Seeing with Other Senses: Gardens for the Blind

Gardening offers blind plant lovers the opportunity to connect with nature, relax and grow food and herbs.

| February/March 2007

I first became aware of the subject of blind gardening when my friend Kitty, now blind after years of deteriorating eyesight, expressed a wish for some plants in her life. I gave her a few scented herbs—lavender, oregano, mint and sage—and suggested her husband plant them in a barrel, thinking that exhausted the possibilities. How mistaken I was, for that was just the beginning. Kitty wasn’t satisfied just to sniff and touch, she wanted a real garden, a place to gather herbs for use in her kitchen. I asked a blind friend if she had any suggestions I could give Kitty’s husband to make a proper garden his wife could enjoy. “Why can’t she make her own garden?” she asked. I realized that I did not have any idea how the blind carry on their daily lives, let alone make gardens. I embarked on a journey to an unknown world.

There are approximately 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States. “Blind” ranges from totally sightless to the legally blind, who have vision worse than 20/200 (20/20 is normal) that glasses cannot correct. How many are gardeners? No one knows, but I became acquainted with three (and heard about many more) whose inspiring stories gave me insight into the tremendous power of touch and fragrance.

Deaf and blind Helen Keller once observed that people were surprised that she could enjoy nature. It is really they, she said, who were blind, “for they have no idea how fair the flower is to the touch, nor do they appreciate its fragrance, which is the soul of the flower.” Those who have lost their sight develop their remaining senses to a heightened degree the sighted cannot imagine. Try walking through your garden with your eyes closed tight. At first you might be lost, but with experience your other senses will begin to guide you.

The World at Her Fingertips

For Ellen Di Nardo, a longtime gardener blind since age 4, touch is the primary way of navigating the world. She is a voracious reader on gardening subjects, using an Optacon—a small camera-equipped machine that gives her access to traditional print. When Di Nardo runs the Optacon over text, she can feel a vibration in the shape of the letter it is photographing; if it’s an “o”, she feels a circle. She also uses it to read the names on seed packets, then makes Braille labels for them on a manual Braille typewriter. She gets Braille books or audio books from the local library. The Library of Congress has a national service so that every state has at least one, if not more than one, library that sends out such books to the blind and visually impaired for free. If Di Nardo wants to pursue a gardening subject in depth (she’s mad about heirloom tomatoes) she also has access to the Internet through her computer’s speech program.

In her upstate New York garden, Di Nardo grows 60 to 70 tomato plants a season, 40 hot peppers and 60 to 70 sweet peppers, as well as garlic, basil, cucumbers, broccoli, sometimes melons and a few flowers, especially marigolds. By any standards, she is a terrific gardener. As such, she has a few tricks that help her throughout the gardening season.

She emphasizes building up the soil and feeding plants early on so they have fewer problems later. Following author Mel Bartholemew’s suggestions for getting the most out of a small space (Square Foot Gardening, Rodale, 1994), she draws 4-foot squares using 4-foot tomato stakes, then marks the square’s corners with short metal stakes. With an 18-inch-wide path around the square she can reach in from any side to tend the plants. She documents the entire garden—where each heirloom tomato is located, for instance—on her computer, noting in it landmarks, such as the patio, driveway and lawn.

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