Repelled from the Garden

Triocereus candicans

Trichocereus candicans

There are few better times to visit a garden than when everything is unfolding in the fresh new flowers of the season. If you’re visiting a desert garden, spring is nice because it is not as hot as summer.*

I’m a serious “garden-geek” and visit gardens where-ever I travel. Hubby has perforce acquired a taste for gardens, albeit at strictly the tourist level. He has even taken pictures of me squatted or perched in awkward positions as I strain to take pictures of plants, because well, that’s what some of our vacation consisted of. He will (most thankfully) exercise patience as I take pictures of giant compost heaps as well as rare blue poppies or blooming agaves. We have also found that when you’re jetlagged and desperately trying to stay awake to adjust to a distant time zone, a tour of a garden is a perfect way to get the necessary daylight exposure for the inner clock, and is a good opportunity to stretch and exercise airplane-cramped muscles. Even better, it is an attraction that does not place heavy cognitive demands on the visitor just to enjoy it (which is important for those of us who cannot sleep on plane flights).

So when hubby is looking for things to do with his papa, he thinks that a trip through a garden would be a great way to spend time together, and also get a change of scenery. But is the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix accessible? Hubby is hard of hearing, so pulling up their Web page on his Blackberry is his first route of information. But he can’t find the information he seeks, and then tries phoning. Unfortunately that just yielded the annoying automated system. When you cannot understand the recorded message, having to go through the entire phone tree again to listen to it a second time is not only frustrating and laborious — the message is also not likely to be any more intelligible the second time around!

Well, this lack of accessible information about site accessibility is really vexing. It’s also really surprising — Phoenix and the surrounding cities are full of seniors, due to the climate. One would hope that large portions of the garden would be accessible for wheelchairs and walkers, but gardens aren’t always. In fact, many botanic gardens have gravel or wood chip pathways, or even put flower beds way out between expansive lawns, which turns garden tourism into wheelie triathalon events.

Meanwhile, I’m hanging around bored in an automotive waiting room as I get a dead headlamp replaced. Receiving his frustrated text message, I then start my own search. I find that lack of accessibility information puzzling, and do a quick tour of their site, but it doesn’t give any immediate answers. Huh. When I type “accessibility” or “wheelchair” into their Search box, it doesn’t yield any page results, nor do the less-favored words “disabled” or “handicapped”. That’s odd … I then start reading through each of the different pages, and down at the bottom of the Hours and Admissions page there is a line stating, “Strollers, scooters, wheelchairs and umbrellas are available to rent.”

Well, the Web site is pretty, and the page tabs are sensibly organised, but the search function is mediocre — entering “wheelchair” yields null results, and a visitor has to type in the plural form, wheelchairs, to get even this single bit of information!

Presumably if they rent wheelchairs, there are accessible areas. But how much of the garden is accessible? Just the main building with the ticket gate, gift shop, café, restrooms and such? The building and the main pathways? Most of the pathways? We can’t tell.

::sigh:: Hubby looked through the photos on the Web site, and amongst all the close-ups of flowers, smiling faces, and architectural angles, he saw a few scenes of what looked like brick-cobble paths or gravel. He texted back to me, “I’m suspicious. The pictures I’m seeing of the trails are not paved — instead they are hard ground or bricked. Are paths smooth and clear? The littlest bump or rock can make it difficult.”

I replied back, “It’s been so long, I don’t recall precisely, and that data is old to boot. Call and ask what sort of paving; I remember some sidewalks and some hard-packed caliche.”

But stymied by the lack of information, hubby finally gave up on that idea, and the two of them went elsewhere. It may have been that the garden would have been sufficiently accessible, but to find out would have required a long drive out there, paying the entry fees, and then a long drive somewhere else if it didn’t work out. The lack of accessible information about site accessibility had halted their entry to the garden just as surely as an ocotillo fence. (More story below picture.)


Ocotillo fence

Ocotillo: Fouquieria splendens

I’ve been to a number of botanic gardens in several countries. Not until recently have I begun to make mental note of accessibility issues, and I don’t have the first-hand perspective of being a wheelchair user. But I can say that in the US, UK and Europe, botanic gardens will usually have fully-accessible cafés and restrooms, with the older places having more-or-less accessible facilities. A visitor can expect the usual handicapped parking spots, and the curb-cuts between the parking area and the entrance. Some gardens have ticket windows or information counters that are low enough for a wheelie, and those with turnstyles at the entrance will have additional gates for access, albeit generally further away from the ticket windows. (Gotta love all that unnecessary to-ing and fro-ing between the access points and the main pathways. /sarcasm)

In contrast, garden gift shops are usually a lost cause. Although the doors are accessible and the clerks willing to get things out of reach, the interior of every such boutique I have ever visited has been a traffic flow nightmare. For inexplicable reasons, the gift shops are always in rooms that are really too small for all the (overpriced) merchandise being sold, so the books and clothes and tools and postcards and dishware and souvenir swag and more books and sweets and greeting cards and terra cotta and games and periodicals and clogs and botanical prints and statuary and tchochkes and seed packets are all vying for space and attention, crowded onto every single tabletop, counter, shelf, wall, window and everywhere on the floor. Shops like these are challenging for able-bodied people to navigate, and I have yet to see anyone in a wheelchair or walker more than a few feet past the door. (Such shops are positively horrifying to the parents of impulsive toddlers for all the attractive and expensive fragiles, and being a clumsy and impulsive sort myself, I will frequently walk around with my hands clasped at chest level and elbows drawn in, like a nervous mantis.)

Even beyond the building, there are those aforementioned paving issues and other problems as well.

Gardens put in pathways for a variety of reasons, not only to improve traffic flow and wayfinding, but also to keep their specimens from being trampled. The downside to paved paths is that they have the potential to reduce the amount of interaction between the visitor and the plants. Gardens can be highly sensory experiences, but only if designed that way. Displays that are all look-and-don’t-touch become low on sensory variety. A fragrant rose that is in a sea of mulch surrounded a moat of pruned shrubbery is safe from “finger blight”, but is also limited to just a visual experience.

And if you’re restricted to the pavement, are the various signs legible? To be sure, many gardens have plant labels in with the specimens, which is necessarily unavoidable. Sadly, many individual plant labels are unclear because bulbs go dormant, plants flop or spread, and frequently there are several plants at different levels. Without any line-drawings of leaves, flowers or seedpods, visitors can only guess which label applies to which of the visible plants. Yet most botanic gardens exist not just as pleasure gardens, but also as teaching gardens. Therefore they have larger signs providing info-bites about the particular functional groupings of the plants. I have seen an absurd number of signs placed well away from paths, up steep rocky slopes, or nailed two metres high up a tree trunk, and even a few that were facing towards fenced-off areas, where no one but a few smart birds could read them. Maybe those people with binoculars in hand aren’t looking for Gila woodpeckers nesting in saguaro cacti, but (unlike the visitor pictured below) simply want to read the educational signs without making expeditions across the scree of decomposed granite.

reading sign


Later on, hubby reported about the alternative expedition they had taken, a scenic drive: “We went to a national forest with a lake, and then took a dirt road up into the mountains where there wasn’t a soul. Massive yellow wildflowers in bloom. Will send you pictures when we get back to house. Wish you could have been here to see it.”

* On the other hand, in Arizona the “monsoon” rains in July to September can produce fabulous acres of blooms.


  1. Bug Girl said,

    31 March 2008 at 11:10

    Ugh. Don’t even get me started about how un-accessible our bird sanctuary website is. I found out last week they had a lot of information as graphics, since they thought the site “needed some color”.

    Grrr. You can do that without making all the text a graphic!!!

    The site is so poorly designed, I don’t think anyone can find anything–regardless of disability status. Sigh.

  2. Fledchen said,

    30 March 2008 at 18:37

    Hooray, the pictures show up now! :) I’d like to put in a plug for a local indoor garden/conservatory, the Conservatory at Como Park ( in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It has wide paths, lots of benches for those who need frequent rests or who just like to sit and look at plants, the recessed koi pond/water garden area has *two* wheelchair/stroller lifts (one at the entrance and one at the exit, so you don’t have to fight traffic and backtrack when you leave!). It *is* a giant greenhouse, so if you have difficulties with warm humid air, or plant allergies, it’s probably not a good place to visit.

    I can’t speak for the accessibility of the zoo as I haven’t been inside that part since about 1990.

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    30 March 2008 at 16:26

    Fledchen, I think the issue was the image-sourcing. Let me know if these changes have improved the viewing.

  4. Fledchen said,

    30 March 2008 at 12:52

    You might like to know that one must enable javascript from in order to view some of the images.

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