Creating Friendly Outdoor Areas

Plan your outdoor areas so they are easy to access, and provide maximum enjoyment! By landscape designer Kirsten Sach.

Some of my first childhood memories are being led around my grandmother’s garden as she picked flowers, herbs, and handfuls of lemon verbena, crushing them in her hands to demonstrate their beautiful scent.Her garden was her sanctuary, a place to unwind and relax, and a sustainable source of food. But most importantly, I saw how gardening for my grandmother kept her occupied and physically active. She often talked of how gardening stilled her mind.


I grew up with parents who had a huge vegetable garden, and who spent many hours maintaining it. Their love for gardening instilled in me an awareness about how therapeutic and relaxing gardening can be. I am sure this exposure led to my present career as a landscape designer. Previously I worked in costume on film productions such as Lord of the Rings, experience that gave me the tools to solve problems effectively and to work with a range of people. Now garden design is my passion, and I feel so fortunate to be doing a job that I love. Gardens can be enjoyed at any age, by anyone. They provide opportunities to reconnect with nature and a healthy activity to enhance our quality of life.

Changes needed?

If your mobility isn’t what it used to be, or you have disabilities that prevent you from fully enjoying your garden, it’s worth scanning your outdoor spaces and thinking about how they can be improved to suit your needs. Decluttering the decks and putting pots on raised benches, for example, will make these areas safer and more accessible. You’ll be able to maintain your pots and containers without fuss, or you may want to replace most of them with hanging baskets to leave the deck space free for you to move about.

If you have a large garden, can some areas be simplified or allowed to ‘go wild’, so maintenance is easier? Make time to review your garden with new eyes, perhaps with others who can help you make decisions (and shift things to new positions if this is difficult for you). Be it minor tweaks or a complete overhaul, I hope my suggestions will help you revamp your outdoor areas for maximum use and pleasure!

Ways to create an accessible garden

  • Raised beds minimise having to bend or stoop, and are accessible from a wheelchair. They also make digging and planting easier. Raised gardens are perfect for vegetable, herb and flower gardens! They shouldn’t be too wide unless there is access from both sides, so plants can be reached from any position.
  • Vertical gardening using frames and fences makes planting and harvesting easier, and provides interesting ways to screen off areas within the garden or to hide an ugly structure or view. Try climbing passionfruit or other berries on a frame, or a fragrant climber like star jasmine close to a seated area. There are also innovative ways to enjoy vertical vegetable and herb gardening. Tiered timber boxes set on a frame are perfect for decks and small spaces, or for those who need to do their gardening close to the house. Boxes can be custom made, or you can find them online.
  • Retractable hanging baskets are a great way to add interest from an overhead pergola or to frame a front entrance. As long as they are not in a main access area, hang them at head height so the plants can be easily viewed and looked after. Where more height is needed, retractable baskets on a small basic pulley system are available at garden centres.
  • If you have disabilities or a condition such as arthritis, use the right tools so you can fully enjoy your garden. Tools should be lightweight and have ‘easy grip’ rubber handles; ergonomically designed ones are available, or you can improve the comfort of existing gardening tools by covering the handles with foam tubing for a better grip. Long-handled tools are available to help you to reach plants for weeding and harvesting. Make sure your tools are sharp to reduce work in the garden, and always wear gloves to protect hands, or invest in arm or leg protectors if your skin is easily damaged.
  • Access to the garden is very important. Paths and access points should be as level as possible, with only very gentle slopes. Equally, ensure that surfaces are firm for safety and best access (concrete, paving, timber). Round pebbles can roll underfoot andincrease the risk of falls. Hoggin or crushed limestone may be a better choice, and have an appealing natural look. Make sure paths are wide enough and have a firm surface to accommodate a walker, scooter, or wheelchair.
  • Consider installing handrails next to steps and paths. Or, try placing garden features or sculptures next to pathways as focal points; these can have a dual purpose to help steady someone trying to navigate a path! Vertical timber sleepers set into a gentle slope or around plantings make natural, interesting garden features.
  • Include plenty of seated areas in your garden to serve as resting spots, and private areas to enjoy the vista (see our ideas, below).
  • Think of ways to create shade in the garden, so you can screen out the sun at hot times of the day.
  • Experiment with lighting under favourite trees or plants so you can appreciate the drama of your garden at night. Good lighting at entries and along paths is also important for safety.

Restful spots

Seating is always welcome, providing spaces to sit and enjoy, and to rest while working or walking in the garden. Seating should be sturdy and, if you are a bit unsteady, arm rests will make transfers easier. comfort is all-important; keep some colourful outdoor cushions handy for bench seating, especially in courtyard spaces. Place seating beneath deciduous trees, which offer shade during the summer months, and sunny spots to sit in wintertime when the limbs are bare.

  • Try arranging seats near fragrant plants like star jasmine, gardenia and Australian dwarf frangipani. Seating is also a good idea near vege gardens, where so much time is spent pottering and harvesting!
  • Is it possible to incorporate seating amongst your raised planter boxes?
  • Clear areas around seating are important for wheelchair, walker, and cane users, who need plenty of space for turning and positioning.

Hanging gardens

Who doesn’t love a beautiful hanging basket? These will easily brighten and accentuate key areas of your home and garden and, with careful planning, will look great year round. Hanging baskets are accessible for those with disabilities and can, if set up on your deck or an outside table, provide hours of enjoyment!

Retractable baskets can be purchased online, or they are easy to set up with a basic pulley system that allows them to be lowered for convenient planting, weeding, watering, and picking.

Hanging baskets are not just for flowers. Create edible baskets by planting strawberries and parsleywith nasturtiums. This is a gorgeous combination: bright and cheerful, with the added bonus of being edible! Alternatively, try herbs or small gourmet vegetables.

You can match the plant colours in your baskets to your home decor if you like or, if you’re feeling brave, choose contrasting bold colours to make a statement!

How to create beautiful baskets:

  1. First, choose baskets and liners that you like (larger rather than smaller is a good idea). The most common liners sold at garden centres are made from coconut fibre; these have a nice natural look and will help to retain moisture.
  2. Hanging baskets do need to be watered more often than other containers. This is because they have air movement all around them, so more water is required to replace what is lost through evaporation. Add Crystal Rain or similar granules to potting mix when planting your baskets; these will retain and slowly release water to keep plants moist during dry periods. Look for specific hanging basket or container potting mix that includes slow release fertilisers. All good garden centres carry a range of these.
  3. It’s important to include cascading plants that can hide the sides of your baskets. Often choosing one flowering plant in a single colour can give great impact, especially if you have a row of baskets along a pergola or verandah.
  4. Plant selection is important, so choose varieties that will survive where you want to hang your baskets. If your spot is sunny, windy or in the shade, choose plants that will happily grow in these positions.

Kirsten’s Plant Picks

Try these plants in sunny positions around your home!

  • Plants for colour: Alyssum, Bijou sweet peas, dianthus, impatiens, lobelia, nasturtium, marigold 
  • Plants that look fantastic in groups: Colour Wave verbenas, Helichrysum Limelight, Ice plants, Ivy geranium, Lobelia, Begonias tuberous

Some of Kirsten’s favourites

  • Ferns (great for shade but keep them well watered)
  • Fuchsia procumbens (great for sun or shade) Flower Carpet Roses (plant in a sunny spot) Helipterum Paper Cascade (sun)
  • Prostrate Rosemary (sun)
  • Bacopa White & Pink (sun or shade)
  • Herbs (sun)
Deciduous trees

These have stunning seasonal change, are perfect for shade, and give the wow factor in any garden!

  • Magnolia soulangeana
  • Albizzia julibrissin
  • Prunus awanui
  • Sophora microphylla
  • Acer palmatum dissectum Sieryu

Kirsten won Gold at the Ellerslie International Flower Show in 2007 and Silver in 2008 after completing her Diploma in Landscape Design in 2006.