FAIRFIELD – There was no way two visually impaired men could plant a 2,800-square-foot vegetable garden and grow enough produce to feed their families and help others as well.
But it happened.
“You start to believe it; people told you you couldn’t do it,” gardener David Perry said. “Yes, we can do it. We just had to adapt. There is a lot of layers of emotion there.”
In early May, Perry, 43, of Waterville, teamed up with 52-year-old Deon Lyons of Clinton to plant a garden off Main Street in Fairfield.
Both Perry and Lyons are legally blind and use touch, sound and distinctive markers to navigate each row for vegetable planting and harvesting.
Lyons, who lost his vision in 2010, said his world fell apart, partially because he could no longer do one of the things he enjoyed most — gardening.
He met Perry and all that changed.
Lyons said getting started as Perry’s helper was frustrating at first. Just maintaining his balance between rows was a challenge.
“It was the first time I had used the sight line or guide line, method of planting,” Lyons said. “Just to be able to weed down through the rows and feel the stuff sprout up out of the ground — that was the best part of gardening.”
In the guide line method of planting for people with visual impairments, rows are laid out with twine running in a straight line the full distance of each row. Plant placement is done along the guide lines with a 5- or 6-inch stick or the length of a person’s hand separating each plant.
Cardboard is placed between each row for weed control and to clearly separate the rows so the men can tell where to walk. This week, that harvest of friendship began to pay off with zucchini, radishes, garlic, broccoli and 60-foot rows of salad greens.
The bounty includes the typical garden fare of tomatoes, carrots, green beans and onions, but also several unusual and heirloom varieties of runner, pole, dry and sugar snap beans and other legumes.
They raise the heirloom Marfax bean for drying. Marfax is one of 16 traditional vegetables that farmers and gardeners are growing for RAFT — Renewing America’s Food Traditions, a national group seeking to preserve traditional fruits and vegetables and methods of cooking.
There also is a 20-foot row of cilantro, 45 feet of yellow eye beans, bay leaves, red-hot chili peppers, Lillian tomatoes, collard greens, and two types of amaranth — one of the primary crops of the ancient Aztecs, which are prized for their greens and potent black seeds, Perry said.
Perry, who has been sight impaired for most of his life, said he can’t see the rows where each variety is planted, but he has all of them memorized.
Lyons said he has about 75 percent of the garden locations set to memory, but still has to start at the first row to count forward to know where he is.
Perry, who in 2008 completed the Journeyperson Program sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, started the garden with the help of his wife, Julie, three years ago. He said all of the vegetables are grown organically, using organic compost, sea kelp and fish emulsion.
Lyons said he said has exchanged a lot of emails through a blind forum using an IBM Lotus Symphony application known as JAWS from Freedom Scientific of Florida.
JAWS, which stands for Job Access With Speech, is a screen reader, developed for computer users whose vision loss prevents them from seeing screen content, according to the company’s website. JAWS reads aloud what’s on the computer screen and gives the user tools for navigating and accessing web pages and screen content.
“There’s a lot of blind people who are into gardening,” Lyons said. “JAWS talks to me — it tells me what I’m highlighting on the screen. That’s how I do all my writing, all my emailing.”
The men have a farm stand on Main Street in front of the American Legion post, not far from the garden, which is on land owned by a friend Roger Gagne. Proceeds from vegetable sales will be used to restock seed and equipment and to purchase compost for next year. What’s left over will be donated.
“We going to be donating about two-thirds of our onions to the Waterville Boys & Girls Club,” Perry said. “We got 180 row feet of onions, each the size of a baseball; so about 90 pounds of onions. We will donate whatever they need; there are so many needy families out there.”
Ken Walsh, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club and YMCA said he and other club managers met with Perry on Friday for a plan involving kids working on organic gardens and possible year-round green houses at the club at the Alfond Youth Center on North Street and at North End Public Housing Club house.
Getting children involved in growing gardens and seeing the benefit of eating fresh produce is sound idea, Walsh said. The combined programs serve more than 40,000 hot meals after school each year, he said.
“Having the expertise of Deon and David will help us develop this program into the future,” Walsh said. “The end result will be a new exciting program for our 5,000 youth members that will teach them a lifelong skill and appreciation of gardening.”
Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at: