For many who had always had a garden in their younger years, the accessible, raised vegetable gardens recently installed at Morgan Health Centre brought back memories of working the soil and harvesting the fruits of their labor. For others, it provided an opportunity to get outdoors and socialize.

The raised beds were installed about a month ago by Raymond LaRocque, founder of “Accessible Gardens.” Wheelchair-bound, he knew others in wheelchairs would have only limited access to a conventional garden.

“I could no longer reach down to my garden, so I brought the garden up to me,” says his brochure. His mission: “to enable every individual with a physical disability or limitation to enjoy the mental, physical and spiritual benefits of gardening.”

Whatever the benefits, an accessible garden has been very welcome at Morgan. While the framework for the raised gardens – which come partially assembled – were being put together, residents with windows overlooking the facility’s backyard peeked out, eager to see what was going on. The modular pieces can be assembled in a variety of configurations; Morgan purchased enough to create two gardens, with a trellis in between.

Residents in wheelchairs can pull up to the side of the gardens, with the chair sliding underneath. The top edges of the wood are covered in soft padding to prevent splinters and abraisons.

“What’s really good is that the animals don’t get into it,” said Activities Director Tammy Barone.

Since the site opens out to a wooded area, the residents often see deer, woodchucks, rabbits and wild turkeys. A hummingbird has been spotted at a new hanging birdfeeder and several cardinals frequent other feeders.

The enlarged patio, now more inviting than ever with its vegetable gardens and planters, has enticed more residents to sit outdoors on nice days.

“It’s good therapy for them, it’s been drawing people out of the building,” Barone said, admitting this will be her first garden.

From his wheelchair, resident Guido Sullo, formerly of western Cranston, has been actively caring for the garden since the project was complete, working with activities aide Joanne Chevalier, an employee at Morgan for 18 years. Also a resident of Cranston, Chevalier had previously owned a florist shop, and is known for having a “green thumb.” She has also had a garden for more than 20 years.

The vegetable plants, now mostly still in the flowering stage, include peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and basil.

They also planted mandevilla, a flowering vine, which will be trained to grow over the central trellis.

“The best part is when they start producing, all your hard work – that’s when you appreciate it,” said Sullo as he raked through the soil.

He checks the garden daily, making sure the soil is draining after recent rain.

“They’re very protective of the garden,” said Barone.

A sign has been erected to warn young visitors. It reads, “Please keep in mind I’m here for show, otherwise how am I supposed to grow?”

Nearby, three gentlemen, also in wheelchairs, recall gardens from their younger days.

“I’d eat a tomato just like an apple,” said Alfonso LaFazia, 86, a Johnston native. “My mother used to preserve them – she’d crush the dried basil and add it to the macaroni gravy.”

Former North Providence resident Philip DeVito, who lives at Morgan with his wife, Mary, recalled growing cucumbers and squash.

“You’d get the flower, batter and fry it,” he recalled. “We had loads of tomatoes – we’d share with the neighbors.”

Others discussed the best types of manure to use on the garden.

As a result of recent improvements and renovations, the facility has been awarded a “First Step” National Quality Award from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, which will be presented at the group’s 60th annual convention and expo, to be held in Chicago in October.

Cranston Herald (RI) & Johnston Sun Rise (RI)
by Beth Hurd