Oak before ash, we are in for a splash, Ash before oak we are in for a soak”

Ecological Science

This Old English adage roughly implies that if oak leaves emerge before ash leaves, it will be a dry spring.  If the ash leaves emerge before the oak, it will be a wet spring.  This may sound sentimental, but there is real science behind it.  This branch of ecological science is Phenology.

Phenology is the study of nature’s cyclical events. For example, bird migration, animal hibernation and of course, bud burst and leaf growth.  All these seasonal changes are, to some extent, dependable. Even after a bleak winter, spring always follows and evolves into summer, which in turn becomes autumn. Once you become aware of phenological cycles, they will provide an abundance of metaphoric opportunity.

We are aware that the practice of horticultural therapy has a wide range of applications and is easily adapted to serve many different populations.  But one aspect seems universal, in horticultural therapy… we love our metaphors.  Employing nature as a mentor and as a mirror in therapeutic interventions can provide the participant with a symbolic understanding of their issues. Metaphors are also an effective and powerful method for the horticultural therapist.

The Therapeutic Technique

The therapeutic technique of presenting a metaphor invites an indirect perspective for the participant. Certain, unpleasant experiences that bring about anxiety or discomfort, can be communicated in a non-threating environment by the introduction of a metaphor.  Because of the non-aggressive nature of this approach, it can be more easily accepted and remembered by the client.  It can also bring about an improved sense-of-self, enabling the client to recognize a sustainable course of action that will lead to a positive outcome.

“Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment”

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s description of mindfulness can be easily applied to phenological observation.

The third piece of the trifecta is mindfulness.  The partnership of mindfulness combined with being outside in natural surroundings produces an inherent state of connection.  This connection can reduce distractions, allowing the participant to remain in the present moment and engaged in the therapeutic session.  Introducing mindfulness, in the form of present awareness  allows the participant to experience a relaxed transition into the intervention.  Recent research studies indicate this approach is more successful than a formal meditation practice for reducing stress.  Bringing your HT/TH interventions outside into natural surroundings whenever possible, can produce a more positive outcome, as opposed to conducting the same sessions indoors. Phenology and mindfulness joined with a metaphor will enhance the therapeutic outcome for the participant.  This trifecta will also become an important asset for the practitioner.

Phenology Wheel

Phenology Wheel

An activity that makes use of the trifecta is a phenology wheel. Creating a phenology wheel is a simple way to engage all the senses in exploration of the natural world.  Beginning with a blank circle, the participant will add descriptions, feelings, photos, or drawings to the template.  This is a reflective activity that can be completed in one session or more slowly over time.  It can be created over a span of days, weeks, months, or even seasons.  The wheel can be recognized as artistic expression and organized as a record of time, place, or healing. There is no wrong way to create a phenology wheel.  It is an expression of the participant’s experience.  As with any horticultural therapeutic activity, benefit is gained in the process, not with the end product.

Outdoor Therapies

Due to the pandemic and the resulting mental health crisis, outdoor therapies are gaining attention as viable, holistic therapeutic practices.  There is a quiet but conspicuous shift from the western medicine model of prescribing pharmaceuticals to combat stress related illness, to a more natural, effective, and chemical-free pathway to wellness.  Today there are many different forms of outdoor therapy being offered.  From forest bathing and surf therapy to animal-assisted therapies, people are seeking a safe and efficient way to deal with the ill-effect of living through a pandemic.  Horticultural therapy is a shining example of how therapy delivered in the non-threatening environment of a garden space teaches participants how to utilize the people-plant relationship as a tool to reduce stress in their daily lives.  An added benefit to HT/TH is that participants learn how to garden successfully and as a result consume more fresh fruit and vegetables, improving their diet as well as their physical and psychological well-being.

Throughout the year nature will continue to supply an endless variety of significant metaphors.  Each season offers new interest in the form of sprouts, growth, flowers, fruit, seed production, dieback, and dormancy.  The practitioner who has an appreciation of phenological cycles will be able to enhance their therapeutic interventions with the use of seasonal metaphors. Mindfulness in most any form is beneficial. Introducing mindfulness as present awareness within outdoor therapeutic interventions has proven to be successful and works well with metaphoric technique. The three components of phenology, mindfulness and metaphors as a therapeutic trifecta will adapt easily to the individual needs of the participant as well as provide the horticultural therapist with a viable and effective treatment modality.  

Springtime is an excellent opportunity to put this trifecta into practice!

By Colleen Griffin, HTR   March 16, 2021

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