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Charity Ranger Finds Accessible Gardening Space and a Welcoming Community at Thomas Street P-Patch

Disability Pride Month is celebrated each July and serves as an opportunity to honor the history, experiences, achievements, and struggles of the disability community. This July, we sat down with P-Patch Community Gardener Charity Ranger and her caregiver, Kay, to chat about how the accessibility features at the Thomas Street P-Patch enable her to participate in the garden and how it helps her find a sense of community.  

Charity Ranger, Thomas Street P-Patch

How long have you been gardening at Thomas Street P-Patch and how did you hear about the program?

Charity: I started gardening here in 2018. I never gardened before. My grandmother, who I grew up visiting at her house in Bremerton, was like a master. She always had flowers, huge flowers. I got really into gardening after I “retired.” I had to quit working because of my disability. I just got too worn out. I got a caregiver, and we were just sitting at home a lot. One day my caregiver said, “I do a little bit of garden work.” I thought it was so silly and old lady-like. Then she started talking about harvesting the produce and all the tomatoes she grew, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, eating! Eating is something that I love to do!” I am very into eating yummy food, so I thought, “awesome, I’m going for it.”

I had a friend who mentioned the program and, on my way to work, the bus would take me past a big sign that said “P-Patch,” so I knew that I had to call someone. At my job, I worked with finding different information about community resources, and I was determined to find out everything I could about community gardening in Seattle. I did a little deep dive, and then I met with a P-Patch contact, and she asked where I lived. I gave her my address and she told me that about six blocks away there was a community garden with two raised beds. They said that whoever was gardening there had just discontinued with her participation, so the timing worked out. I came down to Thomas Street Gardens and thought “holy heck, that’s beautiful! I’m going to do this!

My first year, my caregiver helped me plant out broccoli and cauliflower, maybe I had peas, but I was so excited that I didn’t want to eat them because they were so pretty. I had a ridiculous sense of pride. One day my caregiver was kind of grouchy with me and told me that my broccoli had gone to seed. I didn’t even know what that meant! When she told me that it gets bitter, I felt really bad! I was very upset that I had ruined my garden. Then she urged me to read some books or watch some videos about gardening to get ready for the next year. That was the first winter after I had stopped working. I binged so many hours of gardening YouTubes. So, my first year was kind of a disaster, but then, I learned and figured it all out. The next year I knew exactly what I did wrong. I knew exactly when to plant my seeds, how to prune my plants, how much soil, how much fertilizer, so I did all that and I got a bumper crop of tomatoes! I had two beds, all tomatoes.

Can you tell me a bit about your disability?

Charity:  I have Friedreich’s ataxia, it is neurological. It affects my coordination with everything, so that’s kind of why I talk like I’m drunk. I used to walk like I was drunk too, even though I don’t drink. Then I started to use a wheelchair. It does not affect my cognitive ability at all. It is very rare. In Seattle, there are only two or three of us that have it.

Kay: Friedreich’s ataxia is a genetic disorder. She and her sister both have it. Both of her parents are carriers. It’s a zebra disease. The term zebra comes from the fact that zebras don’t live here so when you hear hoof beats it’s going to be a horse, but every once in a while, it’s a zebra. So, among the disability community, people call those zebras.

What are some of the accessibility features at Thomas Street that make it possible for you to garden here?

Charity: The thing I loved most when I came in here initially was that it was so freaking beautiful. But I thought I couldn’t get in because I can’t really drive around on dirt, especially when it is wet outside. Not only do I get stuck in the mud, if it is rainy and I accidentally twirl up grass, it gets stuck in my wheels. I’m just really glad that they have this beautiful, bricked path that comes up all the way to my beds and between my beds so I can access everything.

Kay: When they built the path, they built it to be wheelchair accessible so not only is it a hard surface, but it is wide enough. Her chair, while it is standard, is still hard to get through doorways. So, the path is nice and wide for her and the front gate is large enough for people who use mobility devices.  

Charity: The gardeners here are all awesome. I love them. When I started, the raised beds were made out of wood and I’m such a bad wheelchair driver that I totally ripped out one of the boards.

Kay: That wasn’t really your fault, the wood had rotted out. I could put my finger through that wood, that wasn’t you. I mean, it might have accelerated it a little bit, but it was happening anyway [laughs].

Charity: So, the other gardeners said they were going to get some trough beds for me. They got a grant, and they bought two of them. I got a gift certificate from a family member to buy another one because I’m so into gardening! Two wasn’t enough. The whole community came together to remove the dirt and take out the rotten wood and help fill up the new beds. I love them! They are just so pretty. These beds don’t mind as much when I accidentally bump them. 

Kay: This was last winter, so this is the first year with the new beds. Another thing that helps is that they have a watering wand that is called a fireman’s wand. It is long and it has a lever so for people that have hand limitations you don’t have to squeeze it. Charity can pull and push the lever and because it’s a long wand, she can lay it on the side of the bed, so the bed holds the weight of the hose. They also have an expandable hose here which is much lighter and easier to move. The good thing about those kinds of accommodations is that they are good for everybody. It’s easier for everybody to manipulate that, and it’s nice to have a hose that isn’t heavy and awkward.

How does it feel to have a place like Thomas Street Gardens that is accessible for you to come garden and be in community?

Charity: When I was going to college, I got a full-ride academic scholarship, so I’m pretty smart. I was really excited to go do big things. As my disability progresses and keeps getting a bit worse and a bit worse, my world just gets a little bit smaller. I feel like being part of this gardening community has really opened things for me. I feel like I can be a valuable member of this community regardless of my disability. Nobody is ever disappointed that I can’t physically do things. We recently had our garden social party and I found us a guide online on “how to throw a potluck.” I set up a spreadsheet to track who was going to bring what and I sent out the link to everyone to let them know details about the party. I get to be part of it.

My boyfriend got me grow lights when I started gardening, and he recently helped me upgrade to better lights, so now every year I start tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, and a few other plants. I reach out to folks who are lower income and can’t afford to buy plants for their garden. I grow starts like crazy for people. This year, I brought about 100 tomato plants to the garden, and gardeners here probably took about half of them. I really like doing that. Through the P-Patch we were able to get a box of seeds for free and I am happy to grow them. It’s awesome. I’m mostly an indoor cat during the winter because my wheelchair does not do well in snow or when it gets rainy or slippery. I get really bored. Last year, I decided to make a website for the garden. I’m no web designer, but I watched videos on how to do it. I was able to make an order form so people could order starts and I would plant whatever people wanted. I also included gardening information that was really helpful for me like the Tilth guide and some of the videos I watched when I started.

I love actively being part of my community. You don’t think that shit is important until you are not able to do it. It really sucks. It’s not something that I’m too busy for, it’s something that I am physically unable to do, but I should be able to participate because I have all these valuable services to offer. I can grow these starts and I should be able to participate. I love that this community lets me do that.