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(HOST) It’s time to take stock of things – and count our blessings – and commentator Henry Homeyer says that a new friendship makes his list of things to be grateful for this year.

(HOMEYER) With the year drawing to a close, I stopped recently to think about gardening. The exercise of gardening helps to keep me fit, the vegetable harvest supplies us with healthy organic food, and our flowers, trees and shrubs provide beauty throughout the year. It also helps me to make friends – sometimes lifelong friends. This year I made friends with Donna Covais, a wonderful gardener and a very special person.

Donna has the gift. She grows mountains of flowers and vegetables in a tiny strip of land between her driveway and the house she rents in downtown Burlington. She grows houseplants that make ordinary houseplants look anemic. She makes gorgeous flower arrangements, and has twice won city-wide prizes for her garden. And yet, for almost ten years, Donna has been completely blind.

Donna has had diabetes most of her life, and she always thought she managed it quite well. But then in 1996 her eyesight started to go, and quickly. Despite a number of operations, she lost her sight, and descended into a deep funk. She lost her business, a flower shop and nursery, and wasn’t sure how she would make a living, or support her two children. Life seemed pretty grim. Two things saved her: she met her husband, Joe, and she started gardening again.

While running her flower business and raising her two children, Donna had also volunteered her services to help others. She worked with special needs students, bringing them to her flower shop and teaching them skills they could use to get a job. She worked with the elderly, bringing plants to nursing homes and hospitals, doing demonstrations and encouraging patients to interact with plants.

After Donna lost her sight she met and married Joe Covais, who is also blind, and moved to Burlington. Frank Oliver, Merchandising Director of Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington, heard that Donna had once been a great gardener but no longer did any.

Mr. Oliver got Gardener’s Supply to donate some raised cedar beds, self-watering planters, tools, and even a talking thermometer. He cut grooves in the cedar beds and put strings in them so she could plant seeds in straight rows. Before long, Donna’s spirits had lifted, and she was gardening again. The local Master Gardeners program sent people by to help her. Life was good.

Donna’s garden is a strip of land no more than 8 feet wide. In it she raises tomatoes, lettuce, peas, beans, chard, cukes, garlic and dozens of types of flowers. She is an organic gardener who understands that healthy plants depend on healthy soil. She doesn’t use chemicals, but has never had a pest problem.

Once gardening had helped Donna recover her spirit she decided to finish the college degree she had started years before. “My plants and horticultural therapy gave me my life back, especially professionally,” Donna said. She is now a registered Horticultural Therapist, and a motivational speaker.

I feel very lucky to be able to count her among my friends.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, NH.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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