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A Garden of Accessible Delights

With the right tools and set up, people with disabilities can work the earth and grow living things.

October 25, 1998|Kathy Price-Robinson | Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer. She can be reached at kathyprice @

FRESNO — After Karen Barnes' career as a legal secretary was cut short a few years ago by carpel tunnel syndrome, and her knees and back started giving her trouble because of a degenerative nerve disorder, she was understandably blue.

"I was so depressed," she recalled. "I thought, 'I can't do this. I can't do that. I can't bend over, I can't stoop. I can't lift.' I was having a hard time."

Ironically, it was while visiting her stroke-stricken mother in a convalescent home that Barnes, 43, felt a glimmer of hope. There, she joined her mother and other patients in an unusual therapy program--gardening.

"As soon as they had their hands in the soil, their faces just lit up," Barnes said, recalling her mother and other residents gardening from their wheelchairs in raised flower and vegetable beds.

"They looked so happy."

Back at home in Fresno, unfortunately, Barnes' infirmities kept her from practicing the gardening therapy she craved; bending down to the earth was unbearably painful, and even standing was a chore.

But Barnes felt more optimistic after she came across a flyer announcing gardening classes at the Garden of the Sun, a two-acre demonstration garden sponsored by the UC Cooperative Extension.

After taking a class last year and becoming a volunteer at the garden, Barnes teamed up with a few other volunteers who also had various disabilities--including arthritis, back pain, diabetes and degenerative nerve disorders--and together they developed and built a handicapped accessible garden.

Called the No Barriers Garden, and situated in the Garden of the Sun, it was designed to show, rather than tell, how disabled people can engage in gardening.

In March, the No Barriers Garden was opened to the public for classes, tours and informal visits.

Fragrant and flowering, the No Barriers Garden consists of 15 raised planting beds, made of wooden planks and elevated on thick posts, as well as an array of adaptive garden tools that Barnes and other volunteers have discovered allow them to work the soil.

For instance, for people who can't easily bend their wrists, like Barnes, trowels and rakes with angled handles make working the soil less painful. A small rolling cart gives people with chronic fatigue disorders a place to sit and work. Raised beds with padded sides allow for bruise-free leaning while laboring.

"You don't have to give up gardening if you have disabilities," said Pam Elam, a horticulturist and director of the garden. "You just have to learn to do it a new way."

The purpose of the No Barriers Garden, other than providing therapeutic gardening for the dozen or so volunteers, is to teach disabled people and their caretakers how they can create easy-to-use gardens.

So far, about 200 people have seen demonstrations at the garden.

One visitor, Gloria Romero, is a recreational therapist at the San Joaquin Valley Rehabilitation Hospital. She said she "felt in [her] heart" that gardening was good for recovering stroke, surgery and accident patients, and she was encouraged when the volunteers confirmed for her that gardening has recognized therapeutic efforts.

While Romero hasn't yet built raised beds for her patients, she has started her garden program modestly by placing house plants on a card table for those in her care to water, trim and transplant.

When people work with plants, she noticed, they become more verbal and social.

Other visitors to the No Barrier Garden have been both physical therapists and psychotherapists. One man came to see how to build raised gardens for his 84-year-old mother, who uses a wheelchair to get around.

The garden was created on a shoestring budget of $800 from a state affirmative-action grant, written by Elam, who had seen a similar demonstration garden in England.

Among the garden's features is a trellis that can be lowered by pulley to a flat position, allowing a person with limited overhead reach to nurture vines. Another pulley system lowers a hanging plant to a level where it can easily be tended by a gardener in a wheelchair.

Most of the No Barrier Garden consists of soil- and flower-filled beds raised to various levels to accommodate gardeners sitting on stools or wheelchairs or leaning on the padded sides for support.

"When you have a disability or injury, gardening just hurts," said Joyce Becker, a master gardener and coordinator of the volunteer committee who suffers from arthritis and fibromyalgia, which causes muscle weakness.

Becker, 66, also suffered depression after she retired from her government job a few years ago and found herself "doing the couch thing." That alarmed her because during her working years, she administered worker compensation cases and saw people's mental, emotional and physical health decline after injury.

"People who are injured think: 'I'm sick. I hurt. I don't want to move.' The hardest part was getting them off the couch, on their feet and doing something," Becker recalled.

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