New Urban Garden in Wheeling Designed For the Blind

Jul 25, 2014

Gardener Martin Wach built and planted the garden over a two-week period. And there's a lot of room for growth.
Credit Martin Wach

Wheeling has a new urban garden, and it’s a little out of the ordinary. It’s designed for visually impaired gardeners.  Not many like it exist in the state.


Inspiration From Afar

What was an empty lot on Wheeling Island in Ohio County not long ago is now a garden of peppers, flowers, beans, and more. Martin Wach designed and built it. Over the past several years he’s built several urban gardens in the area. Wach has trained mentally disabled people to garden, but even he was befuddled by the idea of creating a garden for the blind. He had to do some research, but he found a few good models.

“In Africa was the perfect example,” Wach said, “in Ghana and the Congo. All of the blind there garden. They have a vegetable garden. So I began to realize that the blind, even though they can’t see, have operational capability. They’ve learned how to compensate.”

Wach is using some of the African gardening techniques here in West Virginia. One device helps the visually impaired know which vegetables are in which beds.  

“We put a string with knots in it,” Wach said. “They slide their hands down the string. One knot is this garden, a little bit father is two knots, it’s cabbage; three knots is peppers.”

The Seeing Hand

Teddy Busby and Debbie Hatfield work to pot plants in the fledgling nursery. They plan to sell the plants to pay for garden operations.
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

The garden for the blind is the latest initiative of the The Seeing Hand Association, a Wheeling-based organization with a mission to help blind and visually impaired people lead fulfilling and independent lives. Executive Director Karen Haught says some of the clients find jobs within the organization.

“We’re always looking for projects and ways to have our employees do things that they enjoy.”

The land for the garden was donated to the group. And now two Seeing Hand employees, Teddy Busby and Debbie Hatfield are spending a couple of hours a week in the back of the garden – a nursery that grows potted plants and flowers.

Teddy: She goes and gets me the plant, and I just put the dirt inside the pot. That’s basically the way we do it all the time.

Board: And how many have you done?

Teddy: Oh lord, we’ve done over—

Debbie: We lost count.

Glynis: You lost count?

Teddy: I’d say we did over 400 or so, something like that.

Debbie: And they’re going to be beautiful. They make a beautiful ground cover.

Busby and Hatfield use their sense of touch to tell the difference between day lilies and weeds.

Other gardening techniques for the visually impaired include wind chimes and herbs with strong fragrance to help navigate the garden, as well as vertical growing, like walls of tomatoes. The Wheeling garden could incorporate those in the future.

Gardening is new for Busby. He said his mom used to garden when he was a kid, but he never caught the gardening bug himself. But he’s getting into it now.

Hatfield does have some gardening experience and she’s happy to be getting her hands dirty again.

“It’s hard work,” she said, “don’t let them fool you that it’s easy—it’s not.”

But she said she likes being outside, and perhaps most importantly, she appreciates the opportunity to serve her community.

Public Service

Right now the plan for the produce:  

  • A large portion will go to the House of the Carpenter, a local charity that distributes food to low income households. 
  • Some will also go to  Seeing Hand.
  • Overflow may be sold in farmers markets.
  • Plants from the nursery will be sold to pay for garden operations.

The hope is with some volunteer help, and continued support from the community, Wheeling’s garden for the blind should soon be self-sufficient and could even become profitable.