Future Reflections Summer/Fall 2005
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by Didi Goodrich
Reprinted from the VIP Newsletter, volume 17, number 1, under the title “Gardening for Young Visually Impaired and Blind Children.”
Gardening for the child who is visually impaired or blind encourages the exploration of the environment using the senses of touch, smell, hearing, and taste. Gardening enhances these young gardeners’ participation in their families and community and enriches their personal lives by helping them gain firsthand experiences through the use of their remaining senses and in the tending and nurturing of a living thing. They are able to establish a relationship with the plants and animals in their own garden or yard that, in turn, helps them to better understand their place in the world.
While engaged in digging, weeding, watering, trimming, and caring for plants young visually impaired, blind, or multi-impaired gardeners can improve their levels of cognitive development, expand their attention spans, and decrease the level of stress and anxiety in their lives. This helps to diminish aggressiveness.
My eighteen-year-old daughter, Samantha, is totally blind and multi-impaired. She is non-verbal and essentially non-ambulatory. Gardening is a recreational (and potential vocational) activity Sam has enjoyed since she was eight years old. Gardening utilizes her cognitive, spatial, and sensory abilities as Sam learns to care for and respond to changes in her garden. As her plants grow and mature to a crop, she can pick, eat, and share with those around her.
Samantha’s sensory garden is a small enclosed area roughly fifteen-by-twenty-five feet that has two raised beds, a small greenhouse, a fountain, bird baths, wind chimes, statuary, garden ornaments to tactually explore, bird houses and feeders, a bench, and many large cedar tubs and pots containing herbs, edible flowers, and vegetables.
Sam’s garden offers a variety of experiences that appeal to her senses of touch, smell, hearing, and taste. Lamb’s ears have soft, fuzzy, silver gray leaves and other soft wooly-leaved plants are mint-scented geranium, dusty miller, ‘Powis Castle,’ artemisia, dittany of Crete, an ornamental oregano, mulleins, pussy willow, and Spanish lavender. Some tickly plants are blue fescue, bulbous oat grass, esparto grass, fennel, and ‘Red Fountain’ grass. Some prickly plants are Eastern prickly pear cactus, Fuller’s teasel, Mexican grass tree, roses, globe thistle, purple coneflower, sea holly, and hens-and-chicks. Exploring the garden barefoot is a sensory delight--moss, wooly thyme, chamomile, bricks, stones, concrete--each alter our perception of the garden.
Smell is everywhere in the garden: flowers, herbs, ripening fruit, and vegetables. The sounds of the garden are varied, from the rustling of trees such as pines and willows to the whisper of ornamental grasses moving in the breeze, the musical sounds of birds, the soothing gurgle of a fountain, and the peaceful music of wind chimes.
The tastes of the garden are as varied as the crops you plant: vegetables, fruits, berries, and herbs. Some edible perennials to plant in the garden are artichoke, horseradish, rhubarb, Egyptian onion, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichoke.
Samantha’s garden also encourages her to use her tactile symbol system to communicate about her garden and to take part in the decision-making process about what to plant. We use both hand-over-hand and verbal instruction when presenting materials or activities to Sam and reinforce these with her tactile symbols. Her enjoyment of her garden has been a great motivation to use her communication skills both verbally and with symbols.
Sam uses a raised bed at the community Pea-Patch that is waist height. This allows her to stand upright while gardening and it is also accessible from her walker or wheelchair.
Raised bed gardens can be made from many different materials. Wood framing with pressure-treated timbers, four-by-eight cedar planks, palisade logs, concrete blocks, stones, and hay bales to name a few. If pressure-treated lumber is used, it should be noted that the chemicals used to pressure treat the wood are toxic. It is the belief at this time that the chemicals will not leach out of the wood in sufficient amounts to be toxic, but it is not recommended for vegetable gardens.
A small raised bed garden can be made out of old tires stacked on top of each other and bolted together using holes drilled through the sidewalls. The height of the tire bed depends on whether it will be used in a seated or standing position.
If a space is not large enough to allow raised beds, then container gardens work well, allowing even small decks or terraces to be used as a garden space. Large cedar barrel planters are ideal for young gardeners or for the individual using a wheelchair or walker as the planters allow easy access.
Young visually impaired or blind gardeners use many different
pieces of equipment, some specially adapted, some not, to help them access the
normal process of gardening. Planting templates of various configurations are
used to make holes for seeds or seedlings. Small lightweight watering cans,
small plastic squirt-bottles, or bulb sprayers can all be used for watering
plants. A bulb planter can be used in place of a trowel to dig out a uniform
size core of soil when planting a seedling. This is helpful for gardeners who
are physically disabled as well as those who are visually impaired or blind.
A one-handed pruner can be made by bolting a pruner or trimming shears onto
a contoured block of wood. An ice cream scoop works nicely for filling a pot
or planter with soil as it is both lightweight and easy to control. A wooden
jig can be used to secure a pot so filling it is easier. A sugar shaker can
be used to scatter seeds. There are no limits to what you can use to make
gardening fun for everyone. Use your imagination and watch your garden grow!
Bales, S., 1998. Fascinating foliage. Easy Gardening Winter/Spring.
Christopher, 2001. Raised beds: A guide to smart gardening above ground. Country Living Gardener, vol. 9 no. 2.
Davis, S., 1994. Therapy in the garden for people of all ages. American Horticulturist.
Eldred, M. 1998. Fuzzy, prickly and tickly to touch. Fine Gardening.
Greenstein, 1993. Backyard and butterflies: Ways to include children with disabilities in outdoor activities. Brookline Books.
Krause, D., Horticulture program handbook. Perkins School for
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