Gardening offers a great benefits package
Gardeners who have neuromuscular diseases may face some challenges in terms of carrying out physical tasks like preparing the soil and weeding, but many have found resourceful ways to put their green thumbs to good use.
The people-plant connection
Hank Bruce, a New Mexico-based writer, horticultural therapist and teacher, attests to the benefits of gardening for people with disabilities. “The people-plant connection takes us both within and beyond ourselves. It is a focus for our senses, a thing to be anticipated, lived and remembered.”
Bruce outlines the reasons why gardening is wholesome for people who have muscular dystrophy. The self-paced physical activity, he declares, helps to reduce stress and control depression. Plus, gardening is good for coordination, circulation and respiration, and it can help people experience the joy of nurturing and discovery, according to Bruce, who had severe asthma in childhood.
Bruce and his wife, Tomi Jill Folk, advise a small garden. “It’s best to begin with a few plants that are rugged and rewarding. We suggest herbs, geraniums, fast-growing vegetables or rugged house plants like African violets.”
Joshua Spece, 25, has taken his passion for gardening to a professional level. Not only did he earn an associate degree in horticulture from Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa, but also, about eight years ago, he and his mom, Sue, started a small specialty nursery called In the Country Garden & Gifts on their Independence, Iowa, farm.
Spece, who has spinal muscular atrophy type 2, assists customers and creates garden and landscape designs. He does most of the nursery’s business planning and ordering, helps with the bookkeeping and advertising, and does some local public speaking on gardening.
“Gardening is something that I have been around since I was a young child,” he explains. “My mom always had a vegetable garden and I liked to be out helping her.”
|People of all ability levels can find plants of interest and a reason to get involved in gardening.|
Eventually Spece took charge of his own gardening space, which he navigates in his power wheelchair. He maintains three water gardens with streams and waterfalls that are home to water lilies, lotus and other aquatic plants. He has a hosta collection of more than 600 types. Plus, Spece grows a variety of alpine and rock garden plants, dwarf conifers, and miscellaneous shade and woodland plants.
“The biggest challenge for me is being able to reach the plants to work with them,” he explains. To deal with this issue Spece gardens in raised beds and containers.
Since most garden tools are too heavy for him to use, Spece relies on smaller hand tools and even tools made for children. “I’ve also used big spoons to dig holes and a small pair of scissors in place of hand pruners,” he declares.
Bruce and Folk suggest five gardening tool modifications:
“Each gardener has to find what works for them,” Spece adds.
|Josh Spece has created an accessible raised water lily tank in his speciality nursery.|
Ericka Wright, 38, of Kansas City, Mo., turns to her area’s extension center (see “Gardening Resources”) to learn about planting and harvesting organic herbs, vegetables and fruits. Wright, who has a nonspecific form of muscular dystrophy and uses a scooter for mobility, is working with her family to interest her community’s youth in gardening.
About six young people join Wright and her family to till, plant and weed their half-acre city garden. The activity is a form of outreach, with the participants feeling proud of the bounty they grow and the friendships they form.
|Raised beds brighten Patricia Banks' front yard in Wasilla, Alaska. After the photo was taken, the moose ate all the flowers.|
Eggplant, spinach, tomatoes and green beans are just a few of the goodies growing alongside friendships. Wright says, “I like the fact that the youth that work with me can’t say that they will ever be hungry.”
Having received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in November 2004, Vee Hisey, 54, of Lubbock, Texas, finds satisfaction at watching the “circle of life” in her garden. She says, “It’s wonderful to see the things you have grown.”
Nurturing a white and red peppermint rose bush she planted two years ago has become her biggest challenge. First it endured terrible hailstorm damage; then it developed a fungus. “I’ve got to keep that plant alive now after all we’ve been through,” Hisey insisted.
Hisey’s garden is a colorful mixture of annuals and perennials. She enjoys trying new plants every year, like Indian paintbrushes and lantana, and seeing how they work. As she becomes less mobile with the progression of her ALS, Hisey realizes the changes will affect her gardening: “I’m sure my projects will be smaller, but I still want to continue.”
For now, she uses regular gardening tools, but Hisey limits her gardening time to an hour or hour and a half each day to prevent too much fatigue.
Patricia Banks, 59, of Wasilla, Alaska, is another gardener who received a diagnosis of ALS, in April 2004. Although she’s still able to walk, Banks just started wearing a leg brace and she occasionally falls.
She has used a raised-bed gardening system for more than 15 years, in part because it works well in the cool climate where she lives, and now because she finds it an accessible approach.
Banks builds bottomless frames that are about 18 inches tall, 8 to 10 feet long and either 2 feet or 4 feet wide, out of 2-inch by 6-inch boards. She nails 2-by-6 or wider boards along the top edges to form a place for sitting while tending the garden. Banks then divides the garden into 1-foot squares and plants a different type of flower or vegetable in each square. (For some additional information about raised beds, see “Chairside Garden.”)
To continue gardening, she has learned to slow down when she moves, and she sits on the garden frame more often for support. Banks uses hanging baskets, too, which she can place at any convenient height.
|Green Thumb Gardens by CelluGRO are portable and height-adjustable, suitable for gardening while sitting or standing, indoors or outdoors.|
“As my ALS progresses,” Banks realizes, “I will have to do more directing or supervising my husband as to how I want the flowers or vegetables arranged and managed.”
Thomas Redding, 52, of Amarillo, Texas, acknowledges being less agile now with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). He uses a cane part-time for stability when walking.
“I still like to get on the ground and stick my hands in the dirt. Then once the planting is done, I limit my work to weeding and watering,” Redding says. On a typical day he estimates he spends 30 minutes watering, another 10 to 15 minutes harvesting, and as much time as he wants to just enjoy being there.
He routinely plants patio tomatoes, bell peppers and jalapeno peppers in 5-gallon buckets to prevent the Bermuda grass in his yard from creeping into his gardening projects. Redding also keeps three or four buckets of morning glories to attract bees and hummingbirds.
Adding home-grown tomatoes to a salad or sharing his fresh produce with friends and relatives is Redding’s idea of a great gardening accomplishment. He says, “Success can be measured in small things.”
Bethany Broadwell lives in Traverse City, Mich. A freelance writer and Web designer, she has spinal muscular atrophy.
A few falls ago when I put the tools away, I decided to give up gardening. My physical strength isn’t what it used to be, and it’s hard to bend, squat or kneel. But I didn’t have to give up the hobby; I just raised the flower bed to where I could reach it from a chair. It was a great idea until I went to work in it.
I’d decided to garden from a seated position, but I forgot about the neighbors who might be watching. What would they think?
They lost no time letting me know: “Hey, that’s a great idea!” my next-door neighbor said. “I’ve wanted to get out my camp stool many a time, but I thought you’d laugh at me.” Now people on my block exchange ideas for gardening shortcuts as they swap seedlings.
It’s important not to procrastinate when creating your raised garden. Plan in advance and have it constructed in the nongrowing season for spring.
Plants thrive in a moisture-controlled medium provided by an elevated plot. Good drainage keeps heavy rains from washing out seeds and transplants. Spring bulbs won’t get waterlogged.
Because soil warms earlier in the spring in a raised bed, seeds can be sowed earlier. Potted plants can be set out sooner, too. Favorite bulbs, roots and rhizomes get a head start before the summer heat and insects take over.
Composition of the ground is easier to control because the bed has depth, usually 24 to 48 inches of soil. The earth in such an environment can be safely adjusted for acidity or alkalinity.
A co-worker of mine, who uses a wheelchair, grew carrots, sweet corn and tomatoes in his raised garden. He said, “Rectangular-shaped beds work best if you plan to work from a wheelchair.
If you plan more than one raised garden, my co-worker suggests allowing for a 36-inch pathway between the beds with 48 inches at the ends for turning around. A weed barrier can be put down in the pathway and covered with fine gravel or pavement.
He advises wheelchair users to put the garden next to a sidewalk or driveway, and roll alongside and lean over. If the bed’s width is 3 feet or less, the gardener can reach across.
“Everyone should have some kind of garden. A guy’s gotta watch things grow,” he said, “even if it’s just a potted plant in a window.”
After I decided to maintain this hobby and adopt a different method of gardening to work around my physical limitations, my enthusiasm for life was restored. It’s a pleasure to get my hands into the soil. As I watch my plants grow and bloom and see the butterflies dance among the flowers, I know the extra work of a raised garden was worth it.
Ina Mae Brooks, a freelance writer, lives in Lamar, Mo. She has postpolio syndrome.
American Horticultural Therapy Association
Horticultural therapists adapt gardening activities so their clients can participate, whatever their physical capabilities.
Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden
The facility features displays of accessible gardening techniques.
In the Garden Country and Gifts
Specialty nursery in Independence, Iowa
Hank Bruce and Tomi Jill Folk
860 Polaris Blvd. SE
Rio Rancho, NM 87124
Authors of numerous publications on adaptive gardening
University Extension and County Agricultural Agency
The extension division of universities as well as county cooperative extension agencies can provide helpful gardening information.