“There must be a seating area, somewhere to relax after a hard day.” I had a similar thought when re-designing a section of my garden. Being a garden designer I hear this phrase a lot, but being in a wheelchair means that I have to think about seating in a completely different way.
According to the English Federation of Disability Sport there are 9.4 million disabled people in England, 18% of the population, of which less than 8% are in wheelchairs; that’s 752,00 people. And the majority of impairments are not visible. Yet, why are RHS and other public gardens, horticultural events, National Trust properties, parks and communal spaces so bad at catering for people with disabilities when it comes to seating. There are, of course, other things such as: disabled toilets doubling up as nappy-changing quarters – please stop this; poor signage; inaccessible sections of gardens or buildings because of steps. The list is very long, but the more articles I right the more I come across as a moaning pest – this is far from the truth; I always try to smile, enjoy what I can and be thankful for my caring partner and my absolute passion for gardening and creating gardens for other people to enjoy.
But, getting back to bums on seats. More often than not dining tables are too low for wheelchairs to get under, or seats are so badly designed they do not support those people who can either transfer to another chair or just want to relax. Arms on chairs are good for some people, but a real problem for others. When it comes to benches garden designers love finding something different – and I must confess I have done this on occasion – but the benches are either hidden for that secret kiss behind the hedge, or face something worth looking at. Where am I supposed to sit? I end up in my wheelchair facing the people on the bench who are admiring the wonderful view. Please can the horticultural world take note, make space next to a bench for a wheelchair, walking aid, or even better have a gap between benches so that I can sit shoulder to shoulder with my partner and friends and comment on how wonderful the view is. Also, if in doubt add more benches. It’s easy to do, but it is so easily forgotten.
We’ve all read in the newspapers how sitting for too long is bad for the health. We need to be more active. That’s all well and good, but when your legs and feet are tired, having walked around a large public garden, for example, you really do just want to sit down for a few minutes. There is plenty to see and you arrived nice and early so that you can spend the whole day at your destination, so sitting down and breathing in and smelling the air, absorbing the atmosphere of the place is just as important as seeing a floriferous border for the first time. I would argue that every place has its own ambiance, from a busy city garden with the honking of horns in the background to a secluded garden surrounded by countryside, with the sound of the wind through the trees and the knock-knock-knock of a distant woodpecker. Yet there seems to be inadequate seating or benches. There must be some research somewhere that can tell us when we need to sit down, after a certain amount of activity, dependent on age, but is there such research for people with disabilities?
So, with my great intentions to create an accessible garden with seating areas scattered around the garden I shall think hard about what is needed, how it will work for me in my wheelchair and for my partner. The areas need to be part of the garden with requisite seats and spaces for my wheelchair, but they need to be thoughtfully designed so that they blend with the landscape. Just because I am disabled doesn’t mean that design needs to be compromised. When finished I too will have somewhere to relax after a hard day.
Every landscape is different but when LgMM gafden designer Mark Lane was asked to design a large private MBNHK garden for someone with access needs Mark’s personal circumstances made Mark Lane Designs the perfect choice.
Mark’s personal experiences, knowledge of and expertise for fully accessible gardens, whether for a private dwelling or for a public building, such as hospitals, disability charities, specialist units or rehabilitation centres, were brought together to create a “contemporary wild” garden.
The design focuses on access needs with full wheelchair turning circles, wide paths and views across borders, sometimes obscured, sometimes fully open, but creating a landscape that is fully inclusive.
A large stepped granite water feature is the centrepiece of the garden, influenced by the incredible water feature outside the Louis Vuitton Gallery in Paris.
Each angle has been measured to suit the incline of the site and designed by Mark to reflect the sun as the water cascades down. Small flecks of silver in the granite sparkle enhancing the clarity of the water.
Mark is the UK’s first recognised garden designer in a wheelchair and has been published in numerous journals and magazines and has gone on to be the first BBC gardening presenter in a wheelchair.
Mark’s practice Mark Lane Designs collaborates closely with architects, designers, artists, sculptors and craftsmen on a wide range of projects, to provide an individual, friendly and professional service offering high-quality, bespoke garden, planting and landscape design for small private or largescale public projects, an intimate little garden or a landmark outdoor facility.
Mark’s ethos is to create a garden or landscape that is a direct response to the architecture, topography and character of the landscape – a sense of place and space. His designs are functional, in-keeping with the surrounding environment, the wild space and its natural flora and fauna; building on integrated structures and the spaces between, in and around them.
The planting is full and abundant. Over 5,000 plants and 3,000 bulbs have been planted to create colour, texture, form and scent for 12 months of the year. Planting is loose and informal, but the planting plans have been carefully put together by Mark to give an almost wild experience – as if the plants have self-seeded across the garden.
Large bold blocks of colour have also been introduced, but following the Client’s aspirations the borders have been divided into: herb garden, blue and yellow garden, white garden, pink garden and a grasses garden. Mark is a plantsman and wherever possible chooses plants that are as close to the species type as possible.
He looks at the surrounding plants and the local environment and creates a landscape specific for an individual site.
Building in layers Mark’s landscapes comprise shrubs and trees, herbaceous perennials and grasses, climbers, bulbs, corms and rhizomes that work together.
Hidden white LED lighting illuminates the landscape at night making the garden appear to float.
Influenced by the colours and flora of the Kent countryside for this project Mark has created an enticing and exciting landscape, and although designed for access needs it is foremost a garden with a sense of place and space.
The answer is simple – yes! Yet why do we not see more show gardens designed by the physically disabled, the young, the elderly, people with learning difficulties – in fact anyone who has a passion for gardening.
I am a garden designer, and I am in a wheelchair. I love designing gardens that are accessible to ambulatory and to disabled people. So why do I come across so many gardens with awkward steps, narrow paths, small turning circles for wheelchairs, disabled access around the back normally by the bins and not through the main entrance?
I stopped working in London due to ill health 10 years ago, but having published books on horticulture and loving everything about gardening, even being outside in the pouring rain assisting with bulb planting, I decided a career in garden design was for me. There are physical limitations; I am only able to do little, but often, a term known as ‘pacing’, which helps me greatly. Yet, while managing my disabilities I’ve not come across a recognised garden designer in a wheelchair. Why? I have a trusted partner who runs around with a tape measure and contractors to help with construction and planting.
The horticultural industry, and the main players such as the RHS and the National Trust need to open their eyes; so do the plethora of gardens open to the public. Gardening and horticulture should not have barriers and restrictions. We all know and have read about how gardening can improve the physical and mental well-being of people – I am living proof. Without gardening I would be a different person.
I wrote to Dan Pearson and Cleve West and their friendly insights mobilised me in to action. My aspiration is to have a show garden at Chelsea, but who will sponsor me? Who within the world of gardening will embrace a garden designer in a wheelchair? The world of gardening/horticulture needs to open its eyes to everyone, and not be selective. Beautiful gardens and show gardens can be made accessible to all, it just takes a different perspective.
I was born in Hertfordshire but grew up in Brighton & Hove. School was not an enjoyable experience. Whilst I didn’t struggle academically and was always at the top of the class for just about everything, my only salvation was in music and art.
A keen flautist and artist from a young age, I steered towards architecture and horticultural therapy as a profession but went on to study Art History at University College in London instead. I continued playing the flute and became principle flautist for the university orchestra.
After university I went into publishing and worked my way up to the managing editor position at a leading international arts publisher. It was at this time that my car accident curtailed my career and I had to review the life I had and what I enjoyed and how I was going to go forward in this new position.
With my love for gardening and art background, I decided to study landscape design. As a child, I had followed my grandparents around their large garden with string, a pair of blunt scissors and a small fork and trowel tie in the clematis and runner beans, deadhead the roses and sow seeds. I have a sneaky suspicion that Grandad cared for the seeds when I wasn’t there as I was always amazed at how well they had grown.
I spent a long time at RNOH following a car accident 17 years ago. Amongst my many therapies, I met a wonderful horticultural therapist who told me that I had to go forward and to champion being in a wheelchair. After a four-year rehabilitation, I left the RNOH and I started looking for horticultural courses and visited many schools. If I was shocked at the terrible layout of the campuses and limited options for someone in a wheelchair, I was horrified to be told that they would not be able to validate the course because I wouldn’t be able to do the physical side of the course, for example, dig holes and complete site surveys. With a strong and dogged determination, I looked online and found a suitable Open Learning course.
Even as an established garden designer, I have had to explain to clients that I have help to undertake physical side of site survey and digging. Sometimes I have bad days which mean I will be unavailable but every client has been welcoming and understanding. Finding something as meaningful to me as garden design, has really helped remove the spectre of depression that hung around my shoulders after my accident. Of course I still have down days but with the right medication I know I can continue, albeit at a managed pace.
To help me negotiate muddy sites, I have two all-terrain wheelchairs to help me. At home I have a height adjustable desk and a wheelchair desk chair. Other than that, I suppose the biggest adaptions I have made are from within. I am more determined, level headed and passionate about what I do. In a strange way for me, becoming a wheelchair users full time has been positive. I probably would not be where I am today if I had carried on my publishing career.
My first professional commission was a large garden for a lovely retired headmistress, whose brief was low maintenance; it would help with her physiotherapy and be a joy to look at 12 months of the year. I designed two circular lawn areas with a pathway wrapping around the two in a figure of eight.
I have not looked back from taking my first nervous steps as a garden designer. After designing numerous gardens, I started writing articles for magazines and which were picked up by a BBC research team. This opened the door to my BBC presenting work. Whilst I do not class myself as a celebrity, it is surreal watching myself on TV and people asking for photographs and autographs. I have thoroughly enjoyed the presenting work and hope it continues for years many to come. More importantly, if someone with a spinal condition sees me doing TV work, undertaking landscape designs then all the better. Hopefully it will inspire others to get on with their lives.
I was honoured to be asked to be the Health, Wellbeing & Community ambassador for Groundwork, a charity which focuses on improving communities by addressing environmental issues and improving deprived areas of the country by either building, redeveloping or maintaining green sites. Thrive, a gardening disability charity to which I can relate to, bestowed the title of ambassador to me, and centres on positively changing lives through horticultural therapy.
I am where I am today because of the very wise words of Linda Exley and Viv Williams, RNOH horticultural therapists. Thank you so much for your words of wisdom and encouragement – it would be great to see you again. I owe so much to the RNOH and their incredible staff.
Over the past couple of years, regular viewers of Gardeners’ World on BBC2 have become familiar with Mark Lane’s friendly and insightful reports from fantastic garden spaces around the UK.
On the long-running TV show which marks its 50th anniversary this year – Lane can be seen enthusing over beautiful wildflower planting schemes, and demonstrating how easy, or difficult, it is to manoeuvre his wheelchair around the gardens.
“Doing the show has been a wonderful experience,” he says. “The crew are amazing, and the presenters have all been so down to earth and welcoming.
“But the whole horticultural industry is like that; everyone’s very helpful, even if they’re in competition with each other at a big flower show such as the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) show at Chelsea. People who work with plants and in garden design all absolutely love it, just as I do.”
Yet, despite a love of flowers as a child, Lane had never intended to be either a gardener or TV presenter.
“From a young age, I followed my grandparents around their gardens,” he says. “I had a little trowel, a blunt pair of scissors and a little blue cart that I’d pull around the garden. They were the ones who taught me about plants. My paternal grandfather told me how and when to plant vegetables, and loved his sweet peas and clematis, and we grew cress on the windowsill. My maternal grandmother had a garden full of roses and the scent was beautiful. I was fascinated by it all.
“I grew up in an apartment in Hove near Brighton, and we didn’t actually have a garden ourselves. We did overlook the South Downs, though, and could be on the sea front in 20 minutes. I loved the countryside and I would draw and paint plants and butterflies.
“I had an aptitude for it, and it led me to study art history at A-level, and then at University College London. I loved it. Then, after university, I went into
publishing – I did medical publishing and financial publishing, and, finally, arts and architecture publishing.”
That career in publishing seemed mapped out, but change was to come.
“I met Jasen, who’s now my civil partner, and we moved from Greenwich to Kent, near Ashford, to a house with a larger garden. We felt very lucky. B&Q needed a garden makeover for a book we were working on. I said they could do mine, and that I’d already done a design for it – and it got published in the book. This, to a small degree, is where my career in garden design started.”
Lane was born with spina bifida, but says that “apart from balance problems and having the occasional stumble” at this point in his life he was walking and active. Then, he was in a car accident.
“That was 17 years ago now,” he says. “The result, after a lot of surgery on my spine, and because of my spina bifida, was that I ended up in a wheelchair. You go to dark places, and wonder what you’re going to do. I certainly couldn’t commute to my job in London any more, and that meant I had to give up publishing – which was a problem, because I absolutely loved it.
“After a long rehabilitation period, my partner, family and friends convinced me that I could do something with my knowledge of plants.
“I looked for garden design courses at universities and colleges, but at the time the set-up for access for disabled people was diabolical – I was told by many places I couldn’t ever get a diploma because I couldn’t do the physical side of it. I eventually found an open learning course online that accepted me.
“Mark Lane Designs was set up 10 years ago. At first I was doing work for friends, for free, to build up the business portfolio. Then, in recent years, we were getting paying clients, and I decided I needed to get the message out that disabled people can do landscape design too. I started writing articles about my experiences with access, and one of these was published in Gardeners’ World magazine. Later, the BBC rang me up, out of the blue, and asked if they could send a film crew down to what they call a ‘piece to camera’, with me showing them plants in the garden.”
Lane says he dismissed that first TV appearance as something of a one-off, but then he received another call.
“They asked if I’d cover the Chelsea Flower Show for them,” he says. “I thought it was a joke – this was the creme de la creme of flower shows! But my motto these days is ‘never say no’, so I went along and did it, and I enjoyed it, too. The crew were lovely and wanted to wrap me in cotton wool at first. I told them just to treat me like anyone else, and that I’d tell them if I was tired or in pain.
“It went really well and got good viewer feedback. I was invited back to cover the Hampton Court Flower Show, and then to do a piece on Gardeners’ World itself. Then, at the end of last year, I got a call to say I would be a full-time presenter for the show in 2017. Doing the TV work is great, but I still love the design work – I love plants and meeting people every day. It’s been a wonderful journey.”
Lane’s work with clients now involves designing large private gardens, which he says are often better from a wheelchair user’s point of view, plus small gardens, and sensory gardens for hospitals, hospices and charities.
“If I was still working in London, gaining access to small urban gardens might be difficult for me,” he says. “But I’m also about to get myself an off-road wheelchair, which I’m really looking forward to, and which will help tremendously with my job. “Around 20 per cent of my clients are disabled, but whether they’re disabled or not, I always explain to clients that they will hopefully want to use their gardens in years to come, and that with age comes all kinds of infirmity and sometimes chronic conditions. It’s always worth thinking about how easy it will be in future to get around your garden.”
For Lane, accessible design means creating a garden that everyone can enjoy. His list of considerations is lengthy and goes well beyond flat, firm paths. For example, he says raised beds for wheelchair gardeners can help, but not if they can’t reach and twist. What about tables with plants on, that you can get your knees under? What about getting long handled tools? What about suitable turning spaces for wheelchairs?
“Every disability is different. Chairs are different,” he says. “Then there’s the problem of glare and silhouetting for visually impaired people. Could you use tactile materials, or plants that indicate that they’re in a certain part of the garden through smell? You need to understand what the individual’s requirements are. What are they sensitive to? From here you can build a picture of the garden design.”
Lane also says that not having a garden doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy plants.
“Try herbs on your windowsill or window box. You can even have spring bulbs for your windowsill – little daffodils and beautiful cyclamen. The way I explain the indoor environment is to think of your house as if it’s a woodland. It’s shady under the trees, with not much sunlight.
“You can try woodland plants indoors – ferns, for example. If your window is in scorching sun, think about Mediterranean plants such as small lavenders. Google it, look it up and give it a go.”
Whatever the space, Lane’s passion for plants shines through. It’s a sunny, positive sense of enjoyment that reflects a wider worldview:
“I think being in a wheelchair has changed my life for the better,” he says. “I’ve heard other people in similar situations say the same thing. It has completely changed my outlook. If I can show that just because you’re disabled or in a wheelchair it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to give up, then that’s great. Sometimes it means making a leap of faith, which is what I did – but I haven’t looked back.”