Dr. Amy Wagenfeld: Gardens for All "Thymes"

Raised garden beds

People feel more personally valued when they are able to maintain a level of independence in their daily lives. Maintaining independence and sense of control despite changes occurring because of aging includes the opportunity to engage in meaningful and purposeful activities1 such as gardening.

Connecting to the earth through gardening is a time-honored tradition. Today, it is considered one of the most popular hobbies in the United States2. Participation in gardening and garden related activities positively influence one's physiological, psychological, and cognitive well being3, 4, 5. Not only does gardening help people experience a sense of wellness and meaning, it provides opportunities to develop a sense of community and connectivity and belonging6, all of which have been shown to be positive indicators of longevity.

Creating universal and flexible gardening environments for all people, throughout their lives encourages active and lifelong participation in gardens and garden related activities and embrace social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Thoughtful and innovative universally designed garden spaces consider economic factors of long-term cost efficiency for maximum output and enjoyment. Selecting and planting native plant materials well suited to the local climate, part of the garden movement known as xeriscape, is environmentally sound because once established in the garden, they require less water and care than non-native plant material. On a social level, xeriscape (planting) principles applied to a universally designed garden space provide opportunity to develop a sense of connection to the local ‘green’ environment and for the mature gardener, it is also an opportunity to recollect, reconnect, and reminisce about plants that they ‘grew up with.’

The scope and social benefits of a universal garden extend far beyond notions of connection and reconnection. Such a garden, be it in the public or private sector, ensures active participation through incorporation of elements of universal design. It contains aesthetically pleasing smooth, wide, and accessible pathways and turning radiuses wide enough to safely accommodate wheeled mobility users as well as caretakers pushing infant carriages. A universal garden allows all users to thrive in the garden through properly designed raised beds that cause no harm to gardeners, container plantings securely anchored to ledges, trellises, and vertical gardens. A well-designed universal garden contains nooks to gather and socialize, to observe or be seen, or to sit quietly and experience restoration from physical and mental fatigue7. This garden needs to contain safe, nontoxic plant materials that enhance and enrich the senses, through touch, sight, sound, smell, and perhaps, taste. To ensure full social and active participation for those tending a universally designed garden, provision of specialized garden tools is of the utmost importance. These tools tend to be lightweight, have longer or enlarged handles, or operate with less effort than standard garden tools.

As we acknowledge and validate the need for and importance of applying principles of universal design to homes and commercial buildings, so too can these concepts be taken ‘outside’ and successfully applied to green spaces. Because research supports the idea that exposure to the green world fosters an overall sense of well-being, allowing ALL people, at ALL stages of life, full access to green spaces is of paramount importance.


  1. Christiansen, C.H. & Baum, C.M. (2005). The complexity of human occupation. In C.H. Christiansen , C.M. Baum, & Bass-Haugen, J. (Eds.). Occupational therapy: Performance, participation, and well-being 3rd edition (pp 2-23). SLACK, Inc.
  2. National Gardening Association. (2010). Garden market research. Retrieved November 15, 2011 from http://www.gardenresearch.com/index.php?q=show&id=2542
  3. Galloway, M. & Jokl, P. (2000). Aging successfully: The importance of physical activity in maintaining health. Journal of American Academy of Arthroscopic Surgery, 8(1), 37-44.
  4. Mallinson, T., Lyons, J., Waldinger, H., Feinglass, J., Semanik, P. & Chang, R.W. (2005). Promoting physical activity in persons with arthritis. OT Practice 10, 9-1.
  5. Park, S. & Shoemaker, C. (2009). Observing body position of older adults while gardening for health benefits and risks. Adaptation & Aging 33(1), 31-38.
  6. Baumeister, R.F., & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
  7. Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Adapted from: Wagenfeld, A. (2012, April).  CAPS in practice. A garden for all times. CAPS Connection, 3.