DUNEDIN — The people who started the Dunedin Community Garden have grown more than vegetables. They have sown the seeds to cultivate a close-knit and inclusive community of gardeners. Their latest project is testament to their desire to create a place where plants and all Dunedin residents can flourish.
"We wanted to provide garden plots that were more appropriate for gardeners with mobility impairments," said Debby Sheldon, community garden vice president and education committee member.
The result: raised garden beds that can be worked by someone who uses a wheelchair.
"We said we needed to be more inclusive and representative of our entire community," she said. "To do that, we became involved with subject-matter experts to create high-rise beds. Then we had folks come out and test the surface, height, reach, and to see how easily they could access the beds."
Mary Twohey first learned about DCG's efforts to offer accessible garden beds while serving on Dunedin's Americans with Disabilities Act committee. Twohey is director of the Disability Achievement Center in Largo, which was able to help with advice.
"DCG needed insight on how high to make the plots and what would make them accessible," said Twohey. "They were being fabulously attentive to the needs of individuals with disabilities before building as opposed to thinking of it after. I did a lot of research. They did a lot of research. We tried different plans."
Twohey uses a power wheelchair after a cervical spine injury from a dirt bike accident 29 years ago left her with quadriplegia. The possibilities this garden opened intrigued her — not only from a professional perspective, but personally.
"I was excited about the project," said Twohey, 50. "I love to garden, native gardening. Once I was aware of this wonderful program for having your own little garden plot with people who know what they're doing to guide you, I decided to give it a whirl."
All the research paid off. The community garden designed the high-rise beds to be 24 inches tall, the average height of a wheelchair. Beds are 10 feet long and 3 feet across rather than the typical 3 feet. That allows anyone who uses a mobility device to reach across the entire bed. Any wider and reaching the plot's center would be a problem.
Each accessible bed is created from wood, but with an exterior designed to last.
"We have a special surface on our beds and, of course, there was a cost involved," Sheldon said. "That surface is designed to take a lot of punishment, is environmentally friendly in that it's a semi-permeable surface made from recycled material, which will not leach out into the environment."
The first funding the garden received came from an IBM employee grant Sheldon applied for aimed at nonprofits. New plots were decided on after one of the original accessible beds began sagging and dripping water.
The garden partnered with the city of Dunedin, which offered guidance, materials and tools.
"Instead of putting in three or four beds, we were able to put in six beds with our grant," Sheldon said. "We put in better-quality beds to meet the needs of folks who otherwise wouldn't be able to get to them."
Twohey now has tomatoes ripening in her garden bed and plans to grow her own lettuce and parsley. She appreciates the community garden's effort, which she says not only gives those who live with disabilities an opportunity to participate in their community, but also in life.
And the project took a community effort to be realized. Not only did the city and community garden members get involved, but the citizens ADA advisory committee, a team from St. Petersburg College, city employees and Friends of the DCG volunteered.
Sheldon says 400 hours went into the review, design and construction of the beds. According to Sheldon, the cost was about $3,000 for installation and $2,000 more for the special surface on the beds.
"DCG created an opportunity for individuals with disabilities who are inexperienced, unknowledgeable, but willing to learn and experiment to grow their own vegetables in a safe and nurturing environment," Twohey said. "There are people to hold their hand if they need one held, and to give them constructive guidance on how to best make it happen."