Green Thumbs


Gardening with a Vision Disability

I pressed my nose to the marigold stem, waiting to see it row. Though I never caught it in the act, my flower grew daily on our kitchen windowsill. I guess a squirrel also wanted a closer look. The screen gave way, the flowerpot toppled and my marigold broke in half; my nine-year-old heart broke too, when I saw what had happened.

Twenty years later, I moved to the country and the desire to see things grow
returned. I considered planting something in the flower boxes that came with our
house, and discovered a free, distance-education, container-gardening course at
the Hadley School for the Blind. In the end, though, my husband made room in our vegetable garden and I decided to work there.

First I researched techniques for gardeners with vision disabilities and found a
Blind-Gardener e-mail listserv, which serves as a forum where members can ask
each other questions and share experiences. Knowing others had had successful
gardens encouraged me to try it for myself.

From a seed catalogue I chose a green called arugula – partly because it would
taste peppery and crisp, but mostly because I liked saying the word arugula.
When the seeds arrived, though, I wondered if I should have chosen something
with bigger seeds; the package felt like it contained a pile of dirt.

Next, I tilled the row where I would plant my seeds. I saw light brown turn to
dark as the moist soil emerged, and I could also feel the texture and what I was
doing through the hoe’s handle. Putting my hands in the soil, I determined whether it was too dry or too wet or if rocks needed to be removed. I tossed them into the woods and broke up the soil so the roots would have room to grow.

I followed the instructions on the seed packet and planted them about 1.25 cm
deep. You can buy a trowel with engraved markings for this, or you can use a Braille or large-print ruler.

After some sunshine and a few hose soakings, little plants poked out of the soil. You can also use a sprinkler or a drip-irrigation system for watering. Special hose attachments work well, too, allowing the gardener more control over water pressure.

Eventually I needed to pull some weeds. I familiarized myself with how the
arugula felt and assumed anything else was a weed. It helped that I had planted
in a straight line; I noticed the weeds more because they grew wherever they wanted.

Finally, I could indulge in that peppery, crisp taste the catalogue had promised. I broke off a piece and took a bite. It tasted like a pecan-coated balloon. I decided that next time I would choose my seeds based on something other than how fun it is to say the plant’s name!

But I’m new at this. Lawrence Euteneier of Ottawa, Ontario, has been a successful gardener for nearly a decade. Unlike me, he knows how to landscape
his property to better orient himself to his garden.

“At my cottage I planted different types of trees on the various property lines,” Euteneier says, “like pines along the road, spruce and fir along the path to the lake and some white birch here and there, as I can sometimes see their white trunks or, at the very least, hear their leaves rustling in the wind.” He adds, “Trees are more permanent and natural than wind chimes – which have their place, but you don’t want to overdo them.”

Once you prepare your surroundings, shop online for seeds at places like Stokes ( or peruse paper catalogues. Some gardeners feel that shopping in person at garden centres provides the largest selection and the
most fun. Euteneier agrees.

“I’m always on the hunt for perennials that are unusual and aromatic,” he says. “On the produce side, I grow what promises to offer the most enjoyment – like tomatoes, pumpkins, herbs, berries – but generally shy away from the more basic produce, which requires significant space and which can be purchased economically from the market.”

Euteneier plants his garden-centre finds in raised beds. These provide sides that define the garden spot. Heights range anywhere from a few centimetres to a metre, and length can also vary, but they should only be as wide as the gardener can comfortably reach; all the plants need to be accessible. You can buy ready-made raised beds or build your own out of landscaping timber, railroad ties, cinderblocks, boards, plastic or other rigid and durable material.

Raised beds take longer to set up but offer many advantages. Gardeners can control soil composition more easily because of the confined space, and because they rise above ground level, raised beds receive and retain the sun’s heat better, drain water more effectively and make garden navigation easier.

Euteneier says he likes to be able to walk around and through his garden without worrying about stepping on plants. “Raised beds provide me with the luxury of not having to approach my flowerbeds on all fours.”

Raised beds offer another benefit: Fewer pests attack plants because the sides
limit access. When pests do find their way in, Euteneier handles them the natural way, coating them with a mix of dish soap and water from a misting bottle. “If the dish soap doesn’t do the trick, and my companion planting isn’t having the desired effect, I just don’t plant the same thing next year, or I plant it somewhere else,” he says.

Besides a misting bottle, gardeners need a few other tools. You can buy tactile
markers to indicate what’s growing in a particular row, or you can make your own Braille or large-print labels with waterproof tape.

You can also adapt standard tools to meet your needs by wrapping brightly coloured tape around handles. Wearing a tool belt or a garden apron to keep
track of your equipment helps, too. Euteneier stays organized by pulling a
wagon behind him while he works. An old rain barrel in his garage holds long-handled tools such as rakes and hoes. He stores them handle-end down so he can
find what he’s looking for easily without tipping everything over.

Organization helps ensure gardening success, but some people feel more comfortable using sighted assistance for certain projects. Euteneier used to receive sighted help with garden design; now he handles all gardening tasks by himself.

“The garden is my space,” Euteneier says. “If I thought I was starting something
that it would take others to finish, I wouldn’t do it. Gardening is one of those things that you do alone – from beginning to end – but if someone wants to join in and enjoy its pleasures, then there’s always room.”

(Chrissy Laws is a freelance writer living in Linneus, Maine, U.S.A. She edited
Wilderlust, a book about the outdoors and vision disability.)


Blind-Gardener e-mail listserv
Gardeners with vision disabilities share tips and ask questions.

Canada Gardens!
Online resources for the Canadian Gardener.

This course is offered by the Canadian Helen Keller Centre in conjunction with the Garden Club of Toronto.
Send an e-mail to or call (416) 225-8989 (voice/TTY) to find out more.

“Container Gardening”
Presented by the Hadley School for the Blind, this distance-education course
includes many special tips for the gardener who is blind. and follow the links under Adult Continuing Education.


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