Limited Sight, Unlimited Gardener

Keeping the Garden Alive

girl smelling rose

Sweet smell of a rose, velvet petals and thorns on stem.

Northern Michigan gardener Connie Payne is legally blind from a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. Her vision is limited to a small central spot, which is also imperfect. But as her vision has deteriorated, she has been unwilling to give up gardening. She has learned to identify plants using her senses of touch and smell. By rubbing a leaf, for instance, she can note its scent and feel its texture, as well as how it grows on the plant. She learns the shape of blooms and the plant’s form by touch, too. As she has become more aware of shape, texture and fragrance, she is better able to distinguish between the plants she wants to grow and unwanted weeds as she moves her hand across the ground.

onion blossom

Round head of onion plant is distinctive of Allium family with strong smell of garlic or onions.

Like Di Nardo, she loves to grow tomatoes and marigolds, which are easy to identify by touch and smell. When purchasing plants, she gets help reading the plant tags, paying special attention to height, color of bloom and suggested site. She says that adding a double row of patio stones–8-by-16-inch blocks–to her garden’s edge has helped her to recognize it more easily. Her favorite herbs for texture and fragrance are garden sage, creeping thyme, tarragon and various members of the mint family, which are easy to recognize by their square stems. She also loves groundcovers, such as sweet woodruff and the dead nettle ‘Orchid Frost’ (Lamium spp.) for their low, compact growth. “I don’t like bending over to smell or weed and getting poked in the eye by a plant I cannot see,” she says.

“Gardening is one of my favorite pleasures,” Payne says. “Getting my hands into the earth is healing and experiencing the season’s flow with the succession of blooming herbs brings peace to my world.”

A New Life Grows

For Cindy West, afflicted with a narrowing of vision similar to Payne’s, gardening was a natural outgrowth of her life’s work as a midwife, where she used medicinal herbs, such as shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) to stop bleeding. Diagnosed with tunnel vision as a teenager, six years ago her sight deteriorated to the point that she had to give up driving and her profession.

Mullin, Verbascum

Mullein or Figwort, a beautiful medicinal herb. But Verbascum may be considered invasive.

But that didn’t mean West was going to slow down. After graduating from a Master Gardener course, she entered a new garden-centered life. She likes to garden in a raised bed in the form of a natural soil berm (her boyfriend, Charlie, helps with construction), because it has no hard edges. In her Colorado garden she feels she is in a safe environment, a sanctuary, where she can move slowly. In her daily life she uses various herbal supplements, such as bilberry for night vision improvement; chamomile, St. John’s wort and Valerian for their calming, soothing properties; and astragalus, echinacea and goldenseal as needed to boost her immune system. She grows lavender, clary sage, horehound, motherwort, mullein, self-heal, garlic, chives, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary and parsley, as well as vegetables and fruits. She also loves to grow flowers. She enjoys the beauty of every bloom every day, preparing for the day when she may not be able to see at all.

West wants her gardens to encompass nature. With Charlie’s help, she creates natural habitats, such as a pond garden to attract wildlife.

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