The way I see it: Atty Svendsen

We introduce this series to give our writers an opportunity to share their own experiences and stories with you. Each one will offer a different perspective of the phrase “the way I see it.” Atty was determined to keep doing what she loved – gardening – even as her vision decreased. She realized she could have the same great experience in a different way.

Smell those tangy tomatoes, crispy sharp peppers and crunchy clean cucumbers. As a child, the only vegetable that didn't come from a can was artichokes and lettuce.

That changed when I turned 9 years old and we moved in with my grandma. She served sliced tomatoes with every lunch and a variety of smelly veggies I'd never heard of like brussels sprouts, cabbage and broccoli. The small amount of sight I had allowed me to cautiously nibble the different colors and decide all the green ones were gross.

Everything I thought I knew about veggies changed when I became a teenager. I fell in love with them. My step-father, a farm boy from Minnesota, dug up the backyard and made magic. Up popped bushes of real beans, actual peas in pods and enough zucchini to fill neighborhood porches with bulging brown bags. 

In awe, I crouched between the rows and carefully felt the stems until I overfilled my basket with long green beans. Blind by then, I’d decided that smell was a better indication of taste than color.

Once in my own apartment, gardening became something I used to do. I killed many house-plants, trying to get in touch with my inner earth, and finally, for both our sakes, I gave it up.

Many years later, I discovered a fall from a second-story window as a small child caused my blindness. The collision damaged the blood flow to my optic nerve resulting in gradual loss until nothing was left. Raising four boys during this time meant a lot of food was needed. I knew I could save some money by planting my own garden. So, I headed out into the backyard to try and make my own magic.

How big should I make it? The internet was still being imagined and I had no braille tape-measure, so I stepped off 15 feet for five rows and decided to put five plants in each row. Very tidy and hopefully no one would step on the baby plants.

Using a hand-trowel, I broke ground and discovered it was hot, gritty, tiring and surprisingly peaceful. As the plot grew larger, I realized I would have to mark the rows somehow, so I would not crush my darlings.

A few banged thumbs later, I managed to hammer in ten metal posts, tie yards of twine and create working rows. First beefsteak was planted and early girl tomatoes, red, green and yellow bells and more cucumbers than the neighborhood could eat. On each post I hung old CDs, shiny-side up, to keep the birds from eating my buds.

One day while feeling my plants, I found my first tiny tomato. I called for the kids and all of us stood around it “oohing” and “ahhing” and laughing. There were also tons of blossoms and peppers the size of marbles.

That night, a storm blew in and whipped the plants around. The next morning, I dashed out and sadly the new tomato was gone and the stem was nearly broken in half.

I propped her up, squeezed the stalk back together and twined her in place. Every day I gave her pep-talks and lots of gratitude. She gave me a tomato first. We split it five ways.

Time left that yard behind, so I grew blueberries in pots and hiked miles to community gardens to play in the dirt.

A couple of years ago, I bought the House of Doors and it has a grand yard.

Things have changed for the blind gardener. I still make my rows and mark each plant using metal marshmallow roasters with braille labeled tape. Now, no botanist is needed, I have an app called Picture it that allows me to take a snapshot of the plant and learn what it is. I discovered the 6-foot-tall behemoth in the backyard was a mullein, V. thapsus

This year, the garden has old favorites and new plants. For tea, there’s lavender, peppermint, echinacea, and catnip. Edible flowers include violas, bachelor’s buttons, nasturtium, and calendula. The medicinal assortment is burdock, cayenne, hyssop, and yarrow.

Like my garden, I change and adapt. Maybe next year I’ll grow a tree.

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