Carl Jarvis constantly battles the brush taking over his 10-acre parcel near Quilcene. On a recent sunny day, he was cutting a 600-foot-long trail to his water tank and sawing back vegetation on a steep hill.
The day’s labor wasn’t unusual for a rural property owner, except for one factor: Jarvis is completely blind.
“I just go along the hillside on my hands and knees cutting off the brush and raking out the roots,” Jarvis says.
Jarvis, 77, lost his eyesight from retinal detachment when he was 30. While he acknowledges he can’t do everything a sighted person can, he hasn’t let his disability stop him from enjoying the acreage he shares with wife Cathy.
“I believe I can do anything I need to do,” Jarvis says. He grows tomatoes in pots on his deck. “Anything else, the deer will get it.”
Jarvis is one of many Western Washington citizens who have continued gardening while living with disabilities. And the adaptations he and others have made can be applied to any gardener whose hands are tired and back is sore after a day of digging in the dirt.
Bryan Ketola was a hard-working 22-year-old in 1992 when he went bar hopping in Thurston County early on Halloween morning. On Rich Road, he lost control of his car, crashing it. The impact threw him into a ditch. It was 4 a.m.
“The officers found me at 5 a.m. I was passing in and out of consciousness,” Ketola remembers, 20 years later. He’s sitting in a wheelchair in Olympia’s Yauger Community Garden. The accident left Ketola a quadriplegic with limited use of his arms and hands.
In 2010, Ketola was running a small nursery business at Olympia Farmers Market. His personal life was spiraling downward. He was drinking too much. He didn’t care whether he lived or died.
“I just wanted to stay home. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I was like a mole,” Ketola says.
One day, he came across a notice about the Washington State University Extension Master Gardeners Program. Somehow, he knew it was meant for him and enrolled in the class.
“It broke the shell. Since then, I’ve done a 180,” Ketola says. He now grows vegetables for Thurston County Food Bank and coaches soccer for the YMCA.
Ketola now passes his gardening knowledge on to his soccer kids and their families. The kids learn gardening at Yauger garden and then go home to create their own gardens.
“It’s very rewarding to have the produce in front of you,” he says.
Not only did the Master Gardeners Program change Ketola’s life, he was able to teach his classmates about accessibility.
“They began to notice those things they take for granted could be a challenge to others.”
What can be a simple task for the able-bodied gardener might become Herculean or even impossible for the disabled.
Ketola has made modifications to his tools and other garden fixtures. He uses a child’s rake to extend his reach and adds foam pipe insulation and Velcro to other tools to improve his grip.
Manufacturers finally are starting to catch on to the fact there’s money to be made with specialized tools for gardeners dealing with arthritis and other disabilities. Many tools can be made at home such as using PVC pipes to both dig holes and deliver seeds beyond reach.
Planning is key to setting up an accessible garden, Ketola says. He’s a big fan of raised beds. At the community garden, he uses a cattle watering trough that rises more than two feet above the ground. Ketola says a soil height of 24 to 28 inches is ideal for someone in a wheelchair or just someone sitting in a chair.
“Gardening is better sitting down because you’re not leaning over. It saves your back,” Ketola says.
Raised beds should be built wide enough to accommodate a person’s reach without putting them in danger of falling. Ketola also recommends putting them on legs or stands to let gardeners get closer. They also can be modified with seats, padding and rails.
Though raised beds are mostly used for vegetables, they’re certainly not their exclusive domain. They also can be used to grow annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees
As Ketola wheels himself through the garden, his chair bogs down in gravel and he asks for a push. The incident illustrates two of Ketola’s recurring messages: the importance of accessible surfaces and not being embarrassed to ask for assistance.
Ketola does as much as he can in the garden but has no qualms about asking family members for help or making a call to the city to get hard surfaces installed or water faucet handles swapped out.
“It’s very therapeutic to get your hands dirty. It relieves the mind of all that stress,” Ketola says. “If you have a disability, don’t give up. It’s all about your attitude.”
Carl Jarvis and his wife run a government-funded program in Clallam and Jefferson Counties that helps visually impaired people older than 55 to maintain independence and enjoy hobbies they had while their vision was good – including gardening.
Many of their clients are facing age-related eye issues that have robbed them of their vision. The average age of clients enrolled in the Independent Living Older Blind Program is 83, Jarvis says. He helps the newly blind, “get past the anger, frustration and fear” that often follows the loss of sight.
“The idea is that you can go out and pick up that trowel and get back to it,” Jarvis says.
When the Jarvises lived in Renton, they grew roses. Jarvis admits the thorns were a constant problem.
“When you are totally blind you really have to get hands-on with things. I’ve never met a rose that didn’t have to take a swing at me.”
When it comes to flowers and ornamentals, Jarvis picks subjects for elements that can’t be seen.
“I go for texture, I go for smell and I go for the feel,” he says.
A gardener before his blindness, it took Jarvis time to adapt. “I weeded without realizing I was weeding the potato patch. I did such a thorough job, we needed to plant them again.” Now, Jarvis said, “I usually get a person with vision to confirm things.”
Jarvis offers these tips for visually impaired gardeners:
Use twine and pegs to mark out flower beds and vegetable rows. The strings also can delineate the rows for weeding.
Containers create easier control and portability.
Use commercial vegetable seeds tapes or make your own with masking tape.
At harvest time, size and feel can help to judge ripeness. Washington State Department of Services for the Blind
Olympia/Lacey Office: 4565 7th Ave. S.E., Lacey
Tacoma Office: 949 Market Street, Suite 508, Tacoma
Independent Living Older Blind program: firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8541