gardeners with disabilities

Borculo woman experiences the healing power of nature

There’s a pinkish tomato in a cluster of green tomatoes that’s partly visible in a staked tangle of green vines.

The harvester must judge whether the tomato is red enough to be ripe, even as breezes move the leaves and fluctuations in daylight due to cloud-cover change how the fruited vine appears.

The decision whether to pick the tomato is further complicated by distractions of chirping of birds and passing traffic.

The picker must possess the hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills to twist the desired fruit from the vine and place it gently, to avoid bruising, in a basket.

This is why picking a tomato can be difficult for someone who has suffered brain trauma.

Borculo resident Vickie Wiersma Priebe, 60, says gardening aided her in healing from a head injury five years ago.

Priebe was working in a gift shop in Saugatuck when a heavy wooden sign fell, striking the upper right side of her face.

There was no blood. Priebe applied an ice pack between customers hoping to minimize swelling in her eye area.

But her head was throbbing and she felt too dizzy to stand without leaning on something sturdy. She couldn’t count change correctly or remember how to run a credit card.

Priebe was working alone and couldn’t reach the shop’s owner by phone to obtain permission to close the store. So, she summoned her own daughter to help her finish a 10-hour shift.

Then Priebe’s daughter drove her to Prime Care, where an orbital contusion on her right eye socket and concussion were diagnosed.

As brain injuries go, doctors were hopeful that Priebe’s was minor.  After a year she was still experiencing migraine headaches with vision anomalies, dizziness, and slow cognitive functioning.

Getting herself out of bed, bathed, dressed and fed in the mornings became a four-hour ordeal, because she’d forget what she was doing and repeat steps.

She couldn’t follow a recipe.  Shopping overwhelmed her, especially in large stores with fluorescent lights. Reading was difficult – unless the text was upside down!

Doctors then diagnosed post-concussive syndrome, symptoms from structural damage to the brain, or disruption of neurotransmitters, as a result of the blow that caused the concussion.

Vision problems increased. Layered patterns of shimmering shark teeth persisted across her visual field, although muscle tissue around the right eye appeared healthy.

Priebe continues to pursue becoming more functional, but wishes progress was swifter.

“Through stubborn determination, I’ve come back this far,” Priebe said. “Of all the things I’ve done, working on the farm helped the most.”

She’s speaking of CJ Veggies, a small local organic vegetable farm operated by Chuck and Judy Johnson.

Priebe had been a regular customer of CJ Veggies at the Holland Farmers Market. Chuck Johnson asked if she’d like to help on the farm when they saw each other at Harvest Health Foods in Hudsonville in March 2012.

“At that time I wasn’t talking much,” Priebe remembers. “It was frustrating not being able to pull the right words from the file cabinet of my brain. I’d shut down around people.”

She wanted to accept Johnson’s offer because she remembered reading a fascinating book titled “Earthing” by Clint Ober. Premise of the book is that direct “grounded” contact with the earth’s surface provides humans with many health benefits.

Priebe explained that she was coming back from a head injury that was compounded by an eye problem. She sighed with relief when Johnson chuckled, “Shoot. Everybody’s coming back from something.”

Looking back, Priebe imagines she was a difficult farmhand. The farm manager had to repeat instructions, which her mind slowly processed into different words that made sense to her.

She wore wrap-around sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to block bright light from her right eye. The eye’s response to light triggers her migraines.

She often wears earplugs to muffle sounds and help her concentrate on the task at hand. Weeding around lettuce and spinach plants requires keen powers of differentiation.

Standing and stooping while working in fields gave her experience orienting her body in open surroundings. Slowly she overcame the tendency to lurk and lean on perimeters.

Priebe came to appreciate repetitive tasks, believing they gave her space for emotional healing. Her injury had changed her, and her relationships.

She believes her status with her daughter and son was diminished because now they were often cast in the mothering role, driving her to appointments and checking on her welfare.

Yet, Priebe said she found a sense of accomplishment in washing produce and packing boxes to fill orders from local restaurants and Community Supported Agriculture customers.

She attended Farm-to-Table dinners at other organic farms and felt accepted and encouraged by the farmworkers. She was knitting a new network of social support – another key to living with a disability.

“The farm helped me relearn how to function in the world,” said Priebe, who previously worked as a paralegal secretary and dental assistant. “I also learned to tolerate my limitations and be grateful for gains I’m making now.”

Is nature therapy for you?

Growing A Garden From a Wheelchair

Gardening is good therapy.

That’s what Cherry Overway says.

“When you see weeds, you’ve got a choice,” said Overway, 73. “You can watch it get worse or you can do something.”

Cherry Garden.jpg

Overway’s garden is tucked away at the end of Myrtle Avenue in Holland. You stroll through it to get to “The Cherry Tree House,” where she has lived 48 years, which faces East End Drive.

The long, narrow garden features 647 varieties of flowers, almost all of them perennials. The garden comes alive with color with the blooming of the crocuses in March and continues through October with the mums. 

A seven-month garden is a fine achievement in West Michigan. What’s more astounding is that Overway tends it all from her wheelchair, a rolling stool or by scooting along while sitting on the end of a wagon.

“It’s a lot of work in the spring, but it’s nice to get out here after sitting in the house all winter,” said Overway, who contracted polio at 18 months of age, before the vaccine was invented. “During the summer, I’m outside 12 to 15 hours a day. Sometimes I’m working but mostly I’m just enjoying it.”

Overway likes to share her garden with friends and neighbors. Members of the Holland Horticultural Club encouraged her to throw a garden party in 2001, and Overway has continued the tradition every year since on the first Sunday of June, when her irises are in their glory.

Close to 100 people stop by some years – and not just for Cherry’s Memphis-style barbecue.

Overway enjoys telling guests who ask the history of her garden, which was an open space when her daughters Kathy and Kristi were little.

But a neighbor, who has since moved, decided to erect a fence. Her neighbor on the other side later did the same, framing in her irregular-shaped lot.

So, Overway did what gardeners do when they’re slightly miffed. She planted marigolds on her property line.

She liked the color. She liked finding new and exotic plants. Truthfully, she says she couldn’t resist buying plants she didn’t have. And friends and family gave her plants for special occasions.

Until four years ago, Overway was able to get around with a walker, but even then it usually worked better to garden from a seated position.

She designed her garden with raised beds that she doesn’t have to bend over to tend. The beds are narrow so she doesn’t have to reach far, but she also has gardening tools with good, fat grips that easier to use.

Paving and making paths wide enough to maneuver in a chair is essential, Overway said.  

Her original path, paved with concrete blocks, leads under an arbor where there are two steps down.  When Overway moved to a wheelchair, she needed to have a second path constructed to bypass the stairs. Most visitors don’t realize that the second path, this one created with wood planks, is an accessibility feature. It just all blends in, she said.

Watering a garden with a hose can be a nuisance if you’re pulling it from a wheelchair, Overway said. She has soaker hoses installed beneath the topsoil to keep her garden soil moist.

Even if she didn’t use a wheelchair, Overway says she would have “zero interest in mowing grass” because it has to be done weekly. Her front lawn, facing East End Drive, is covered in wood chips except for an octagon-shaped patch of grass.

“Somebody said I had to have some grass,” Overway said with a huff. “There it is. My neighbor mows it when he cuts his grass.”

Gardeners with disabilities are wise to plan before they plant, Overway said. If she hadn’t decided on narrow, raised beds, she couldn’t have continued adding to the garden when she went from a walker to a chair.

She finds she can do most of the work herself, but says she’s also fortunate to have neighbor’s she can “call anytime about anything.”

They’re always willing to help. They enjoy Cherry’s garden, too.