights designed for people with various disabilities or concerns.
One garden is raised enough so that a person in a chair could fit underneath. Gene calls these his pan beds because they are shaped more or less like pans. There are various heights represented 27, 24 and 20 and all are 30 inches wide. These accommodate most persons reach. They are made out of metal but could be made out of rot resistant plywood. Attach them to a fence or wall. Because of their weight a sturdy structure is needed underneath. These beds are 6 inches deep which limits the kinds of plants that can be grown because plants will dry out faster, thus frequent watering is required. It is a good idea, since they are so shallow, to add potting soil with a water absorbing polymer. Gene shows us a vertical wall garden which is probably on the high end of vertical wall gardening and is one of the more popular features in this garden. It is essentially a potting soil mix attached to a brick wall. It is constructed to be within easy reach both high and low for someone seated or standing. It has a layer of black plastic with fencing over that, then trellis work that creates a kind of square concept. People with low vision or blind can utilize this feature to enable them to know where they're planting. Gene generally utilizes small transplants in this environment, those one would find in a six pack in the garden center. A variety of plants can be utilized from herbs like Parsley, Sage, Basil to Coleus, Impatiens and Marigolds; generally plants that stay within 10 to 15 inches in ultimate height or those that are cascading varieties such as Ivy or Geraniums. These type plants will survive and thrive in this environment from the first of April through Thanksgiving in this climate. These plants are watered from the top, the gravity pulls the water through the container. Gene uses a time release fertilizer at the beginning of the season, that is all that is needed throughout the growing season. This is a great example of how to take a vertical space and grow tons of plants in a little space.
We next look at hanging baskets that are on a rope and pulley. If you have a hard time reaching up this address that problem. These can be lowered for tending then raised out of harms way. This can be accomplished with a variety of mechanisms available from a hardware store. In this area Gene has utilized a simple rope and pulley. This one is geared so that it is easy to turn and doesn't require a lot of force. Simply bring it down to your level, do some gardening , you never need to stretch, then raise it back up. If you had several of these you could put them at various heights for a visually interesting display.
Gene also has some tools specifically designed for people with disabilities or for people with sore wrists, backs or knees. With an aging population the garden industry has responded by creating new adaptive tools. We look at several. We look at a trowel that is very lightweight, it weighs only several ounces, requiring less force to use the tool. Another version has pipe insulation wrapped around the handle, then secured with an ace bandage or duck tape. The larger diameter handle tends to be less fatiguing to use than smaller diameter handles. Wrist angle is important when using a hand cultivator. An important concept for adaptive tools is being able to maintain a natural body position, therefore this tool keeps the wrist in a straight line. As it is used it doesn't require awkward positions for the wrist. It is also brightly colored for people with low vision allowing them to more easily find it in the garden, it won't get lost in green foliage. Another hand cultivator is great if you have arthritis in your wrist, joints or knuckles. It is easy to grab and is on the higher end of adaptive tools. It allows one to keep a natural body position, the proper angle of the hoe allows the wrist to remain straight but it also has an additional cuff that can or cannot be utilized. The cuff wraps around the forearm providing additional support, allowing some of the forces to be absorbed by the forearm thereby causing much of the pulling to be done with the forearm not the wrist. Knives and other kitchen tools are beginning to become available with features like these. The industry is becoming aware that tools like this make sense for everyone. Pruning is hard on the wrist. This hand pruner is a ratcheting pruner. It has a mechanism that makes the squeezing less strenuous. It has a gear that cuts, locks in that position, then the next squeeze takes it to the next gear. A couple times and you're through. This requires much less strength, taking out a lot of the needed force.
We have seen tools beneficial for the wrist. The back often becomes achy for gardeners and Gene shows us tools that are helpful in this area. One hoe has a telescoping handle. This allows you to remain in a natural position, with your hands close to the body, allowing better control and less strain on your back. It spreads the force of using the tool out over more joints and muscles and makes it easier to reach ground level beds and raised beds and containers. Some tools have multiple heads. Some of the longer handled tools have interchangeable heads. This allows one to perform different functions. One is a long handled pruner made out of aircraft aluminum. It allows you to reach into a bed for deadheading, harvesting or pruning. It will cut the stem, then hold the stem so it can be brought back to be placed in a vase or placed in the harvest basket. This eliminates stooping into beds, allows you to keep your hands close to the body providing more support, it is versatile and one of Genes favorites. We next view a watering wand. It has a flow control, off/on shut off brass control valve, a padded grip that softens the impact if dropped, very lightweight and allows him to reach into beds or overhead into baskets. These are great tools, Gene thinks everyone should have one.
Nancy Clifton, with the Chicago Botanic Garden, shows us how to make a three tiered herb garden. Put three pots together, stack them up and you have a lot of herbs in one area. Nancy takes three Azalea pots, fills them with premium potting soil almost to the ridge. She fills them rather high with the soil enabling her to stack the pots on one another. In the first pot she uses a bamboo stake, inserting it through the drainage hole. This will go through the three pots and make them stable. After the first pot, she adds the second pot with the stake going through its drainage hole, then adds the third pot and the stake goes through its drainage hole. The stake at that point could be cut or left showing. The stake adds stability to the three pots. Nancy then adds some of her favorite herbs, Lemon Verbena, Dill, Basil, Thyme and Fennel, she adds some cascading plants and an edible flower, Nasturtium as well as a Tri-Colored sage. Nancy normally adds three plants to the bottom container, two to the middle and one plant to the top, thus the whole planter would only require 6 plants, in this instance she uses some additional plants for a more full look. This makes a beautiful container. It has texture, fragrance and herbs for cooking. Once done she fills in with some soil. What's so great about this project is you can have many different plants in a small space and you can place it by the door where it's handy for cooking.
Gene tries to select plants that maximize our senses. This garden has plants with aromatic qualities which require them to be bruised to release their scent. One such plant is Banana Mint, which has an interesting aroma, just like bananas. Herbs are of course the biggest group of aromatic plants-Rosemary, Basil, and hundreds of other varieties all bring the scratch and sniff quality to the garden. These are particularly helpful for those not seeing as well as they once did and little kids. They can grab a few leaves, sniff them and enjoy the experience. Whether you're a little kid or a big kid it's great to use aromatic plants in an adaptive garden or any garden.
Gene has always been interested in the outdoors. When in school he started out in the plant sciences and focused on horticulture as time passed. After incurring his own injury he then connected the two and has been fortunate to be able to work in an emerging profession of horticultural therapy. During the past 5 years the idea of gardens and health care facilities has really taken off.
The next garden is visually stimulating. This is particularly helpful for those with low vision. They might use clashing colors to make things more vivid, for example bright yellow Marigolds next to orange Zinnias or Nasturtiums with bright orange colors. He often uses softer colors like purple Heliotropes to put a little distance between some of the brighter colors. Color is something that can change the mood. Using purples and pinks can soften a garden, make it appear a bit cooler. The opposite, the bright, bold colors make a garden more visually stimulating.
We next look at a garden designed for a different sense - touch or tactile interest. Tabouchina has a nice blue flower but in this case the main interest is the foliage-it is very soft textured. It is a low maintenance plant with few if any pest or disease problems. It is a good reliable color plant, a tropical plant that likes hot temperatures. It's certainly not hardy in Chicago. Santolina is fun because when you close your eyes and touch it it is like putting your hands in a bucket of worms. Gene doesn't care for the aroma but likes its tactile qualities. It's good to stimulate all the senses both good and the bad. Gene also has flowers that are tactile plants. Straw flowers (Helichrysum bracteatu) are great because they harvest dry and are great in dried flower arrangements. For those with visual impairments it's an easy plant to work with, it really feels like straw, very different from the velvety leafed plants we've just viewed. They are easy to find both by touch but also by sound, they have a different sound. When growing adaptive plants in an adaptive garden you want to select plants that are low maintenance. You don't want to be caring for them, nursing them along. Find plants that are easy to grow and that do well in your area. One of Gene's favorites is Silver Sage (Salvia Argentea). It is drought tolerant, it appears that felt is covering the leaf. It makes you want to roll around in it. The last plant is a different kind of tactile experience, it is prickly, but not badly so. It is durable enough so that people can interact with it and it doesn't inflict damage. It is drought tolerant and comes in a variety of colors. It is called Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum) and is a succulent plant. They grow well in rock gardens and shallow soil areas. It likes quick drainage and when those conditions are met it will make it through the winter.
Thank you Gene for taking us through the Adaptive Garden at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. This has not only been an educational experience but a beautiful experience as well. Thank you.
Chicago Botanic Garden
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