David James wheels down between the two rows of raised beds, looking over his fruits and vegetables, which include potatoes, beets and onions.

Labor of Love

A life-long farmer, David James isn’t sure what to think of his callous-free hands. He runs his thumb over his right palm, feeling the skin’s smoothness. He gently shakes his head, not happy with the softness.

“I love to get my hands in the dirt. I don’t use gloves; I’m a real hands on guy,” he said. “I don’t like these doctor hands. I just can’t get past that there are no callouses.”

James is eager as he waits for a break in the weather so he can get out to the garden and dig his fingers into the rich earth. His hands won’t get as dirty or torn up as they used to when he would spend hours in his corn, soybean and wheat fields in Delaware County. But James doesn’t care. He’s just happy that he can be outside and gardening again. He thought his gardening days were over after an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down two years ago. What he didn’t know was that the community he gave so much to would rally around him and donate money and labor to build raised gardening beds that are handicap accessible. It was a labor of love and thanks from his friends, family and neighbors.

“I was flabbergasted when I heard the plan,” James said. “I was really excited when they got it done. I was able to garden again.”

The date Oct. 23, 2008 is burned into James’s memory. On that day he was standing in a bucket on his tractor, cutting the limb off a tree. The limb hit him and knocked him to the ground. The injuries were so severe that his son Mark, who was in the tractor, thought at first his father was dead. James was taken by helicopter to a Columbus hospital where it was “so touch and go,” as James tells it, that doctors had to wait two days to operate. His injuries included a broken shoulder blade, ribs, vertebras and a punctured lung. He has two 16-inch rods in his back. After nine days in the hospital, he spent more than a month in a rehabilitation center.

A childhood friend, Carol Lathrop, was one of the many friends and family members who visited James during his recovery. She knew how difficult it was for the active 68-year-old to be confined to a wheelchair.

“Although he was so upbeat after his surgery, he would talk about how he would have to get rid of his snowmobile and motorcycle and not be able to play softball. He was an avid gardener, and it struck me that if he had the opportunity to garden with raised beds that it would be a healing process for him and still give him a touch of his love of farming,” said Lathrop, a former Buckeye Valley Local District superintendent.

Lathrop did some research about raised beds for the elderly and handicapped and got friends, community leaders and companies to agree to help out. She then told James her idea and asked for his permission to have the raised beds built in his backyard.

“It was an encouraging lift. It showed how much people care. They said I’d given a lot to the community and they wanted to give it back to me. I was touched,” said James who was a Radnor Township trustee for 16 years, on the school board for 12 years and a deacon at his church for 35 years.

Lathrop raised $4,000 – twice her goal – and worked with the Delaware Area Career Center to have students in the carpentry technology and landscape classes install the 10 wooden planters, which were set up in two long rows. Each planter is 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and 30 inches tall and consists of specially treated lumber that will not easily deteriorate or leach contaminants into the soil. A paved path divides the two rows of planters, giving James easy access to the plants. Tom Price, a longtime friend of James and his wife, Vicki, donated 15 yards of premium soil from his farm, Price Farms Organics. National Lime & Stone donated 5 tons of gravel. Soaker hoses in the beds make watering the plants easy. A large black mailbox in front of the planters holds many of James’s gardening tools.

“So many people are respectful of Dave. He’s a great guy,” Lathrop said. “It’s so delightful that in our farming community people are so helpful and neighborly.”

Work on the raised beds was finished in May 2009, just in time for the spring planting season. James planted a wide variety of fruits and vegetables: strawberries, potatoes, radishes, tomatoes, spinach, peas, green beans, onions, cucumbers, beets and cabbage. The couple has been canning fresh vegetables for about 20 years and James, an Ohio Farm Bureau member for more than 40 years, used to sell produce at the Delaware Farmers Market where he was known as the “potato man.” He boasted about his first crop of potatoes in the raised beds, saying they weighed well over a pound.

“Good mental therapy” is how Vicki describes the gardening beds, noting that it gives her husband something to look forward to not only during the planting and harvest seasons but in the winter when he can work on his gardening plans. She said it’s hard for him to not be working on the 1,700 acre family farm that his grandfather toiled on decades ago.

“I loved working on the farm so much that sometimes I didn’t want to quit and sometimes had trouble going to sleep because I wanted to keep working. I still have hopes that someday I can get out there and help my son in some way,” he said optimistically.

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.

Beds of Your Own

Ohio State University Extension has a helpful worksheet “Raised Bed Gardening” to help gardeners create their own beds.  According to Ohio State, in a traditional home garden, good management may yield about 0.6 pounds of vegetables per square foot. Records of production over three years in a raised bed at Dawes Arboretum near Newark indicate an average of 1.24 pounds per square foot, more than double the conventional yield. Other advantages to raised bed gardening: improved soil conditions, ease of working, ease of pest control,  and water conservation.