Monday, April 30, 2012

Here, There, and Anywhere, Veggies in a Suburban Landscape

“Here, There, and Anywhere,” Veggies grown in a Suburban Landscape

This past week I had the opportunity to head north and out of the suburbs to a small farm called Thornhill Farms. My purpose was to visit and learn about an educational program for children and young adults with disabilities located on the farm called Adaptive Gardens. Unfortunately, due to transportation issues that morning, the children were not able to attend class at the farm. I did, however, have the opportunity to meet the enthusiastic people that work there. As usual, I was able to ask my multitude of questions regarding their raised beds, organic gardening, chickens, and various teaching techniques. They not only provide a hands-on learning opportunity at the farm, but they travel throughout the area to other schools and instructional facilities to bring their horticultural program to them.

They grow everything from organic seeds, use a greenhouse, and make their own soil. They utilize raised gardening beds of various heights, as well as traditional garden rows. Regardless of a child’s abilities, everyone participates on the farm. The task may be as simple as pushing an “easy button” on a handmade soil mixer, to the actual physical tasks involved in the everyday caretaking of the farm. Every job provides a learning opportunity, and even the staff are as excited about experimenting with different gardening techniques, as the children are. Red mulch versus white mulch, and does it really make a difference in tomato production? They sell their organic vegetables, herbs, eggs, and a handmade goat’s milk soap with loofah that is grown on the farm through a few stores within the area to assist with their non-profit operations.

The drive alone, out of the suburbs and away from the endless road construction, was absolutely refreshing. It had been awhile since I had been on a farm. Wonderful volunteers have built raised beds and donated the concrete slab making it easier for everyone to get around. They've started a sensory garden for those with low vision. They are also making plans for additional pathways, adapted tools, equipment, and raised beds as resources become more available. It is a farm. Lots of thought, love, and care have gone into this program and anyone would walk or wheel away feeling truly inspired. It is a true learning experience, for anyone.

My goal this past week, in addition to helping spread another 5 yards of mulch, and planting more annuals, was to incorporate more food producing plants within the landscape. I priced out lumber to construct a couple of raised garden beds, and mistakenly ordered the posts only without brackets from a garden company, realizing too late to cancel my order (less than an hour later). Oh well, lesson learned.

I opted for a couple of pre-made raised beds that I could put on my back porch, within sight and easy reach. They are located very close to the water supply as well. I ordered another that would be deep enough to grow a few tomatoes. I’m all set for this year, and maybe someday I’ll be able to afford the brackets and pricey lumber to go along with the fancy posts I ordered.

I planted everything using the square foot method, and I even neatly laid out the boxes in a 12 inch square grid pattern with string. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several methods of laying out the plants and seeds, and everyone uses a different soil mixture. For me, because the boxes were shallow, I laid a layer of rocks on the bottom, and used a mixture of organic soil with mushroom compost. My concern with using a soilless mixture was that the elevated garden beds would dry out too quickly. Do not trust the recommendation from the clerk at the home improvement store either without reading the label on the bag! I added mulch to help retain moisture as well. We’ll see how it goes.

In addition to my new elevated beds, I will be planting vegetable seeds throughout the landscape. Last year we very surprisingly grew a pumpkin, apparently from the remains of our carved Halloween pumpkins. To my surprise this year my husband has already planted sunflowers and other flower seeds (some edible) sporadically throughout the yard. I currently grow olives, quince, and pineapple guava as ornamentals. I have rosemary, lemon balm, mint, sage and a few other herbs growing as my “greenery” too. Now that I’ve finally figured out that passion fruit actually comes from the passion flower vine, I may get a chance to try that too one day once my vine grows more.

Every year the garden is different. Appreciating the difference is what makes it so interesting. I can’t imagine living in a world where everyone is the same and not unique. People of all abilities are an integral part of this world. We have a culture with an ever increasing amount of “cookie cutter” neighborhoods, landscapes and people. In my own life I try to be unique, and I seem to like those who are willing to think outside of the box or who are somewhat creative. At this point in my life, learning anything is still all about trial and error. I keep learning in the garden from reading, friends, but mostly by doing. This year with the addition of a few more vegetables, I will be doing something healthy, and sustainable. I will be the one with a few sunflowers and vegetables growing here, there, and anywhere!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Passion, Beauty and "Mulch" Happiness

Passion, Beauty and “Mulch” Happiness

After last week’s blog, I desperately needed to make a “feel good” post this week. In my life, when events are planned without adequate consideration for the needs of all people, it affects my ability to participate. When my participation is infringed upon, it obviously infuriates me. Instead of becoming consumed with anger, I try to turn things around whenever possible by providing suggestions on how to improve and provide an environment that is more conducive for full inclusion. I know that others will benefit from this, and, hopefully, the event organizers will listen to my advice.

I’m fortunate enough now to be in a relationship where my partner doesn’t expect me to sit quiet and ignore being treated less than first class. He seems to understand how things affect me. Compassion is a good thing. I fully understand that there will be times and situations in my life where help will be absolutely necessary. There is still a lot left to be seen and explored.

Events occur in our lives that are never forgotten. In my life, there have been many. Years ago, I will never forget wheeling down a Boston Street and two guys walked by me, and said to one another, “Did you see her?” and “She was pretty too!” At that point I simply wanted to say, “Pretty people break their necks too!” As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less inhibited. I’m not afraid to tell people how I feel. I’ve finally realized that I might as well say what’s on my mind because I have one of those faces that you can tell every emotion anyway.

When I commit to something, I commit wholeheartedly. I know that I’m sometimes slow, but I persevere. Recently, a friend commented that they wouldn’t want to be on my opposing side. True, I imagine. In all honestly, I hate conflict. If there is a problem, I’ll try to fix it. I do not like feeling angry. People need to go beyond themselves to learn and appreciate what is really important in life. Sometimes, it is necessary to step back and take a few deep breaths! It’s not about you.

My garden never ceases to amaze me. I put the same passion into my garden as I do with everything else in my life. My garden is a constant source of inspiration. It looks absolutely beautiful when freshly covered in hardwood mulch. For a brief period of time, the weeds are all under control. When every day stress seems insurmountable, I focus on the beauty of a flower. I mentally find myself zooming in on these “feel good” flowers.

My garden is an expression of myself. Chances are, if you don’t like my garden, you probably won’t like me either. I recently had a reader comment that they were envious of my neighbors. A few appreciate it, but not all do. In my neighborhood, we’re so close together, that we seem to purposely distance ourselves. I knew more people around me when I lived on 6 acres in a small New England town. I guess, though, I know the ones that matter.

Gardening has been a source of new friendship. There is a certain bond between people who get excited by a bloom, and who would rather be out shopping for plants than for clothing or shoes. My real friends aren’t afraid to ask, “How does a gimpy quad like you spread mulch?” As witnessed this past weekend, I became a rolling wheelbarrow. I carried it by the bucket load, bucket by bucket full! There is no argument about me doing my share of the work.

As gorgeous as a single isolated bloom can be, people with disabilities don’t usually want to be singled out. When I go to a concert, I do not want to be corralled together with other people with disabilities. Blending in without unnecessary attention is important to living our lives as independently as possible. As barriers come down, this will be easier to achieve. Everyone should be appreciated for their uniqueness, but unless they are a standup comedian, or a “Push Girl” do not put them at center stage.

As unpredictable as our weather has been, expect the same reaction when you offer assistance to anyone with a disability. I went fifteen years without push handles on the back of my chair. I only have them now because I travel to off road places where I know beforehand that I’m going to need help. I will ask for help when I need it. As a gardener, I’ve discovered that my push handles are beneficial for helping me out of a rut when I occasionally get stuck, and they are also great for carrying my favorite small shovel.

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Life's a Beach!"

Life’s a Beach!
Kevin Bruce Parent, All Rights Reserved

When I go to the beach, I expect to see sand, and lots of it! When I go to a plant sale at a public park, I expect to see plants. I love plant shopping, and find every experience to be educational. As an experienced gardener I know a lot about plants, but I don’t know everything. New cultivars are constantly being developed, and that keeps life as a gardener very interesting. I just saw a beautiful yellow yucca, identical to the red yucca, but with a gorgeous yellow bloom. (Hesperaloe parviflora, Agave Family: (Agavaceae), Yellow Yucca. Also called: Yellow Flowered yucca, False Yucca.) When I see something like this, it truly excites me. Now, if someone could only develop a yellow vinca, life would be good!

When I head to a public beach, I also expect to find van accessible parking, an accessible route, a ramp and, hopefully, a rubber mat covering the loose sand between the ramp and the hard packed area near the water. If there are bathrooms and showers, I expect them to be accessible too. Some beaches also provide beach chairs with rubber tires that make traveling over the sand even easier. I simply expect equal access, and I expect it to be maintained.

(Mobi Mat at Tybee Island)

When I go anywhere these days, ideally, I shouldn’t have to think about accessibility, especially when it is a public event. After all, who is the public? Any event planner certainly takes this into consideration when planning an event, right? Not.

Human nature, for the most part, is to be compassionate and helpful. These are qualities that you want to see in people. The thing that most people do not realize is that people with disabilities don’t want to be perceived as helpless. The first thing that I heard when I moved to the South in 1990 was “Darling, anytime you come here, we’ll gladly carry you in.” This was at a corporate party at a historical property, a property with air conditioning and indoor plumbing. I looked at the guy, and told him quite frankly, “that it wasn’t the trip in that scared the hell out of me, but the trip out!” Imagine being carried down 3-4 flights of stairs by a bunch of executives who had been drinking all evening. Sadly, this was the same facility that very recently (20 years later) thought it was okay to carry our highest honored Medaled War Veterans in for the Medal of Honor Convention. I was told that they would ask them to get there early so they could be carried in out of sight. This was a horrible dishonor to say the least. This disgusted me, and why I once again became an advocate.

I do not want to be carried in, pushed, or taken care of. When I go out to buy plants, I want the dignity of maintaining my independence to the fullest extent possible. I do not want to hear about your understanding of people with disabilities because you once had a friend that was disabled. If you have such a great understanding of what people with disabilities need, you must also be aware of the importance of maintaining their dignity by providing an environment that promotes as much independence as possible. If you are so sympathetic, why wasn’t this taken into consideration when planning your event? Is this really too much to ask for in 2012?

When I learned of the location for the yearly plant sale, I started asking questions beforehand. I knew this public park from previous events. I knew it was bad, but I had forgotten how bad it was. A last minute attempt was made by the city regarding accessibility. The park is located in the front of a church, so they tried to steer people to the church parking lot in the far rear that lead to a supposed accessible route. They said that there would be van accessible parking there, but there wasn’t. It was also located a block from public transit. If someone needed the accessible route, it would have been almost impossible to get to. Signs were placed, but they were so small and flopping around from the wind that if you weren’t looking for them you wouldn’t see them. No accessible on the street parking, and sidewalks in disrepair. I parked in a space with no access aisle for my ramp to deploy. If someone had parked next to me, I would have been blocked out. I was told that the gate would be locked from 9-2 p.m., because of the church school that was in session. I went at 3:40 p.m. and the gate was still locked. There was a phone number, so I was thankful that I had my phone. Unfortunately, it was still in my van. I was lead down a narrow path, where things got even worse.

I was lead to a ramp that went to a very sandy pathway. On both sides, a long continuous curb blocked access to every exhibit. I tried pushing through the sand and popped a wheelie to one row of tables. I bought a cat mint (Nepeta cataria is a plant in the Lamiaceae family), and I tried mentally to block out the accessibility issue. I was there to buy plants, and to talk about plants. I couldn’t. The sand got deeper, and the curb got higher.

People were kind, and there were plenty of offers to help. This event could have been a blast at an accessible park, one with accessible pathways that connected the many exhibits and plants. There are so many surface materials that work great, and pack down firmly.

In 2012, this simply should not be an issue. No one that plans any type of outdoor event can ignore the needs of the public. Because the Executive Director had only been with the sponsoring organization for one week, I was very kind. I offered my assistance with planning any future outdoor events. To the city, I will not be so kind. They know better, or at least I thought that they did.

My dollars are green, and my personal dignity is strong. When I’m affected from pursuing something that I am so passionate about, because of an obvious lack of planning, I take it personal. I’m realistic in the sense that I don’t expect the entire park to be paved, but I do expect what’s required by law. (Too little was done, too late.) I’m encouraged by the numerous plant sales elsewhere this past weekend that I’ve seen pictured throughout Facebook, sales where everyone could participate and focus on the beauty of the plants. In today’s world, new and old, equal access should be a given.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Not Dead Yet

“Not Dead Yet”

Kevin Bruce Parent, All rights reserved.

The large number of people who say that they couldn’t imagine living life with a disability is not surprising. When I broke my neck at 22, I couldn’t imagine not living. Until you are faced by this reality yourself or are around someone with a disability who shows you that life is worth living, you may not understand the human will to live. For people with disabilities, for the majority of the people that I've known, that will to live is usually fairly strong. Many have already faced the alternative, and have come back feeling very grateful to be alive. People with disabilities are capable of living a quality life!

Now that I’m older, and have worked around people with disabilities, I’m saddened by the startling number of people that I have known throughout the years, who have passed away. Many had fought relentlessly for the right to life, inclusion, and for disability rights. I am personally thankful for their efforts. Usually, life expectancy is decreased for people with disabilities, and secondary conditions associated with a disability can very quickly become critical. I've had 3 blood clots, and have been hospitalized with a kidney infection. Taking care of oneself is of vital importance. Anyone who has experienced any medical condition that is life threatening is aware of the possibility of death. Live your life to its fullest, and do not be afraid to live.

Depression is not uncommon for People living with a disability. It's a lot for any individual to deal with, especially if it comes about as a young adult as mine did. In fact, I was told that after a Spinal Cord Injury, 97% of marriages ended in divorce. I was no exception. Not everyone wheels or walks away with a Joni Erickson type of attitude. (I do admire her work and ministry.) Not many appreciate being God’s chosen one. Many are angry at God, or are later angered by their past work associates that don’t help them get back into the job market. Many find blending back into the work environment as uncomfortable, and often discriminatory. You learn who your real friends are very quickly. Many, including myself, may feel that they will possibly choke the next person who tells them that God only gives them what they can handle. (Enough already!) Of course there are those who continue to pray for your recovery, and many of those were also the same ones who opposed the necessary research that halted any chance of my own recovery. For those who believe, keep praying, but keep supporting the research that may lead to an eventual cure.

In the garden, the life and death of plants is a constant. When friends ask to see my garden, I tell them that it is evolving. It may not always look pretty. I am constantly tending my garden, taking care of plant disease and pests. I personally cannot stand watching the new garden shows that compete to build a garden in two days. Not everything worth having is created instantly. I wish they would go back and show these “instant gardens” after a year or two. A garden takes time and patience to develop. Gardens require care. A Landscape Contractor can easily enough be hired, but you have to manage your garden. Whether you hire out or do the maintenance yourself, there is always work to be done. Like any gardener, I have killed my share of plants. I will water what appears to be dead until something finally emerges from the ground. Sometimes, I have to except the reality that my plant didn’t make it. My tropicals are usually my biggest mystery. Always the last to reappear. I live in a zone that occasionally gets freezing temperatures.

When I see a plant that is not thriving, unlike the big home improvement garden centers, I do not discard them. I make every effort to revive or save them. I see value in them. I am not a “plant murderer!” I have seen gardens created by individuals who have utilized nothing but discarded plants. Landscapers tend to go for the instant effect. Gardeners try to work with what they have, and usually try to save what can be saved. A garden requires patience and nurturing. Many plants reseed year after year. These are my favorite because you never know where they are going to end up. The plants in my garden that thrive are also wonderful to share with friends.

I have heard friends comment that they prefer a low or no maintenance garden. I do think that this is somewhat, but not entirely possible. The mow, blow and go landscapers do not keep the Virginia Creeper from making its way over into my yard. All plants require food and water. Weeding is a constant task. It helps to choose disease resistant varieties of plants, and plants adapted for your zone.

In my garden, I see my past mistakes. I see the effects of improper pruning, improper planting depths, and when I've planted in the wrong location. I’ve learned from these mistakes. I have also seen the effects of mistakes done by others. I have sadly watched trees die because of these careless acts, and bees die from products dispersed by lawn companies. I have rushed my dog to the Emergency Vet because of a neighbor’s unsafe dispersal of rat poisoning. I watched my cat eat ant bait, and have had to single handedly pour hydrogen peroxide down her throat to induce vomiting. Experiences that I will never forget.

My garden isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. When I focus my camera in on a plant, I look for its beauty. When I have one rosebush that isn’t flourishing, I take care of it. I do not discard it. As with all living things, sometimes certain plants require a little extra care.

This blog is dedicated to two past friends with disabilities, who are both now deceased, and who each had a direct impact on my life. Rick Douglas who once chaired the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities, worked for the Department of Labor and was the first person with a disability to show me his hand controls in his Mercedes, and the possibility of living life independently. Harriet McBryde Johnson who because of her endless efforts showed the world that people with disabilities live lives worth living, and that she and many others were grateful for the choice their parents made. She also openly protested the Jerry Lewis Telethon yearly for its pity based tactics.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The True Heroes

“The True Heroes”

Inspirational yes, heroes we are not. I read an article this past weekend in our local newspaper depicting the “wheelchair athletes” of our yearly bridge run as heroes. I was actually surprised that the editor hadn’t squeezed in the unacceptable reference of “wheelchair bound” as well. For whatever reason, our press finds it difficult to not use these over sensationalized terms.

As usual, I couldn’t keep quiet, and thanked a reader for his comment that these were simply athletes, disabled or not, who have overcome adversity to meet a challenge. As a person living with a disability, I have often felt this way. Complete strangers, who mean well, have come up to me and have told me how wonderful it was that I could drive and do my grocery shopping. Sometimes my response has been, "if that's all I did in a day, life would be wonderful." (I'm human to say the least, and I do not want to be perceived as a hero for going to the grocery store.)

I did agree with the writer of the article that some of the mentioned athletes were real heroes, because they have lost limbs, etc. fighting for our freedom. As a recreational athlete these guys are definitely inspiring, yes, as athletes. These are elite athletes who have overcome adversity and taken on huge challenges. No doubt. The athletes that make it to the Paralympics are exceptional athletes because of their athletic ability. They are not all winners because they have a disability.

The race started later than normal, which allowed more people to see a part of the race that has been overlooked by many. The athletes finally received the media attention that they deserved. Maybe next year, they'll actually show a live interview with the leader of this division as well. Progress to say the least!

My recent small debut in Fine Gardening’s, Photo of the Day Blog, was inspiring to many readers, but to myself as well. For me to appear in there was an honor, an honor as a gardener. If I can inspire others, with or without a disability, to continue doing something that they are truly passionate about, for as long as they possibly can, then I know that I am living a life worth living and I am doing something very worthwhile.

The focus of my blog is to deal with issues relative to improving accessibility within the garden. Who does it apply to? Basically anyone who wants to hear what I have to say, or who themselves have something to ask or say about any kind of adaptations in the garden, whether it is with the selection of plant materials, or with the actual tools and equipment used. I am not a Horticulturalist, Horticultural Therapist, Landscape Architect, Landscape Contractor, Agriculturalist, Physical or Occupational Therapist of any kind. I have worked as a consultant on accessibility with all of these people. It was only recently that I referred to myself, and it was after over twenty years, as an Accessibility Specialist. Do I know all of the answers? No, most definitely not. Do I know where to go to find an answer? Yes, I usually do.

My wheelchair is an extension of my body. It allows me to be independent. I can run in my wheelchair. It is not my disability that truly paralyzes me. It’s the attitudinal and physical barriers that are present in my day to day life that often try to hold me back. Thankfully, these barriers to independence are slowly disappearing as more and more people with disabilities are out and about living their lives. These barriers are also disappearing because the baby boomers, the majority of our population, are getting older. Everyone benefits from tools that function in a capacity that will simplify a task, and from an environment designed with gradual sloping pathways, etc. It is just common sense. I remember when the Oxo Goodgrips kitchen tools came out. Every new bride had them on her registry. Before they really hit the consumer market, they were used in rehab. Everyone loves the squishy grip. The same grip is now used on our garden tools.

I’ve been asked many times about “getting a motor for that thing.” I’ve been asked about the possibility of using a tractor or some other type of powered driven mobility device such as a Segway. (They have seats for them.) After my injury, I was told that I would never be able to be independent using a manual wheelchair. For me to transition into using a power wheelchair is huge. I know that to preserve my shoulders from further destruction, it will be necessary. I’ve been pushing a manual wheelchair for 28 years.

For the last few months, I have been looking at technology. The expense is huge, but I know that it will be worth it. In the meantime I have made some changes to my manual wheelchair. I found a front wheel attachment called a FreeWheel that keeps the smaller casters from getting bogged down deep into the mulch, and it works fairly well through the grass. We planted St. Augustine grass, which looks great but is very thick. Zoysia grass probably would have been easier to wheel through, and a better choice. Fortunately, I have very little lawn to deal with. I’m also considering using wider mountain bike tires.

Having the proper equipment is important for mobility and independence. I would recommend meeting with a Mobility Specialist. Your doctor can refer you. Our perseverance is all about conserving energy, and making a task easier. It is no different in the garden. If you are passionate enough about something, you can usually figure out a way to do it. Even if it’s just by keeping a couple of containers close by the back door, or a pot in the kitchen window. Our quality of life is dependent on our ability to continue doing something that we love as long as we possibly can.

Sometimes we do have to ask for help or point a little more often than we would like to. That too is a fact. Being able to effectively communicate where you want something planted, or having someone else do a manual task such as pulling out an oak tree that is growing in the middle of your azalea, is important. Not everyone knows the difference between a weed and a plant. Landscapers are not usually gardeners. Trust me. Husbands may not always understand why you want something moved, but in the end, they’ll appreciate it.

To some, people with disabilities are inspirational, but not solely because of the presence of a disability. Hopefully, it is because of what we do with our lives, and because we don’t let anything stop us. We aspire to do our best. We’re not superhuman. We all have good days and bad ones. We all experience frustration especially when it comes to losing our independence. Frustration often geared towards those who have illegally parked over the line and have blocked us from getting in or out of our van. We're human…...