Nixa Hardware

Where there is love, a garden grows for self-sufficiency

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Tony and Serena Miller know how to make ends meet

Story and Photos By GEORGE FREEMAN
Editor of GREENE Magazine

Tony and Serena Miller have much in common. Both love gardening and being outdoors; being self-sufficient when it comes to home-grown food. And one other obvious common bond keeps them close: both are quadriplegics.

But to suggest that being in a wheelchair holds them back when it comes to gardening, canning, preserving and eating healthy at home is to miss out on their amazing lifestyles, which include daughter Brionna, 15, and son Seth, 18 months and counting.
The Millers can drive the family van right up to the edge of the raised bed garden on Grandma Zonna’s home outside Neosho.

Now living on the east edge of Neosho in Newton County, their home is typically suburban and on a recent afternoon, very quiet because Seth is down for a nap. Conversation centers around the dining room table, noticeably absent the usual complement of chairs.

If luck is a word that applies to either accident, it is that both their spinal chords were crushed, not severed, leaving them the use of their mighty hands.

Lately, it now accommodates two reconditioned motorized wheel chairs, replacing the two hand-propelled models that were in service until a few days ago.

Just up from a two-hour nap, Seth Miller joins big sister Brionna, 15, Tony and Serena to look over tomatoes and peppers from their raised garden. A trip to look at the garden soon followed.

Just up from a two-hour nap, Seth Miller joins big sister Brionna, 15, Tony and Serena to look over tomatoes and peppers from their raised garden. A trip to look at the garden soon followed.

Just up from a two-hour nap, Seth Miller joins big sister Brionna, 15, Tony and Serena to look over tomatoes and peppers from their raised garden. A trip to look at the garden soon followed.

Tony used his on a trip to the Kansas City Zoo last weekend.

But that bypasses a lot of history. Both their lives were each interrupted inalterably by accidents: Tony was diving into a shallow lake when he was distracted, if only a second. His head struck the sandy lake bottom and crushed his spinal chord at the C6 vertebra in his neck. He retains limited use of his hands and by his own description, depends on “shoulders as strong as an ox.”

Serena’s accident was on the way back to Neosho from a shopping trip to Springfield in 1992. She remembers hanging by her seat belt after the wreck on Interstate 44.

She was an assistant manager at Taco Gringo, a local fast food eatery. “I had also just completed the required training to assist at a Christian school in Seneca, Mo.”

Tony was working as a videographer at KOAM TV in Pittsburg, Kan. They met when he was a counselor at the Joplin Independent Living Center, which helps survivors learning skills to cope. She was volunteer.

These days Tony is Assistant CDS Coordinator at Southwest Center for Independent Living in Springfield, which requires a 136-mile round trip each work day from Neosho. Like many a commuter, he values the time to think and return a phone call.

A garden grows:
‘I usually have to buy onions one time. When you’re buying diapers, it helps to grow everything you can.’
– Serena Miller

Tony and Serena show off their blackberry bramble in the back yard. Tony built the ramp. He's currently refinishing a cedar chest.

Tony and Serena show off their blackberry bramble in the back yard. Tony built the ramp. He’s currently refinishing a cedar chest.

Tony and Serena show off their blackberry bramble in the back yard. Tony built the ramp. He’s currently refinishing a cedar chest.

If luck is a word that applies to either accident, it is that both their spinal chords were crushed, not severed, leaving them the use of their mighty hands.

“If I had more strength in my hands, it would be easier to get around,” he says. It’s pure downward pressure on the wheels of his “sport” wheel chair that allows him to navigate the 40-plus feet of ramp that leads from the deck to the back yard.

It is a ramp he built himself after they moved in four years ago. Previously, they lived in Duenweg, Gallatin and Winston (all in northern Missouri). Each time, they had a garden, although this year they almost skipped it because, well, carrying for Seth is a full-time job. One source of fruit has followed them on all four moves: a bramble of blackberries that grow in the back yard. There are also grapes and a cherry tree. Alas, the yard has proved to be too shady for gardening; hence the move to full sun and country air within site of a splendid row of her mother’s grape vines.

A kitchen pantry still includes goodies from the previous year.

A kitchen pantry still includes goodies from the previous year.

A kitchen pantry still includes goodies from the previous year.

Serena’s mother, Zonna, planted “a little of this and that” in the raised bed on the hillside behind her one and one-half acres about five miles from Neosho. Along with just about anyone who planted a garden in this cool, rain-soaked year, the weeds have been prolific.

But when everyone piles into the white van for a ride, it’s a special time.

“We picked about a bushel of tomatoes and peppers,” says Serena, whose canning prowess lines a steel wire shelf that nearly reaches the ceiling of their kitchen. They also grow sweet potatoes, onions, irises.

“I usually have to buy onions one time,” says Serena. “When you’re buying diapers, it helps to grow everything you can.”

Everything edible comes from the raised garden beds, which makes access easier. It helps to having Brionna, who is home-schooled, looking after Seth, who has reached the age where he loves to run along the railroad ties.

“We adopted Brionna when she was 3.5 years old,” Serena explains. “We participated in an open adoption; she has contact with her birth mother and younger sibling. She is 15 years old and is in 10th grade – home schooled.”

A math and science whiz, she assists Serena with her home-based business Little Doohickeys, plays piano and has so far made four quilts.

A garden grows:
“We both use ‘sport’ chairs. They are lightweight and durable, typically lasting until you “outgrow” them (by gaining weight-ha,ha).  We both use chairs manufactured by Quickie. We just like them…most of the parts are interchangeable so it makes it easier to replace items on the chairs when needed and a lot of the parts can be placed on the chairs, if you opt for them, such as push handles.”
– E-mail from
Serena Miller

The secret to their garden is the special mushroom compost from J&M Mushrooms in Miami, the largest mushroom producer by far in the Midwest. Once the mushroom “mix” wears out, it makes the perfect “soil” conditioner.

Quadriplegia is the result of damage to the cervical spinal cord segments at levels C1-C8, usually secondary to an injury to the spinal vertebrae in the cervical section of the spinal column. The injury to the spinal cord is known as a lesion and may result in the loss of partial or total function in all four limbs. Typical causes of quadriplegia from damage to the spinal cord are trauma (such as car crash, fall or sports injury), disease (such as transverse myelitis or polio) or congenital disorders, such as muscular dystrophy.

Quadriplegia is the result of damage to the cervical spinal cord segments at levels C1-C8, usually secondary to an injury to the spinal vertebrae in the cervical section of the spinal column. The injury to the spinal cord is known as a lesion and may result in the loss of partial or total function in all four limbs. Typical causes of quadriplegia from damage to the spinal cord are trauma (such as car crash, fall or sports injury), disease (such as transverse myelitis or polio) or congenital disorders, such as muscular dystrophy.

“We’ve been able to get a lot more production with the mushroom dirt,” says Tony, although he cautions that the mix is prone to producing more foliage than fruit the first couple of years.

Tony and Serena are pleased to share their skills with others: “We have shown some of our raised bed plans and produce at Day at the Range, which is hosted by SCIL. When a consumer is interested in gardening, I share with them our successes and failures and encourage them in their endeavor.”

Serena also likes to share recipes, including this one for Zucchini-Pineapple jam: “I’m secretly hoping a jar doesn’t seal so I can bake an pineapple upside down cake.”

Zucchini-Pineapple Jam

(From Cooks.com)

Five quarts of zucchini (shredded, crushed or chunked)

46-ounce can unsweetened pineapple juice

1/2 cup sugar

Boil together 20 minutes. Seal in sterilized jars and water bath 10 minutes.

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