Gardening While Using a Wheelchair: How One Man Recovered from Injury to Grow Again

Reader Contribution by Bruce M. Burnham
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As a child in the 60s and 70s, it was always a treat to get to help my grandfather, who we called Bop, in the garden. Riding the school bus to Bop’s house after school is a vivid memory that I cherish. In the spring, I was constantly asking, “When is the man with the tractor going to come plow and disc the field?” which was Bop’s garden.

Eventually, when the ground reached the appropriate temperature and moisture level, the man would show up and the smell of newly plowed earth would fill the air. The entry-level position was tilling and in time, you graduated to opening rows, dropping seeds, and closing rows.

Eventually, he allowed me to raise my own garden next to his. Soon, another wonderful man, the local agriculture teacher and FFA adviser saw me in the garden as he drove by. He stopped and gave me the recruitment spiel. I was hooked. Before long, gardening was joined with showing pigs, forestry, and soil judging. I graduated high school with hopes of becoming a veterinarian, but little did I know there was a fork in the road coming up quickly.

Approximately six weeks after graduating high school, I pulled up to a stop sign in the little town where I lived and was accidentally shot in the neck by a 14-year-old boy playing with a rifle in his home. This injury left me a quadriplegic. After months of hospitals and rehab, I was able to enroll in college. My desire for growing things began to reignite and I started with houseplants and a terrarium. That grew to lettuce and tomatoes on the patio. Then, I put gardening aside for several years while I started and ran a small business and got married.

One day, I saw my dad reading Square-Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. I got my own copy and couldn’t put it down. Wow, raised beds were the answer for me. From my electric wheelchair, I could reach the soil if it was raised 8-12 inches. I had someone construct four 4-foot-by-4-foot squares. My love for growing things was not just reignited, it was fully engulfed. Eventually, I was bringing so much dirt into the house on my wheels that I elected to concrete the walkways around the beds. Since then, I’ve expanded my raised-bed garden several times. I may not need to tell you, but I am a confessed overdoer.

Today’s garden consists of 13 raised beds that are 4 feet wide and anywhere from 15 to 75 feet long. They all have exposed aggregate concrete walkways which provide access 12 months a year. With my raised beds, while other gardening friends are complaining about the ground being too wet, I am steadily planting.

A few years ago, I found some gardening tools by Wolf that worked great for me. They are lightweight and have interchangeable implements. Having a 12 -volt sprayer on a wagon is also a tool that is very helpful when one of our organic concoctions needs to be sprayed. I can pull it around with my chair. Besides the pleasure of getting to eat the results of your labor or the joy of sharing with a neighbor, it’s great therapy, both physical and mental, to spend a day in the garden.

I do have limitations that are frustrating from time to time. I love to hoe and plant, but if there is a large area that needs to be tilled or large amounts of compost to haul, I enlist the help of someone else. We are so blessed in northwestern Louisiana to be able to garden, to some degree, all 12 months of the year. It’s January, and this week we harvested kale, potatoes, carrots, onions, beet greens, turnips, cabbage, and broccoli. We put all of that, plus previously harvested corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, and garlic, in the pot and made the best vegetable soup ever!

I have a greenhouse under construction that should be finished soon. This year’s seed order includes 12 varieties of tomatoes, three types of sweet peppers, and three types of hot peppers. Of course, there will be smaller amounts of everything from artichokes to zucchini.

It’s not important that you figure out everything before you begin but that you get out there and plant something. We all learn as we go. No two seasons are the same, so the more time we spend in the garden, the more we learn about our soil, our plants, and ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you plant something but have to have help somewhere along the way before your produce reaches the table. What is important is that you get up and move. Be involved in what you eat. You will feel better and you will learn — that’s a win-win situation.

For the past year, my daughter has been my helper and student. We accumulate all of this knowledge about gardening over the years, so it is important that we share it with the next generation. Over the last 25 years, there have been many teenagers who have worked for me, helping out in the garden. Hopefully, I have imparted to them the same love for growing their own food as Bop, my grandfather, did for me.

This MOTHER EARTH NEWS guest post is from Bruce M. Burnham of Louisiana, who has been pulling in big harvests from his wheelchair for more than 40 years.

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