Green Thumbs and White Canes

Green Thumbs and White Canes

By Patrick A. Barrett

Fresh tomatoes and cucumbers in a green salad.  Mouthwatering aroma wafting from warm zucchini bread.  These are some of the fruits (and veggies) of our labors from the Windom Community Garden this year.  This is our fourth year gardening our own little plot.  Thirty gardeners now tend these half or full raised beds.  We have cultivated new friendships and our neighbors’ understanding about what blind growers can do.

Trudy has always had a green thumb.  She has nurtured marigolds, poinsettias, geraniums, and philodendrons for years.  I have never overheard her talking to them, but I believe they share her love of classic country and Beatles music.  Since a car struck her as a pedestrian nine years ago, she cannot care for the flowers as much as she would like.  Sometimes, she overdoes it and sits down in our easy chair; heat and vibration buttons activated, and takes some extra-strength Tylenol®.

I’m the only person I know who can kill plants with Miracle Gro®.  It does help if you use the right measurement with the correct scoop.  I think I’ll stick to frying bacon rather than African violets.  That’s why Trudy is the brains, and I bring the brawn to our garden upkeep.

The Windom Community Garden Project started in 2011 with Windom Community Council Board Member Brian O’Shea.  The Windom Neighborhood is located in South Minneapolis.  Brian’s wife, Jackie, had given him the idea one day to take the barren area just west of the northwest corner of 62nd Street West and Nicollet Avenue South and create a garden spot.  The large Crosstown Highway Project had bought up an apartment house, which left this lot vacant.  They say that behind every male leader there can be a woman with a great idea.

Trudy and I volunteered to be on the planning committee.  We wanted to grow more food, and liked the idea of doing it with a bigger group.  This year, 11 new beds were built.  This expansion meant putting down more wood chips and sod around the raised wooden beds, digging trenches to channel excess rainfall, and putting in more posts and fence wire.

The first weekend in May, when the snow had gone away, we got a good crew going.  I met new neighbors as I steadied the posts while someone else drove it in.  It looked pretty basic, so I thought I would spell someone for a while and try it.  As a student at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc. in 1994, I learned it was healthy to take some reasonable risks in life and try something new.

The post pounder was a red, hollow metal cylinder with a handle on each side and a strong screen in the middle.  While someone steadied the post, I would throw myself into a powerful thrust to bring the pole farther into the ground.  Before I started the pole pounder down, I always made sure I knew where the holder’s hands were placed to avoid injuring them.  After several poundings, I would ask the holder if I had pushed the pole down far enough.  He or she would say, “Just a few more.”  Or “That’s good enough.”

It usually took a dozen or so hits to bring the post down to the desired depth.  Sometimes, I would run into rock, and so we would need to move the post slightly to a softer spot.  A previous post pounder advised that I should wear some ear protectors due to the loud clanging from the hits.  I should have listened to him, because my ears were starting to notice it after the first half dozen posts.  I did several more, and then switched off with another post-al (pun intended) worker.

Last year, we planted peppers, butternut squash, basil, and sweet 100 tomatoes.  All did well, but the “sweets” though prolific were a lot of work.  We would get about 100 tomatoes for each harvest (checking them every day for which were ready).  However, it was a lot of work when I bent down to get the riper ones under the ones on top that were still green.  My sense of touch got better to judge the tomatoes' ripeness (firm or soft) through a lot of experience.  This year, we went with the larger beefsteak and Roma varieties, easier on the back.

Back in 2013, we planted strawberries.  Brian O’Shea told us at the end of the season to cover them with mulch to protect them during our harsh winters.  They survived the brutal first few months of 2014.  We had a mild winter for 2015.  With the summer, we have reaped the rewards of our care and patience with seven dozen sumptuous fresh strawberries!  So far.

Watering requires walking about a block to hook the long hose to the fire hydrant, unlocking the padlock, and starting the water.  Brian arranged for permission with the city to do this if we kept the hydrant lever shut off and locked when not in use.  Sometimes, our neighbors would be there and already have the water turned on.  We would water after they did.  We would chat about how each other’s plots were producing and other things, too.  One neighbor gave us some extra green bean seeds she did not need.  We have shared tomatoes and squash with other neighbors and friends.

Many times, we have gone to the garden together.  I have reached down to pull any weeds from around our raised bed to keep the aisle clear for walking and looking nice.  Trudy has usually watered, and sometimes picked vegetables (though tomatoes are technically fruit). 

There have been occasions where other gardeners have been watering, and offered to either turn the water off at the hydrant or lock the gate.  We have accepted their help.  Other times, we have assured them we would do these tasks.  One night, a neighbor that we have seen a lot at the garden offered to come back and lock up the hydrant and gate.  We finished our watering and waited about 20 minutes.  I told Trudy I might as well take care of the water supply.  That being done, we were trying to lock the gate.  The lock is on the inside of the gate, and so can be awkward for anyone to secure.

Our neighbor’s mom came back, we introduced ourselves, and she asked if she could help.  We told her that the water was off, and we worked with the gate a little longer.  We finally were stymied enough to let her try.  We visited with her as she was working with it.  However, Minnesota’s unofficial state bird, the mosquito, started feeding on us with ravenous appetites, so we went in.

I have learned a lot from Trudy and others about gardening over the last couple of years.  Though we try to get out in the cool of the day, there were a couple of occasions where it was hot and steamy this summer:  we felt like the plants in the hothouse!

Growing fruits and veggies organically, and increasing people’s understanding about blindness, has been rewarding.  We are optimistic about next year’s yields.