A Growth Industry

Gardening offers a great benefits package

by Bethany Broadwell on March 1, 2006 - 9:46am

QUEST Vol. 13, No. 2

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.”

Horticultural therapy
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:

  • Attach Velcro strips to gloves that match strips on the tools.
  • Place straps on hands, wrists and arms to make holding tools easier.
  • Glue a mirror to a golf club for easy viewing under leaves.
  • Attach extension handles on tools to increase reach from a wheelchair.
  • Convert a walker into a tool cart by attaching a wire basket.

“Each gardener has to find what works for them,” Spece adds.

It's a good thing

Lily Tank
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.

A moose in the yard
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.

Making changes

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
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.


American Horticultural Therapy Association
(800) 634-1603
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
(319) 334-6593
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.

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