A Garden for the Elderly

A Garden for the Elderly

Part of Ep. 1003 Weep No More

Visit the wheelchair accessible garden Polly Rabion created in Whitefish Bay.  Created specifically for the wheelchair bound, Polly invites nursing home residents and others to visit.

Premiere date: Jul 24, 2002

Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

So far, we've been focusing on ornamental trees and shrubs. Now, we're in Whitefish Bay to visit a very special perennial garden and a very special gardener. Polly Rabion has been gardening for most of her life. But her most recent garden is perhaps her most memorable. Polly, this is just lovely. Thank you for letting us visit.

Thank you for coming.

Tell me how this special garden got started.

Many years ago, I had a friend who had Multiple Sclerosis. She was in a wheelchair. She lived with her mother a little bit north of here. And her mother had a beautiful garden. But Beth couldn't go in it, because there was not a path. So, I had an idea in the back of my mind that if I ever had a chance, I would create a garden for wheelchair people with a path wide enough for them to view the garden and an area where they could stop and have a snack, or just sit and relax. And that's what happened.

I looked for a house in 1987. And I looked for a house that had a large front lawn, so that I could make the garden more public. I found this house; and I moved in. The front yard was all lawn. I worked with a landscape designer for a whole winter planning out the garden. And in the spring of '88, we began the structural work on the garden, bringing in loads of soil. And then I began to plant mid-summer of 1988 with the help of my son, who was then living at home and getting a landscape degree. So, we planted. That was one of the hottest summers that Milwaukee has had but we planted all summer. And ever since then, I've been taking care of the garden by myself, because my son has moved away.

I enjoy it very, very much. And I contact nursing homes within about a ten-mile radius of my home, and set up a date for them to bring their residents. And so, I have almost 20 nursing homes that come to visit throughout the entire summer. But the season is short. So, we have to cram them in from the middle of June to early September. I think that they enjoy it, because they keep coming back year after year. Some of the design features we have here are plants that are fragrant and plants that have an interesting texture that are growing along the borders so that someone in a wheelchair can reach down and touch them. And I keep the plants quite short, because anyone sitting in a wheelchair only sees at about a height of three and a half feet conveniently, that is.

I try for a lot of color in the garden all summer long, mainly with perennials, but I do put in some annuals. And I hope that everything will turn out. It's color-planned in the sense that I don't have complementary colors clashing. It goes from pinks into blues into yellows and oranges and reds. That color theme repeats itself around the garden.

The structure of the garden had to have a good traffic pattern for wheelchairs. And it's very small. The entire garden is only 75 by 75 feet. So, we created an oval pattern with inlaid bricks that are wide enough to hold a wheelchair passing, and even a person passing next to the wheelchair, if need be. So, I have, probably on the average, about 15 people who come each time to visit the garden. Some of them are in wheelchairs and some of them are ambulatory. And then, there are, of course, the people that come to help them.

And so, I don't give a formal interview. I usually wheel each person around individually and talk a little bit about the plants, and ask them if they've ever had a garden, and things like that. So, I have garden clubs. I have schools, with children, which I like the very most. And I have neighbors and passers-by, strangers. And friends who bring their relatives, or elderly mothers or fathers to visit.

Polly Rabion planted the entire garden and maintains it by herself. By the way, Polly is 73. Isn't this a wonderful gift to the community and to all of us?


Funding for The Wisconsin Gardener is provided, in part, by The Wisconsin Master Gardener Association.


Share this page