Sparrow and Finch Gardening The Garden as healer with ‘the therapist’s garden’ author Erik Keller

The Garden as healer with ‘the therapist’s garden’ author Erik Keller

Undoubtedly, all gardeners agree that nature and plants have a healing effect and can lift our spirits and make us happier. The field of horticultural therapies is based on the idea that working with nature and plants can be therapeutic.

Erik Keller is a horticultural therapist who has been practicing for over 20 years. He uses plants and nature with clients, from cancer patients, special needs children, and seniors, to help them cope and make positive changes in their lives. I keep mine on a clipboard. This is crazy. I’m a traditionalist. I love clipboards. So, I’ve got an old clipboard. I also have blank pieces of paper. I’ve always got a list. The list is on the counter in the kitchen. It’s right there.

I love making lists and checking off things. What I find is that some days, I look at my list and think, “Oh, my goodness.” How can I manage this mentally? I’m not talking about managing the tasks literally. But mentally.

Erik: Right. If you’re in hot weather, you’ll need to drink water. When we are in the garden, we should go and experience something new every 45 mins. It may seem like a lot, but there is so much to do.

The other day I was trimming and weeding our fence and noticed a tree frog perched on a post. What a tree frog would be doing on a fencing, I don’t know. We tried to identify the tree frog, but without touching its armpit, we could not tell which type of tree frog it was. We decided to pass on that [laughter]. However, you experienced a beautiful moment by being aware of the moment.

Margaret: What if we don’t stop? What if we keep going in high gear?

Erik: Oh, yeah. You’re in high gear. You’re pulling weeds and mowing. You say, “Oh, this has to be done.” I have to get… Again, being in the gardens is a great excuse to slow down. The therapeutic benefits of gardening can be lost if it becomes a chore.

Margaret : Do you tend to gravitate towards a certain thing when you look at the list, or do you go for the first item on it? What do you mean?

Erik : It’s really a matter of mood. I’ve got a list. If I am feeling more contemplative or if I just want to relax, I might do some trimming or deadheading and think about what used to be there. In the last few weeks, I have been removing the flowers from the mountain laurel to enhance flowering the following year. You can still smell the mountain laurel and feel the stickiness in the stamens when you remove the flowers.

These things will remind us of the past and also what is coming back in the near future. This is a moment of mindfulness. If I feel the urge to do something, then I will get behind the lawnmower, push it, and accomplish that task.

I manage my gardening tasks based on how I am feeling at the time. You probably have a lot of garden tasks. That’s not hard to figure out .

Margaret: Yeah. This sounds like… maybe this is in the book. It’s in my notes. You said, “Choose an activity that will give you a special moment.”

Erik: Yeah. There are so many wonderful things in the garden that you can look at with a sense of wonder. I am blessed to have two wonderful grandchildren living near me. So, I introduce them to the garden in a similar way to how I would like to be introduced.

My youngest granddaughter Olivia is learning how to pick strawberries (above), although I don’t believe she’ll need much help . She loves sorrel and lemon leaves, for example. She has a habit of going into the vegetable patch, picking up a lemon leaf, or grabbing a sorrel. Then she will head to the strawberry patch and see what is ripe. It’s a very interesting combination. It’s a lot of fun.

Margaret : It’s interesting to see a child going into the garden. Perhaps that is a good example for us.

Erik: Yeah. Because everything is new. It’s all new.

Margaret: Wonder.

Erik : … and different from them, it’s a wonder. It’s the right thing to do. When I am working with my clients or my children, I use stupid tricks like those of David Letterman. These are stupid gardening tricks.

You can also do this if there is a dogwood nearby. If you fold the leaf in half and crack it just a little, it will appear that the other half is floating. This is because the vein contains tiny pieces of resin. It looks like you are performing a magic trick, but that’s not the case. It’s another stupid garden trick that kids love. They say, “Wow, that is so cool.” How did you do that?

Margaret: Right, right, right.

Erik: Even adults do, too. It’s all about having fun.

Margaret So, some of the exercises… I don’t even know if you call them exercises, or what you would call them… that you have done with clients before – like I asked at the beginning about “aromatherapy” – just describe one of these. What would it do? There’s a story about someone who pulls mint in the book and another about…

Erik: Right. Well, it’s-

Margaret : Tell me a bit about it, the power of smell, and so on.

Erik: Yeah. It’s funny that you mentioned it because aromatherapy is extremely powerful. We underestimate our memories and experiences based on smell. Let me give you two examples. One worked well, and the other did not.


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