After practicing gardening as therapy since 2011 in a Rehabilitation Center in Lima, Peru I have become aware of two very important aspects of this practice: sensory stimulation and the use of metaphors, crucial for positive outcomes.
Gardening keeps our mind active; connects us with life cycles – birth, growth, death and regeneration become real events; allows us to use all of our senses to stimulate our body, mind and spirit – it’s a 3D experience; heals our soul, liberates stress, exercises our body; stimulates our mind; moves our emotions; and changes our spiritual state.
Without doubt I can say that the sense of smell is powerful producing changes. At the Orphanage I have seen very agitated children calm down after smelling herbs – Melissa officinalis and Aloysia citrodora are the preferred ones. Smelling herbs also help me bring children to the present moment, before engaging in the planned activity.
Most of us grow up thinking we have five basic senses: smell, touch, taste, sight, and hearing. In the garden we become aware of many more, some of which I will mention here. One of them is the Sense of Control, especially important in hospital settings and with at risk children. When we are hospitalized, we lose control of everything: when to eat, when to walk, when to shower or use the toilet, and in some cases even deciding on our body’s interventions. Horticultural therapy programs in hospital settings become crucial – plant based activities allow patients to take control of another living organism by deciding what to do with it, shift roles by becoming the caregiver, gain confidence, reduce fear, stress and anxiety, and be in the present moment and practice mindfulness. For a short period of time the patient takes control of his/her actions, producing positive outcomes in the patient’s treatment.
When I work with at risk or institutionalized children, activities such as sowing seeds or seedling transplants or tending to a plant are important to regain the Sense of Control and structure which they not only enjoy, but request. These activities offer situations absent in their dysfunctional homes.
Gardening offers us a Sense of Place often lost in this world which spins around us without control, and where we are controlled by time and technology. When I offer gardening workshops I am surprised by the fear some people have of plants: fear of killing them because of lack of “green hands” or fear of catching fungi. By the end of the workshop “magic” happens. Participants feel connected to something bigger, feel alive and become conscious of their place in the universe. After the workshop they talk about the “bond” that has developed between them and the plants they have adopted, plants become their friends and allies discovering a Sense of Comfort and joy by appreciating the germination or flowering processes or the birth of a new leaf, or even the presence of tiny visitors. At that point they understand that gardening rewards them with comfort, pleasure, satisfaction and meaning.
The other sense some discover or acknowledge for the first time in the garden is the Sense of Beauty. As the old saying states: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. For some, beauty in the garden is in the scent of freshly cut grass, or a flower, or the sound of moving leaves, or the presence of butterflies indicating springtime, or the shapes and adaptations of cacti and succulents. There is always beauty in the garden.
In the garden we understand, maybe for the first time, the importance of the Sense of Self or wellbeing. In the garden our senses are stimulated in a matter of minutes without the need of external or artificial stimuli. Even if a person has lost one of their basic senses, the other senses compensate for that loss. A garden or nature offer sensory experiences which will never be achieved by the most sophisticated technology.
Metaphors, metaphors and more metaphors
Metaphors are figures of speech used to make a comparison between two things that aren’t alike but do have something in common. Metaphors are used in different scenarios and are employed in every type of therapy. In horticultural therapy practice I consider them of particular relevance. In the garden metaphors flourish. The use of a metaphor by the therapist brings an alternative frame of reference to the client’s situation. This may help the client view her difficulty in a new way such that she is able to alter her behavior.
A metaphor serves as a lens through which we look at a particular situation by embedding it within a second separate context which becomes the lens through which we are now able to see the original situation in a new light. Thus, the metaphor (or lens) retains its uniqueness and acts as a cognitive filter offering a new perspective on the original situation by emphasizing and de-emphasizing characteristics of the original situation (Belth-1977).
Metaphors help unlock the rigid thinking and behavioral patterns in which clients often engage.
Take as an example succulent plants. I use them to explain to participants the way in which these plants have developed adaptive mechanisms which allow them to thrive in harsh environments, such as: low growth rate; leaves covered by a layer of wax or hairs or white dust or transformed into spines for water conservation; small leaves to reduce transpiration; plants are usually small growing at ground level, with few stems and compacted leaves around the main stem. In our lives we will go through difficult periods of time but as succulent plants teach us, we can develop survival mechanisms and thrive in difficult times. When a succulent leaf is detached from the stem it touches the soil and develops a survival mechanism: roots grow at the base of the leaf and gives birth to a new independent plant which uses the water storage of the leaf dehydrating it completely for its survival. This example helps participants understand life cycles of death and birth as well as coping mechanisms.
Plant soil mix is used as a metaphor to help participants understand the importance of preparing a “good foundation” for optimal growth and development. A good plant substrate contains soil which gives structure to the plant, compost or humus to provide nutrients and microorganisms, sand which allows water to flow through the soil, and peat moss which retains water, provides organic matter and prevents compaction. Similarly, humans need a “good foundation” – balanced nutrition, education, moral values, mental and emotional health and love – for optimal growth.
Sowing seeds provide a good metaphor when working for example with substance abuse populations: “sow the seed of your new life”.
Weeds are fast growing plants usually considered undesirable because they deplete the soil from nutrients needed for desirable plants – a weed is “a plant in the wrong place”. These plants are used as metaphors, especially when working with at risk youth to teach them that they need to set apart from their lives people who absorb their energy, negative people, in order to grow. Similarly, when working with people with depression or anxiety or mental fatigue we compare negative thoughts to weeds that need to be “cleared” in order let air or oxygen in, have a clear mind and move forward.
Plant maintenance is very useful to teach about “equilibrium”. Understanding plants’ needs through maintenance – soil aeration, light, water, removal of dead leaves, pruning, nutrition and pest control – serves as a metaphor to permanently find equilibrium in our personal lives, in everyday life: good nutritional habits, hydration, sunlight, good mental and physical health.
When we tend a vegetable garden, some plants, like tomatoes or peas need support or a “tutor” which help them attain maximum growth. The metaphor is that sometimes we also need a “tutor” to guide us and show us the way.
The list of metaphors from the garden is infinite! I carry a “metaphor diary” to keep track of all of them.