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.
Di Nardo raises her plants from seed and she and her husband, who also is legally blind, cook up a storm of great sauces at the end of the season from the garden’s bounty. She makes it sound easy.
“I generally just let my touch replace sight. Since I’m 54 and have been gardening since I was a kid, most things I grow are very familiar,” she says.