Physical limitations don’t stop this gardener: Bill Callahan adapts with creativity and courage

  • Bill Callahan in his Greenfield home garden. His favorite time to tend his plants is “when it’s light.” FOR THE RECORDER/GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Raised beds make it easier for Bill Callahan to weed, mulch and water plants while using his new wheelchair in his Greenfield home garden. FOR THE RECORDER/GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Birches and a bench provide a centerpiece in the home garden of Bill and Gail Callahan in Greenfield. FOR THE RECORDER/GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • The area south of Bill and Gail Callahan’s Greenfield home is almost entirely planted in vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. FOR THE RECORDER/GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Bill Callahan grows several types of lettuce in his home garden for daily salads. FOR THE RECORDER/GILLIS MACDOUGALL

For The Recorder
Published: 7/11/2021 8:36:23 AM

Bill Callahan’s home garden in Greenfield features six varieties of tomatoes, and five of peppers. “I use a combination for depth of flavor in my salsa and sauces,” Callahan said.

He’s creative in other aspects of gardening, too, proving that physical challenges needn’t deter enthusiasts from working the soil, tending plants and enjoying harvests. The retired physician, who turns 85 this month, adapted his approaches after medical issues led him to require a wheelchair.

A Greenfield resident since 1971, Callahan shares a home on Church Street with Gail Callahan, his wife of 32 years. Aided by a recent acquisition called the Ranger Discovery, Callahan finds gardening much easier these days; the lightweight folding electric wheelchair is powerful and agile, allowing him to bend and work without tipping over.

“When I gardened using a regular wheelchair, I sometimes got stuck while navigating paths. But this new one is fantastic,” said Callahan.

Paths for standard wheelchairs must be 36 inches, but the Ranger Discovery can handle paths as narrow as 24 inches.

Callahan’s garden paths are covered in a black material often used in horse barns and stables; its thickness and rubber durability provide advantages for his four wheels.

Raised beds are another factor that make it easier for Callahan to reach down and over to tend his plants. “It’s a take-off on French intensive gardening,” he said, referring to a method also known as biodynamic gardening, where high yields of produce are grown in less space than what’s known as “traditional” gardening.

French intensive gardening has a tradition of its own, dating back to 16th-century commercial market gardens located around Paris and other French cities to supply urban populations with fresh produce. The method later reached England and peaked in popularity around the late 1800s. It fell out of fashion for a time but was introduced to the U.S. by British gardener Alan Chadwick, who in 1967 started a French intensive garden while teaching at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The method that allowed French diners to enjoy fresh food in the city hundreds of years ago has proven useful for Callahan. His raised beds, new wheelchair and sturdy path material all contribute to his continuing ability to produce healthy food.

Years ago, while living on Meadow Lane, Callahan began gardening so he could grow his own organic vegetables. “I was drawn to organic methods because I knew that the poisons in our food, air, soil and water are killing us.”

In addition to being a concerned father of four, Callahan participated in the births of some 5,000 babies as an obstetrician-gynecologist.

“When considering health, we have to start with the basics,” he said.

In his early gardening years, Callahan purchased praying mantises and ladybugs as an alternative to harmful sprays or other substances. Mantises eat moths, mosquitoes, aphids and other pests; many species of ladybugs also prey on aphids, even laying eggs directly into aphid colonies to ensure ladybug larvae have an immediate food source.

Callahan had no gardening experience during his childhood in Pawtucket, R.I. Yet in adulthood, it’s become a way of life. His daily routine involves removing weeds, using a bit of mulch and hand watering with a hose. “I can work from the chair, or I can get down on my hands and knees. It’s so much easier to get in and out of the new chair on my own.”

For years, the shrubbery surrounding Callahan’s garden was 8 or 9 feet tall. “That worked nicely for privacy, but I have to admit that — now that the bushes are just a couple of feet high — I’ve come to enjoy greeting neighbors and passersby.”

With a chuckle, he related that concerned neighbors seeing Callahan on the ground will inquire if he’s out of his chair purposefully, or if perhaps he’s fallen? “I’m down there, weeding away, and someone will ask if I need help. People are very kind.”

Callahan’s garden, previously contained in a small area, now takes up most of his property and is filled with beautiful plants, both edible and decorative. Bound for the table and freezer are tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, peas and strawberries. There are many varieties of lettuces for daily salads.

“Sometimes Gail and I eat salad twice a day,” he said.

Herbs include dill, basil, parsley, chives, oregano, thyme and cilantro. Callahan noted, “I’ve learned a great way to preserve herbs: you can store chopped herbs in a Ziploc bag, roll the bag to the size of a dime, or maybe a quarter, and freeze it. When you want fresh-tasting herbs in the middle of winter, unroll a bag and take what you want. It’s easy and effective.”

Perennial edibles like asparagus and rhubarb round out Callahan’s garden. He raves about a rhubarb custard pie he and his wife make and enjoy. “It’s called custard pie, but actually contains no eggs,” he said. “It’s delicious.”

The garden’s many shades of green are offset by oriental poppies, columbine, lungwort, yarrow (both pink and yellow), and deep red echinacea. The garden’s centerpiece is a birch tree surrounded by low brickwork that Callahan did himself.

When asked about his favorite time in the garden, Callahan replied: “When it’s light. I try to do only quiet activities when it’s early and late, avoiding the weed whacker and hedge trimmer during those times.”

Dr. Callahan retired in 2015, having worked through his 70s. These days, when not in the garden, he reads historical fiction, science fiction, murder mysteries, biographies and autobiographies. “I’ve always been a reader,” he said.

But retirement, for Callahan, is not all weeding and reading. He plays a role in his wife’s business, too. Gail Callahan operates The Kangaroo Dyer, and her husband said, “I’m her business manager and bookkeeper. She’s been doing it for about 18 years, dyeing silk and wool.”

He explained that when Gail worked at WEBS (yarn store) for 15 years, she learned how to weave and dye. Today, Gail Callahan is in demand as an expert, having written a book on the topic, “Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece.”

During our interview, Gail Callahan came outside to say hello. When asked about her distinctive blouse, she laughed and said, “This was one of my pandemic projects!” She transformed well-loved draperies into an elegant blouse with a huge pocket, decorating it with hand-stamped circles of different sizes. (This doesn’t just happen in the movies, dear readers: draperies really do become fantastic apparel in the hands of a skilled textile artist.)

Gail Callahan excused herself, saying, “I have a Girl Scout troop coming over tomorrow to learn about dyeing. I’d better get back to work.”

Clearly, the Callahan clan is made up of creative people who wish to make a difference. Like their dad and granddad, many family members are gardeners and avid readers, as well. Between them, Gail and Bill have seven children and eight grandchildren.

One granddaughter is bound for Tufts University’s School of Medicine this fall. Bill Callahan himself graduated from Tufts in 1962, with the intention of being “a doctor for the whole patient, which involves listening, looking, examining and getting to know the patient as a person, and understanding how various elements may be related.”

The retired physician observed that doctors today are generally allotted only brief slots to meet with patients. “They’re also bogged down with unbelievable amounts of administrative and insurance oversight,” said Callahan.

“Back in the day, my colleagues and I could engage in real healing. It’s so much harder now.” He said he wished the medical world would embrace more of the whole-person healing he experienced early in his career.

“I like to help things grow,” he concluded, “whether it’s babies or plants. It’s a delight.” With his home situated right next to his former office, Callahan said, “For years, I’d go out the door and get right to work.”

Surveying his verdant garden, he said, “These days, I go out the door and get right to work.”

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an artist, musician, gardener and mom. She welcomes readers’ ideas for Home & Garden features:

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