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Peter's garden.

My eight-year-old son, Peter, has always spent most of the day with me when I am home. Since much of my free time is spent in the garden, Peter developed a great deal of curiosity about what I was doing. His younger brother, Benjamin, spent time exploring the garden while I worked. However, Peter, who is blind, hesitated to follow, knowing that he would be likely to stumble over the ground and smash some plants.

I initially agreed that the garden should be off-limits and encouraged Peter to "stay out of the way." Then, I reconsidered--since he was so curious, maybe this would be the ideal time to let him learn something about botany and how plants grow. I started thinking about ways to include my son in one of my favorite pastimes.

Planning Peter's Garden

I set aside a 12-square-foot area of the garden for Peter's use and decided on crops that would be easy for him to plant, weed, harvest and even sell. Large or bushy plants with large seeds seemed like a good choice. That first year, we put in Indian corn, miniature pumpkins and gourds.

I knew that the planting and maintenance of his garden plot would be much more clear and meaningful if peter was involved in the planning process. Peter raised a number of questions during our planning sessions. Many of his questions were very visual. He wondered how big his pumpkins would grow, how much space each plant would need and whether the plants would grow upright or sprawl. We discussed the garden plan in detail--the location of each row, the reasons for choosing these locations and the amount of space between each plant.

Planting

Peter and I worked together to till the garden so it would be smooth enough for him to keep his balance in the area. Then, we strung kite string to mark each row.

Peter planted his pumpkins and gourds in mounds, or hills, directly beneath the string. He counted out six seeds to a hill--later to be thinned out to three plants per mound--and covered them with soil. Then, he used a four-foot section of sapling to measure out the right amount of space between each just-planted hill and the next.

Peter planted corn the same way, by using the string for a guide and a small stick for a measure. He planted kernels of seed corn under the string, about six inches apart.

Garden Maintenance

A clawed garden tool and good mulch--such as leaf mulch or clean straw--will be the only tools a child will need for most small gardens. Simply have the child remove the mulch in one small area at a time, and rough up the ground a little to keep it from becoming too compacted by rain. Be sure to cover all the areas with mulch again.

After our garden had been put in, I tilled the ground between the rows a few times. Soon, both plants and weeds were sprouting. When the plants were large enough, I showed Peter what pumpkin and gourd plants felt like at the stem--fuzzy and somewhat prickly. Now he could easily differentiate them from the weeds. We waited until the corn plants were fairly thick at the base; then, Peter also was able to distinguish them from the weeds he pulled out from around their thick stalks.

Crops for Kids

Not every variety of plant is a good choice for a child with a visual impairment or other disability, but there are plenty of good ones from which to choose. Besides the plants I chose for Peter's first garden, other good crops include the bush varieties of string beans, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, beets and various herbs and flowers.

Bushy string beans have uniformly large beans that ripen at the same time. These are easy for a child to harvest and less prone to insect infestation--and who wants to touch bugs while picking beans?

Pepper plants are not too difficult for children to plant and will live even if they are not planted in the most delicate fashion. Tomatoes, too, if planted deeply enough, will survive a child's sometimes imperfect handling. Both peppers and tomatoes can be staked to allow children with visual and muscular impairments to locate the plants, weed around them and pick their fruits. Again, mulching these plants will reduce the need for weeding.

Seed potatoes are another good crop for children. Potatoes can be planted at ground level and covered in heavy soil or planted three inches deep in loam. If the plants are mulched with leaves, they will need little weeding. Peter and I planted seed potatoes in his second garden; in the fall, we dug them up. I taught him to follow the stem with his hands to search for spuds. Most spuds will be found on the roots very close to the stem.

Beets are another root crop to raise and weed--they are hardy biennials that are a good choice for longer-term gardens. They can be mulched after the plants are three inches tall.

Children enjoy growing mint plants. Mints have square stems which make them easy to distinguish from weeds. They do best when lightly mulched and planted in moist places. Mints come in many different varieties with smells from chocolate to apple to lemon--an exciting crop for a child with a visual impairment. Older children may wish to grow other herbs such as dill or fennel; enterprising youngsters can even find a market for them.

Easily-grown flowers include marigolds and sunflowers. Marigolds grow quickly and are extremely hardy. For a child with a visual impairment, they have an odor that makes them easily distinguishable from weeds. If mulched, sunflowers of the Sunspot variety grow quickly to a height of two feet and produce large 10-inch flowers. Their seeds will attract goldfinches in the late summer.

Marketing

Many garden products can be easily marketed. Gourds, miniature pumpkins and miniature Indian corn find ready buyers at flea markets, garage sales or craft fairs in late August through October. All of my children, including Peter, have had experience selling these and other crops.

Indian corn should be sold with the husks on--peeled back and dried one week prior to sale. Pumpkins should be picked when the stem is starting to dry and the surface is not easily scratched by a fingernail. Gourds are easier to sell when they are dried--this means waiting until the next season--and scrubbed to a natural color or painted.

Benefits of Gardening

I am glad I rethought my initial reluctance to include Peter in gardening activities. His gardening experiences have led to an increased enjoyment of the outdoors and greater knowledge of plants and plant growth. More than that, however, gardening turned out to be an activity we could enjoy together--from initial planning stages to end product.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; parent teaches exceptional child how to plant a garden
Author:Bossley, Roger
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:May 1, 1994
Words:1138
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