Laying your garden with arthritis

Laying your garden with arthritis

Working in the garden can be much easier if you give some thought to its layout. You may need to get some help initially to make changes to your garden, but in the longer term this should allow you to manage most of your gardening jobs for yourself.

Paths and beds

Ideally there should be firm paths alongside the beds and borders, especially if you have difficulty keeping your balance on uneven ground. You can then tend to most of the area without having to step onto the soil. The beds should be quite narrow so you can reach the middle and back without stretching.

Non-slip paving slabs make safe paths, and they can be used for shallow steps where the ground level changes. Wooden handrails alongside steps are also helpful.

If you find it difficult to bend to ground level or need to work from a wheelchair, a raised bed would be helpful. If you have a sloping garden, you can make a terrace by building a low wall and filling behind with soil, which has the effect of making a raised bed. Even raising the soil level a small amount will make the bed easier to manage.


Containers are another way of making sure you can work at a convenient height.

Annual bedding plants, heathers, herbs, spring bulbs and even smaller vegetables and fruit trees can be grown in this way. Heavy tubs can be put on wheels in case you need to move them around. Wheeled containers with a braking system are also available – these may be easier to manage, but they’re more expensive.

Herbaceous borders

Traditional herbaceous borders need a lot of attention – staking, pruning, dividing, dead-heading and weeding. You can reduce the need for staking taller plants by choosing self-supporting varieties, for instance lupins, phlox, yarrow and Japanese anemones.

If you can’t reach the back of the border easily, it’s better to plant shrubs that need less attention. Spurge, spindle tree, spotted laurel, cinquefoil and Mexican orange blossom are good examples. Small annuals such as pansies and marigolds can be planted near the path, but an edging of pinks or lady’s mantle will create less work.


You can buy fruit trees that have been grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks. This restricts their growth, making the fruit easy to reach. You can grow fruit trees as cordons in a slanting row, or espaliers and fans, perhaps against a wall or fence. Try the deepbed method for an easier way of growing vegetables.

You can restrict their height to whatever suits you by pruning in August. Gooseberry plants can be grown on a leg – a single clear stem 60–90 cm (2–3 feet) high. This saves you bending down to pick them. Strawberries are easier to gather if they’re grown through holes in a barrel or in hanging baskets.


If you want to grow tomatoes and courgettes outside but your soil isn’t good enough, you can use growbags. Growbags that have been used for growing tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse can be used again the following year for salad crops such as lettuce, radishes, spring onions and beetroot. You can place the bags on a bench if it’s easier to reach them.

Many fruit and vegetables can also be grown in hanging baskets, which can make them easier to tend and harvest.

The deep-bed method

A labour-saving way of growing vegetables is the deep-bed method. You may need help with digging the plot to start with, but then no further digging is needed for several years. Divide the plot into strips 1.2 m (4 feet) wide, separated by paved paths. Dig the ground over well, adding farmyard manure, peat or well-made garden compost into each trench. Don’t walk over the soil after this stage.

All cultivation, planting, weeding, feeding and harvesting is done from the paths using long-handled tools. Because the soil isn’t compacted, sowings of root crops can be spread more densely than normal over the whole surface – the growing plants push each other sideways in the easily crumbled soil. You don’t need to sow in rows, and planting many seeds will make it harder for weeds to grow.

You’ll need to lay a fresh supply of manure on the surface during the following autumn. This will work down into the soil by the action of worms and by weathering during the winter. A little light cultivation in the spring will make sure it’s completely mixed in.

The lawn

Some people increase the size of their lawn to reduce the area of cultivated borders. However, a lawn needs regular attention if it’s to look its best. If you find it difficult to look after, it might be better to have narrow beds separated by paths or pave/gravel the area, leaving spaces to plant shrubs or annuals.

Island beds in lawns make mowing more complicated. It’s easier to move the mower around if the lawn is a simple shape with straight edges. Make sure the mower is stored somewhere that you can access easily. If you’re buying a new mower, try to choose a lightweight model with a large-grip handlebar and easy-to-push buttons.

Garden buildings

If you need buildings such as a greenhouse, potting shed, tool shed and cold frame, try to place them near each other. Clustering buildings saves carrying pots, compost and seed trays unnecessarily. The lids of some glazed cold frames are very heavy to lift. A raised frame with a hinged lid covered with lightweight corrugated plastic sheeting and connected to a pulley and counterbalance weight is much safer and easier to manage.

The greenhouse

The staging in a greenhouse should be at the right height. You should be able to work comfortably while sitting on a chair. You may prefer to rest your elbows and forearms on the staging while you work. If all the staging is the same height, it’s easy to slide trays along without lifting them.

Thermostatically controlled fan heaters, automatic vent openers and capillary watering systems go a long way to providing the right growing conditions with minimum effort. By using growbags for tomatoes and cucumbers you can even avoid digging the border soil.

If you use a wheelchair, choose your greenhouse with care. Make sure the doorways are wide enough and the thresholds low enough for wheelchair access.

Hedges and fences

Even slow-growing hedges like yew need trimming once a year, but hand shears can cause joint pain and some hedge trimmers are quite heavy. Keep your hedges low so you don’t need to stretch too much. Lavender and box make good low hedges for dividing up the garden.

A row of fruit trees grown as cordons makes a decorative hedge, perhaps to separate an ornamental garden from the vegetable plot. A wooden fence that’s been put up properly and treated with preservative will last for many years without attention and can be used as a support for climbing plants.

Garden seating

Garden seating shouldn’t be too low and should have a supportive backrest. Having seating in your garden will encourage you to pace yourself and take frequent breaks, especially if it’s placed in the areas you work in most. It’ll also give you somewhere to admire and enjoy your work from.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at how you can make life easier if you have arthritis by maintaining the garden.

This week we are working together with Arthritis Research UK to help Mature Times readers who are living with joint pain, or who know someone who is, to keep gardening. If you want to find out more about how Arthritis Research UK could help you or how you can join us in our fight against arthritis, go to