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Incorporating Disability Access and Therapeutic Spaces in Permaculture Design

Ilma Lever Gardens garden designed for wheelchair access

When working in various gardens for community usage I found we often needed to consider access for gardeners of a range of abilities without compromising the overall function of the design. I want to outline some things I have found useful to make spaces disability-friendly whilst also maintaining the permaculture principles of multiple use values and productive landscapes. Access issues you may need to consider include wheelchair movement, limited bending, blindness, unstable gait from stroke or acquired brain injury.

Many permaculture systems are beneficial as they already aim to reduce the amount of physical labour e.g. no dig, animals doing the work for you, zoning, etc. So here I will focus on more specific elements.


Have wide, even paths for a section of the garden with plants that do not overhang too much. Soft plants that hang a little over the edges are excellent as they add to the sensory experience. Espaliered fruit trees and arbours for vines or beans etc. make good use of space. These paths do require a higher energy input to be made wider and level so consider using them as heat traps or shade tunnels.

Wide gate on the chicken yard for easy access

Appropriate tools

Large tools with heavy handles suit fit people! It seems obvious but many people don’t think about the fact that the larger the spade head the more that must be lifted with each load. This is not good for everybody! You may tire out or sustain an injury simply because of the weight of the tools, when more small loads would be just as effective in the long run. Bamboo handles are great as their lightness ensures you’re not wasting energy lifting the tool. Smaller wheel barrows and tools with long handles to minimise bending are also very useful to have in the garden.

Sensory garden design

Edible plants are perfect as they are non toxic and great to smell, taste and touch. Designs are most aesthetically pleasing when various sizes, shapes and textures are mixed — for example chunky aloe vera, strappy lemon grass, soft leaves of sage, tiny thyme leaves and aromatic mints and chamomile in a damp spot in the path so the smell is released when walking. The list is endless. For larger plants try thornless blackberries, Babaco (Vasconcellea × heilbornii) for its unusual form and as it is easily grown in raised beds and Pepino (Solanum muricatum) that fruits and has a lovely lemony foliage.

I have seen several sensory gardens planted out entirely with succulents. They may look good but are lacking function — missing the multiple use opportunity of herbs that are also drought tolerant and low maintenance. Looking at an attractive garden whilst drinking freshly picked herbal tea, for example, has double healing value! Plus no one will get poisoned.

Raised beds

These have a high energy input when built to wheel chair height or to minimise bending. The ever-popular corrugated iron beds are useful but again tend to miss out on multiple use value. The best examples I have seen had a wide edge of wood or brick that can also be used for seating. This kind of raised bed can also be incorporated into the design as a barrier or wall to the garden. If using brick, which makes for great seats, I would recommend lining it with some kind of capillary material, as otherwise in a warm climate the bricks will draw water out of the soil.

The following is a guide to how big raised beds should be for various access issues:

Seating edges

The design of Merri Corner Community Garden in Melbourne shows how to incorporate access into design in an efficient way. While it would have been too expensive to make all the beds and paths disability friendly the main gathering area is ringed by the raised beds of a sensory garden and the wooden edges can be used as seating and also act as a continuation of the dog proof fence around the rest of the garden — so the overall expense in minimised.

Merri Corner Community Garden design
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Sensory garden plan concept
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Another important element is the psychological function of the garden. As permaculture designers we know that landscapes that work with nature are more beneficial psychologically — this comes with softer forms, e.g. curves, high diversity and of course the resulting harmony.

Theories of therapeutic horticulture recognise similar traits, such as including a diversity of garden spaces.

If the visitor enters a garden with many room characters, he or she will have a better chance to find what he or she is looking for… that he finds amusing, interesting or healing. — Stiggsdotter and Grahn, Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture

Gardens are therapeutic as they allow people to stay physically, socially and mentally active. The other side of therapeutic gardening is the garden itself as a healing space where people can find a place of peace, just to relax and be, appreciate nature and the moment in stillness. This can be provided in an edible landscape with seating and paths, such as in a food forest or even just considering the view from a window.

Abundance in raised beds at wheelchair height

Permaculture can add to these observations by making the landscape productive and so life sustaining. While working at a community garden specifically for people with disability many of the participants gained great joy and self esteem from being able to take home vegetables, fruit or flowers to their families each week. This was particularly beneficial as it allowed them to give back to the people who they are normally dependant on as their full time carers. Perhaps people also need to feel they have a function no matter what form they come in!

Imagine if all retirement villages and nursing homes had permaculture gardens. What an improvement to the quality of life that would be!

Further reading:



  1. Great article! My grandmother spent her last remaining days in a nursing home and while the place had a beautiful garden, it was lacking something like this. I really feel that if the residents were able to get out and partake in something like a permaculture garden, their quality of life would great improve and I am sure the families visiting would have perhaps stayed a little longer. Having something to share with their loved ones during those last precious months in their lives would be a special gift indeed.

  2. This is a great article! In the design of most commercial projects disability access is mandatory. The garden in the top photo is beautiful!

  3. Inspirational!!! Mullumbimby Community Garden is in process of creating a raised bed garden area and also a sensory garden leading to our composting toilets with a ramp weaving through sensory gardens for elders and people with disabilities (and everyone else of course). We have future plans to create a horticultural therapy program in our nursery as well. Elspeth made some great points and this article has made me smile as I remember the joys of working in HTP programs in the past. Looking forward to doing it again. Offers of assistance would be very appreciated.

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