Gardening Tips for People with Impaired Vision
Gardening is one of the most popular leisure activities of Americans. Many people think that vision impairment will prevent them from enjoying their gardens. Not so! The French painter, Claude Monet, was an avid gardener who loved flowers almost as much as he did painting. Although Monet eventually lost most of his vision, he did not stop painting, nor did he ever lose his love for gardening. Vision impairment does not have to spoil your enjoyment of gardening, either.
In fact, with some planning, care, and a readiness to ask for help when you need it, you can have a garden that has a lot more going for it than just eye appeal. You can have a garden that appeals to all of your senses.
A word of caution: The suggestions printed here are helpful hints and should not be used as a license to perform dangerous tasks. Be careful not to attempt a project that you feel may place you in a potentially harmful situation. Ask for assistance with the project if you feel at risk. Above all, do not use any chemical compound without first reading the label directions or having someone read them to you.
Tips on Planning Your Garden Getting Around in the Garden
Getting around in the garden should be your first consideration. Most gardens have a lawn, which is attractive and also cushions accidental falls. However, canes and crutch tips can easily get tangled in the grass. Grass can also hide uneven ground, which can throw you off balance. So it's a good idea to use some sort of paving for navigating in the garden or landscape.
Paths and paved areas should be smooth, level, and firm. They should always have good traction. Wood, for example, becomes very slippery when wet. Provide direct routes through the garden, and make sure paths have clear beginnings and ends. Include wind chimes, fountains, or other objects you can hear, so you can orient yourself in the garden more easily.
Path edges should have distinct differences in texture, such as concrete to grass or bricks to a mulched bed, so you can detect the edges. Use a strip with a change in texture across the path to indicate an entrance to the patio, a tree with interesting bark, or a clump of particularly fragrant plants. The strip should be about 12 to 18 inches wide, and can be made any noticeably contrasting paving materials, such as a brick strip across a crushed stone path. Avoid raised edging, which can create a tripping hazard.
Working in the Garden
Making the garden easy to work in is the next consideration. Raised beds and containers make it easy to reach the soil and the plants. Raised beds are stable and heavy enough for you to sit on the edge or lean on for support, while containers can be moved and take up less room. These structures also out down the number of special tools you'll need to tend your garden. Avoid structures with sharp corners and edges.
The right tools are also important. You'll need to select tools that are durable, lightweight, and easy for you to use. Some tools, Eke garden trowels, win have engraved markings to indicate soil depth, making it easier to determine how deep to plant bulbs and other transplants.
Most garden jobs are easier and less strenuous when you can use both hands. This may be difficult if you need a cane to move around. To make your tools easy to carry, you may want to wear a garden apron or tool belt with lots of pockets so that you can keep your hands free. A four-wheeled wagon can carry several larger tools and can be pulled with one hand.
Cordless electric tools are safer and easier than power tools with cords. Tools should have brightly colored handles to prevent you from accidentally grabbing sharp blades or from losing them. Again, if you do not feel that you can safely operate these tools, play it safe and ask for assistance.
Tips on Maintaining Your Garden
All gardens need routine maintenance. The major tasks you'll need to perform to keep your garden productive include planting, watering, weeding, fertilizing, pruning, and pest control. Numerous Extension publications discuss the basics of these tasks. The following are suggestions to make them easier if you have a visual impairment.
An orderly garden is easier for the visually impaired gardener to maintain and helps with locating specific plants. In the vegetable garden, plant your crops in straight rows, and space the plants evenly apart. Run a rope with evenly spaced knots across the garden, and plant your seeds or transplants at each knot. You can also cut evenly spaced notches into a wood board and use that as a template. Any plant that is not along this straight line may be considered a weed.
If you are planting seeds or small transplants, use your hands to feel how deeply they need to go. The root ball of the transplant must be completely covered to prevent the roots from drying out. Many plants won't grow well if planted too deeply, however. Dig your planting hole with a garden trowel or with your hand, and gently place the plant into it. The top of the root ball should be level with, or slightly below, the soil line of the garden. With your finger, push large seeds into the soil to a depth of 2 or 3 times their diameter. Lay small seeds along the row, and then cover them with a light layer of compost or peat moss.
Seed planting can be made easier by using seed tape. This can be purchased from most garden centers and seed companies. Lay the tape in a straight line to plant your seeds. After the first few rains, the paper decomposes and disappears.
With herb and flower gardens (both annual and perennial), you may not have straight rows. Use a label or a tag next to each plant to help you identify different plants or varieties. The name and variety can be printed with large, readable letters, or in Braille. Labelers are available that can imprint a weatherproof, plastic tape in either Braille or in large print. Even without writing, labels and stakes are the easiest way to say "This plant stays!"
All plants need water, but they may not all need the same amount. Group plants with similar watering needs or frequency together. To avoid accidents, keep hoses off of paths, and try to avoid getting walkways wet and slippery.
Containerized plants may need to be watered as much as once or twice a day. You can water these with a hose or a watering can. Add water until it begins to seep out of the drainage holes on the bottom. This way, you're sure the entire root ball is getting wet. Keep your hand along the top of the container, so you can feel if you are overfilling the container.
Vegetables, annual flowers, trees, and shrubs all do best with 1 inch of water each week. A rain gauge will tell you how much irrigation or rain water has been added to your garden. You can make an inexpensive but functional rain gauge out of a coffee can, a pickle jar, or anything with straight sides. Place it in the garden where it is easy to find. You can dip a tactile or Braille ruler into the jar to measure the amount of water you've collected. Tape a piece of construction paper to the back of the ruler, so you can feel how high the water measures on the ruler.
Sprinklers can be placed in the garden and moved about as needed. The rain gauges make it easy to measure when enough water has been added. However, overhead sprinklers waste water and can increase plant disease problems, especially if the foliage is kept wet au night. A soaker hose or drip irrigation system will keep water off of the leaves, and cause less waste.
Soaker hoses and drip irrigation tubes can be run along the garden row, or interwoven between shrubs and flowers. You will need to time how long it takes your soaker system to supply moisture down to the root zone (usually 6 inches deep). The time needed will vary with soil type, water pressure, and equipment. Once you know how long you need, you can set your irrigation system on a timer to shut it off automatically.
The most important thing in weed control is identifying the weed. This is a difficult skill, even under the best of circumstances. It is even more difficult for the gardener with impaired vision. Placing your plants in straight lines, with regular spacing between the plants, will help. Anything that is not in a straight line or marked with a label is most likely a weed.
Learn to tell the difference between your garden plants and common weeds by sight, touch, or smell. Visit other gardens, and familiarize yourself with the way plants feel or smell. You may also want to have an experienced, sighted gardener check your garden and landscape for poison ivy and other dangerous weeds before you handle them.
If weeds appear in your garden, the easiest way to get rid of them is to pull them. One way to reduce the amount of weed-pulling is to not let the presence of an individual weed or two bother you! This way, weeding once a week will get rid of most of the troublesome problems. A layer of mulch between garden plants will also reduce weed problems.
The best method of weed control is prevention. Use a two to four inch layer of mulch between rows and individual plants, to keep weeds from germinating. Grass clippings, leaves, straw, corn cobs, newspaper, and other organic materials make excellent mulch in vegetable and herb gardens. Use wood chips or shredded bark in perennial, shrub, and tree beds.
For more information on weed control, refer to HO-217, Weed Control for the Garden and Landscape.
Pruning trees and shrubs corrects defects, rejuvenates the plant, and removes low-hanging limbs that may cause injury.
Gardeners are normally warned not to prune large branches from big trees, due to the danger of having a heavy branch fall on them. This is doubly important if you are visually impaired, because you won't see the branch beginning to fall or be able to locate a safe escape route. For shade trees, hire a professional arborist.
Smaller shrubs can be pruned with less risk. If an individual branch is not growing correctly (for example, it's sticking out into walkways or rubbing against other branches), follow this branch with your hand until you find where it meets a main limb or trunk. At this place, remove the branch with your shears or pruning saw, taking care to keep your fingers out of the way.
For more information on pruning, refer to HO-4, Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs.
Identifying what is wrong with a plant is difficult for most gardeners. The presence of spots, the subtle shading of leaf color, and the presence of tiny insects may be difficult for a vision-impaired gardener to detect. Help from a sighted gardener is essential for identification. You can also bring samples of suspected plant problems to your county Extension office.
Once the plant problem has been identified, it must be treated. Many pest problems can be prevented by making sure the plant has ideal growing conditions. Occasionally, a pest problem will become so severe that chemical control may be necessary. This is a potentially hazardous activity for most gardeners, because it's easy to expose yourself to the chemical. This also includes "natural" pesticides, such as rotenone and pyrethrum, which can still harm you and the environment.
For the vision-impaired gardener, it is extremely dangerous to spray pesticides. You may have problems reading label directions. It is also easy to accidentally spray beneficial insects and other non-target plants and creatures. Because it is difficult to accurately measure the amounts of pesticides you need without exposing yourself to the chemicals, you may want to use the pre- mixed, ready-to-use products available in garden centers. Be sure to read and follow all label directions before buying, using, and disposing of all pesticides. If you are not absolutely confident in your ability to use pesticides in a manner safe for you and the environment, ask for help.
The garden is a magical place that can -- and should -- be enjoyed by everyone. This publication is a brief introduction to the world of gardening for people with impaired vision. To learn more about general gardening techniques, consult the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Office in your county. You can also get hands-on advice from your local Association for the Blind. They have helped many people adjust to diminished sight.
The reference books listed in the right column are a must for anyone who is serious about gardening, especially if you have a physical disability.
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