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Reimagining the Garden

Discovering a New Way to "See"

Donna Covais
Donna Covais of Burlington, Vt., uses lots of containers and raised beds in her garden.

When Donna Covais of Burlington, Vt., lost her sight eight years ago at the age of 40, she thought her gardening days were over. "I thought I’d never garden or arrange flowers again," she said. But with inner courage and help from friends and family, Donna is a gardener once again.

A New Life

Donna had been running a successful flower shop and floral design business in New Hampshire when she lost her sight. Now she had to learn how to live all over again. Her first step was to enroll in a school for the blind in Newton, Mass. During the 16-week program, she learned how to navigate the world anew. She also met a fellow enrollee with a similar story. The two fell in love and were married soon after.

Donna and her two children, Erin and Nathaniel, relocated to Burlington, Vt., where her new husband lived. She began settling into her new life, but getting reconnected with flowers and gardening seemed like a pipe dream. That was until Frank Oliver, an employee at Gardener’s Supply, heard about Donna from a friend. Frank called her one day and said, "Donna, we want to get you back into gardening." And so began her second life as a gardener.

The New Garden

Donna smiles and laughs when she thinks about all the encouragement she received from Frank that first year. "My husband started calling Frank "Plant-a-Claus." He’d just show up with products for me to try such as window boxes, pots, and tools I could handle easily," she says. "He’d also help me brainstorm about what I could grow in this small city lot."

Donna now does most of her gardening in containers and raised beds. "I love the Self-Watering Windowboxes, Tomato Success Kits, Self-Watering Hanging Baskets, and raised bed kits. They are so easy to work in," says Donna. "I love color and texture and have a vivid memory of various plants, so I really pack lots of them into these containers," she says.

In her windowboxes, Donna grows flowers such as morning glories and portulaca, and herbs such as mint, coriander and French tarragon. "Herbs are both beautiful and functional," says Donna. The hanging baskets are filled with petunias, torenia, portulaca, and bacopa. She uses her Self-Watering Planters to grow vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, and Swiss chard. "I love the water reservoirs because I can feel when the reservoir is low. I’ve also learned to lift pots and tell, by their weight, if they’re dry or not," says Donna. "For my raised beds I just use the finger test: stick my finger in 6 inches deep and if it’s dry, add water," she says.

Gardening without Sight

Donna has learned lots of tricks to help her navigate and work in her 6’ by 30’ garden area. "The big challenge for me is to know where I am in the garden," she says. To help orient herself, Donna has planted marker plants and structures that she can easily recognize. For example, Donna has wind chimes near the stairs so she knows where they start, and a silver mound Artemisia at the bottom of the steps with a shepherd’s crook nearby to know where they end. "I grow marigolds along the bed edge and can tell the marigold from the weeds by touch and smell," says Donna. She uses other scented plants such as heliotrope, to mark specific areas.

"Spring is the easiest time for me in the garden because the bare ground levels the playing field for sighted and unsighted people. We all have to visualize what the garden will look like," explains Donna. "Late-summer and fall are the hardest times because I know the garden is lush with color and tasty vegetables. It’s difficult to know when to harvest vegetables and to control insects," she says. To help out, Donna has had several Master Gardener volunteers work with her during the growing season doing the few tasks she couldn't do herself.

Because of Donna’s flower design background and strong memory, she still does flower arranging and workshops for the local flower show. She has the flower wholesaler describe the flowers they have, colors, stage of maturity, and then she puts them together into arrangements.

Helping Other Gardeners

Donna’s unbridled spirit is contagious. Since she lost her sight, she has earned a degree in Horticultural Therapy, which is a rehabilitative process that uses plants, gardens, and other horticultural activities to improve the social, emotional, psychological and physical adjustment of people. Donna is now Vermont's first registered horticultural therapis, having received her HTR status from the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA). Her horticultural therapy internship was working with special needs children at a local high school.

"In an odd way, I think being blind is an asset when it comes to working with people," she says, "I show them they can overcome many obstacles in their own lives." Donna has spoken before many professional groups including the AHTA at the United States Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C.

"I think plants are a universal language and a great healing tool," says Donna. "They evoke emotions and feelings that help you deal with life better." Donna is thrilled to be back in the garden. It is a great source of inspiration for her, just as she is a great source of inspiration to so many others.

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