Sisters Eleanor, 7, (left) and Evelyn Guillerault, 9, look over a raised bed garden at home in Scarborough on Tuesday. Evelyn uses a wheelchair and the bed makes it possible for her to take part in the family gardening hobby. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Gardening might seem like an impossible task to do from a wheelchair, with all the bending over to weed and water and the rough paths leading through the rows of crops and flowers. But some Mainers have figured out how to make gardening in a wheelchair work for them with great success.

Nine-year-old Evelyn Guillerault is among them.

For her birthday this year, she asked for her own garden.

Her parents, Andrew and Elizabeth Guillerault, found an elevated raised bed — it looks like a small table filled with dirt — that Evelyn’s wheelchair could comfortably fit under.

“I think it’s wonderful because there aren’t a lot of mainstream hobbies that are accessible [to Evelyn],” Andrew Guillerault said. “Once we found this raised bed it gives her that opportunity that’s all hers and it helps teach her some responsibility and gives her something fun to do alongside her mom.”

Evelyn Guillerault, 9, reaches for her tools while attending to her raised garden bed at home in Scarborough on Tuesday. Guillerault grows flowers as well as raspberries. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Evelyn started using a wheelchair when she was 3 1/2 years old, after she suffered a brain injury due to complications from a routine abdominal surgery that left her paralyzed and with neurological deficits. She got into gardening alongside her mom when her family moved to Scarborough four years ago.

Now, she has a garden that’s more accessible to her.

“The challenge of being on the ground is once she’s seated, she has an arm’s width to reach, so in my garden, she could only reach a small space before being picked up to move to another space,” Elizabeth Guillerault said. “We wanted her to have something she could wheel around.”

Evelyn, for her part, said that while watering is “so much work,” she loves planting and deadheading her flowers, which her friends and sister gave her for her birthday as well.

Systems in Maine for gardening in wheelchairs

In Maine, organizations like Maine AgrAbility, which provides in-person workshops as well as webinars for garden clubs around the state about a number of topics related to accessibility and gardening, are helping those in wheelchairs get their hands dirty in the garden.

“For some people it’s amazing and enlightening and they’re relieved,” said Lani Carlson, Project Coordinator of the Maine AgrAbility Program at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “They never thought they’d be able to garden again. I think there’s a lot that goes into adjusting to a new normal. Sometimes, you have to see it before you can do it.”

Some retirement communities and other adaptive living communities have established wheelchair-accessible gardens for residents to enjoy as well. The Life Enrichment Advancing People Community in Wilton, which supports people with developmental, cognitive and intellectual disabilities to be actively involved in their home communities, has four wheelchair-accessible sites in their “Stone Soup Gardens,” which includes four raised beds on a concrete slab with a ramp.

Darryl Wood, executive director of the LEAP Community, said that they have a few “regulars” from the community that use the wheelchair-accessible beds year after year. Once, he spoke with the caregiver of a woman who used a wheelchair who frequented the garden. The woman had previously tended gardens and fruit trees at her home before moving to a nursing home. When gardening became available there, it changed everything for her.

“[The caregiver] said it changed her whole outlook from being unexcited about things to looking forward to going and tending her garden,” Wood said.

Andy Guillerault pushes his daughter Evelyn, 9, up to her raised garden bed outside their Scarborough home on Tuesday. Along with several varieties of flowers, Evelyn is growing raspberries and a few watermelons. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The challenges of making a wheelchair-accessible garden

With a wide variety of wheelchairs with different heights and capabilities, gardening setups need to be customized to the individual needs of the wheelchair user. Wood said that when he was building the raised beds for the Stone Soup Garden, he tested it on three different wheelchairs so it would be accessible for as many people as possible.

Regardless, one of the most important elements to making a garden that will work for someone who uses a wheelchair is making accessible infrastructure. Raised beds elevated on legs help wheelchair users easily slide underneath without hitting their knees. But the beds shouldn’t be so wide that there are parts that can’t be reached at an arms’ length from any of the bed’s sides.

There are other options too. Carlson said that Maine AgrAbility has worked with stacked milk crates, and even hanging baskets on a pulley system that can be adjusted to the height of the gardener in their wheelchair. The type that is best for any given person depends on their abilities.

“Say you’re a wheelchair user but you can’t rotate your arms up over your shoulders, you’re going to be looking for something that’s lap level,” Carlson said. “Say you’re working with somebody who has a standup chair, they want to be able to work with something at a seated level and to be able to stand up and stretch.”

Brennan James McGeoghegan in Sanford, who has been using a wheelchair since he was in a car crash at age 21, said that he uses a variety of different things in his garden set up, including buckets, grow bags and pallets.

“Anything that gets them up off the ground, so I do not have to reach all the way down to the ground to plant seedlings or weed,” McGeoghegan said.

Prior to his crash, McGeoghegan helped his neighbor — who was quadriplegic and used a wheelchair — set up and tend a garden. This taught him some things about wheelchair gardening that have come in handy.

“One thing I learned was how to build raised beds on each side — that way, he had space between each row to ride up [and] down without getting stuck,” McGeoghegan said.

The quality of the yard and trails to access the garden are equally important. Nancy Curtis of Bowdoinham gardened for decades before she started using a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. Unlike many wheelchair users, she can bend over easily from a seated position, so having raised beds high off the ground was not important  

“A lot of my garden is made up of a lot more paths for my [wheelchair],” Curtis said. “There are growing sections that are three feet wide, and paths that are also three feet wide. It’s sort of like a grid.”

The type of wheelchair someone uses may change over time, too. Allison Bouchard in Bowdoin has a rare disease called Frederich’s ataxia and started using a wheelchair full-time in high school. Around 2015, her father made her a custom raised bed in order to accommodate her wheelchair.

Allison Bouchard’s wheelchair-accessible garden. Credit: Courtesy of Allison Bouchard

“Over the years, my dad had to lower it a little bit to fit my chair because I did get a different wheelchair in that time frame,” Bouchard said. “My dad looked up the schematics of my wheelchair to make sure it would fit.”

There are adaptive tools that can be helpful as well, depending on the person’s specific needs. Carlson said that because wheelchair users often have secondary issues that might need adapting, Maine AgrAbility recommends lightweight tools with an ergonomic design — even children’s tools can work. Telescoping tools are also helpful, as well as adding a D-ring or pistol grip to turn two-handed tools into one-handed tools.

Bouchard said that she uses such lightweight tools, but her one must-have gardening tool isn’t anything adaptive — just a hose that makes it easy for her to water her plants.

Cultivating results

Gardening is a good creative outlet. McGeoghegan, who was working towards becoming a tattoo artist before he was paralyzed, said that figuring out how to garden from his wheelchair changed his outlook.

“[It] takes a lot of patience and preparation to be successful, but it’s worth it,” McGeoghegan said. “After losing use of my legs and right arm, it gives me an outlet to be creative and keeps me occupied. It was very therapeutic and taught me to love and nurture once again.”

Bouchard said that setting up and troubleshooting her own wheelchair accessible garden was “pretty intimidating,” but with a little help from your support networks — she said her parents were instrumental in figuring out her wheelchair-accessible garden — and some flexibility, anything is possible.

“You just gotta get creative and look online and figure out that there were ways to do basically anything,” Bouchard said. “Just be ready to adapt and to change if you have to.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Eleanor Guillerault in the featured photo.