School garden accessibility success at Northern High School

Jun. 16, 2014 @ 08:23 AM

Scores of studies have focused on the positive aspects of school garden programs. Research is finding that they can positively affect a student’s academic success, increase healthy eating habits, expand environmental awareness and enhance community and social development. 

School garden programs are an effective tool for integrating curriculum across subject matter, enhancing student learning and fostering a range of academic and social skills. Also, after gardening, children have shown an increased interest in eating fruit and vegetables they grow. Socially, school gardening can increase a child’s self-esteem and encourage stronger connections with family members. In addition, school garden programs have been shown to deepen kids’ connection with nature and awareness of the environment.

School gardens are an increasingly popular trend in schools across Durham County, providing valuable outdoor experience and education to students. Many schools in Durham have one or more gardens. However, being able to work in the garden is limited for students with mobility disabilities. A garden in the ground or in a low-lying raised bed is awkward for students who rely on wheelchairs or crutches and cannot easily bend down to reach the plants. Student with these challenges can also benefit from the positive aspects of gardening, but only if the garden is accessible to them.

Northern High School (NHS) is undergoing a multi-phase, multi-year project to turn a bare open courtyard into a multi-use garden that will include a fruit and berry garden, memorial garden, outdoor environmental learning classroom and culinary garden. The Occupational Course of Study (OCS) department, with 40 enrolled students, is leading the planning, construction and maintenance of the project. However, five of the OCS students are wheelchair-bound, greatly limiting their ability to work in the courtyard, gaining valuable work experience and educational benefits of just being outdoors.

During the initial planning of the multi-use garden, NHS teacher Susan Poole reached out to the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District for help in planning multiple gardens. Recognizing the need to increase accessibility for wheelchair bound students, the district and teachers proposed incorporating a wheelchair-accessible raised-bed garden. Utilizing a grant from the N.C. Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation and Walmart Foundation, the district was able to fund the project utilizing staff, community volunteers and students for the construction of the garden.

Completed in May, the new NHS wheelchair-accessible garden has eliminated the barrier wheelchair-bound students face, allowing them access to an outdoor environmental learning classroom and access to vital work experience.  The wheelchair-accessible garden is also the site of the culinary garden where students will be able to grow vegetables that will be utilized by the culinary arts program at Northern.

In order to make the garden wheelchair-accessible, two 27-inch-high raised beds were constructed. These beds are slightly narrower than traditional raised beds in order to allow convenient access to the whole bed from one side of the bed. They are also higher in order to eliminate the need to bend over. In addition, the pathway between the two beds has been laid with pavers to provide a firm, stable ground that wheelchairs can easily roll across. Finally, a sign designating sponsors has been installed.

Over the course of this project, more than 50 students, teachers, community volunteers and district staff have donated their time towards completion of the wheelchair-accessible garden. This garden is a welcome asset at NHS and will hopefully serve as a model for other schools hoping to increase access for all their students.

Jennifer Brooks is soil conservationist/education coordinator with the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District, part of Durham County Government. Its  mission is to conserve, enhance and promote the natural resources of Durham County by providing technical assistance, environmental education information and economic incentives to County citizens and by exhibiting a diversified program to meet its changing needs. For more information, visit or “like” on Facebook at or “follow” on Twitter at