Ability Gardening at City Farmer

By Lucill Dahm
Vancouver Courier
Aug 16, 1987

You just can’t hold a determined green thumb down.

Although Barbara Raynor, 52, developed rheumatoid arthritis 15 years ago, eventually leaving her with two artificial knees and a “narrowing lifestyle,” she has been able to create and maintain a backyard “urban garden.”

Aside from the very noteworthy feat of actually accomplishing the carpentry hobby off the ground, Raynor has used the unique perspective of a disabled person to open the door to an activity previously denied to a person without the full use of his or her body.

Tomatoes, beets, garlic and “the usual” spring from containers and wooden beds raised and set in Raynor’s North Vancouver backyard. Unable to kneel, she tends about 24 square feet of vegetables and flowers — easily accessible from about two feet off the ground — from a standing position or sitting on a bench. The biggest problems she has now, she says, is keeping garden pests off the Brussels sprouts.

“It’s one of those things,” she says. “I started very innocently. I found when I had to quit work, my whole world narrowed to the confines of the house and what I was able to manage. With a garden, everything opened up.

“I realized what an enormous benefit it has been to me. I look at my disability
in a different way, and it is better.”

Raynor’s garden and personal therapy project grew into a course on gardening for arthritics at VanDusen Gardens with occupational therapist Gay Kuchta.

“The response to the VanDusen program was so great that we thought there must be a lot more people we could help in BC. We came up with the idea of an association – DIGA (Disabled Gardeners’ Association). The idea of a self-help thing,” she says, “an attempt to put handicapped people in touch with the resources to make it possible for them to do gardening.”

The along came City Farmer, a nine-year-old non-profit organization dedicated‘ to the urban or city farm — all those city backyard garden plots. The internationally known City Farmer was looking for some way to involve the handicapped in its “demonstration garden” located at Sixth and Maple behind the SPEC office in Vancouver BC.

The six-year-old demonstration garden, the only one of its kind in Canada, is a place for would-be city farmers to learn by tending a garden with expert help.

It is open to all and the workers share the harvest. City Farmer brought together Raynor and Kuchta, acting as consultants, with landscape architect Mary-Jane McKay and carpenter Greg Birdsall to put together a demonstration garden specially designed for the handicapped to work in and learn from.

“The handicap garden will cater to people in wheelchairs, people who have difficulty getting down on their knees, or people who have a stability problem, such as some stroke victims.” Says Michael Levenston, executive director of City Farmer.

“We are taking the gardening up from the ground and placing it at a level where people who are disabled can reach the beds. You’ll be able to stand beside it and lean on the edge, supported if necessary, and the ‘beds will be angled in, so a person in a wheelchair can be easily wheeled in from the parking lot. The surface will be asphalt.”

The plans show an aesthetically pleasing as well as practical 20 foot by 26 foot area comprising raised cold frames and beds, an area for container gardening and a sitting area, nicely shaded by a trellis, all located in the already-established demonstration garden.

“We are trying to offer as many different gardening opportunities as possible,” says Levenston. “There will also be special tools for the handicapped.”

Levenston says he hopes that places like hospitals, nursing and seniors homes will be encouraged to create their own versions of the garden.

“The garden is one way we are able to promote the idea of horticultural therapy. We wanted a place where people could go with an expert gardener and learn how to grow food.”

City Farmer is always looking for participants and volunteers for both the demonstration and the handicapped garden.

Michael Levenston