the garden as healer, with ‘the therapist’s garden’ author erik keller

NO DOUBT all of you gardeners would agree that interacting with plants and with nature has a restorative benefit, that it has the undeniable power to lift us up and make us feel better. That idea that working with plants is therapeutic is the foundation of the field of horticultural therapy.

Erik Keller has practiced horticultural therapy for more than 20 years, using plants and nature to help clients from cancer patients to special needs children and disabled seniors, to help them cope and to make positive life changes. He’s also author of “A Therapist’s Garden: Using Plants to Revitalize Your Spirit” (affiliate link).

Erik’s a master gardener and manages the gardens and horticultural therapy program at Ann’s Place in Danbury, Connecticut, an organization assisting cancer patients and their families.

We don’t need to be in a formal horticultural therapy program, though. Erik wants to remind each of us of the power of what we’re doing outside, and give us some advice on how to maximize its benefit.

Plus: Enter to win a copy of Erik’s book by commenting below.

Read along as you listen to the July 3, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

‘a therapist’s garden’ with erik keller



Margaret Roach: So I’m ready for that, Erik [thank you]. Thank you for being here.

Erik Keller: Well, thanks, Margaret. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Margaret: I’ve been enjoying the stories in the book “A Therapist’s Garden,” anecdotes along the way of all the experiences you’ve had in working with clients and so forth. Some of them should be so obvious to me, like the old expression “stop and smell the roses:” You talk about using tactics like aromatherapy, so to speak, not the kind in a spa [laughter] but smelling plants, sitting in there and really smelling them, and choosing your favorites, things like that that are just so beautiful. And yet we don’t slow down, we gardeners, do we?

Erik: No. I think we always have a task list in front of us, like we have to get all of these things done before either it rains or before we go on vacation. I think sometimes we just need to literally step back.

It’s funny you used the expression to smell the roses. Just the other day, we were cutting a small bouquet from one of the native beach roses we have [below], and we both noticed that there was a hint of clove within the scent of the rose, which we had never really discerned before. So these roses have been on our property for over a decade, yet we continue to be surprised every time we go out and play in the garden.

Margaret: Right. No, I completely agree. Well, you just mentioned one of the things I wanted to talk about, about the to-do list, and how to really cope with that more mindfully and so forth. But before we do that, just tell us a little bit about what’s horticultural therapy? Is it something that’s practiced a lot here in the United States or what?

Erik: Well, it’s not really practiced that much in the United States. It’s much better practiced and known in Canada, and the U.K. in particular. But in a certain way, we all are horticultural therapists in various ways in which we use plants to basically try to change ourselves in a positive way.

If you want to get into somewhat of a technical definition of horticultural therapy, it basically deals with four different things: with both physical, cognitive, social, and emotional issues. And so, when you are practicing either on an individual or working with a group, you’re trying to affect a positive change on one of those four things.

Margaret: Right. So back to that chore list [laughter], it can be daunting. I have mine on a … I love clipboards. That’s my craziness. I’m an old-fashioned person. I love clipboards. And so, I have an old clipboard and I have my pieces of blank paper. I’ve always got a list. It’s on the kitchen counter. I can just visualize it down there right now.

I love my list, and I love checking things off. But: Some days I look at it and I think, “Oh, my goodness.” So what’s a way to manage that mentally? I don’t mean manage the tasks literally, but mentally.

Erik: Right. Well, I think that you should always go into the garden with a sense of discovery and joy, almost … Although I’m not advocating that you do this on your list, but, for instance, if we’re out in the hot weather, we always know that we need to hydrate. I think when we’re out in the garden, we need to go and say, well, maybe we don’t need to hydrate every 45 minutes, but we need to experience something wonderful every 45 minutes. While that may sound like a lot, it actually isn’t, because there’s just so much cool stuff out there.

I mean the other day, I was doing some weeding and trimming, and I noticed that there was a tree frog on our fence, just perched there next to a post. Now what a tree frog is doing on a fence, I have no idea. Then my wife and I tried to identify it, but unless we picked up the armpit, we couldn’t discern which of two different types of tree frogs it was. So we decided to give that a miss [laughter]. But it was just, again, this beautiful moment that you had by just, again, being cognizant of the moment and being mindful of your surroundings.

Margaret: If we don’t slow down, if we’re just on high gear?

Erik: Yeah, you’re just in high gear. So you’re like pulling out weeds, you’re mowing. You go, “Oh, I’ve got to get this done. I’ve got to get … ” Again, I think being in the garden is the perfect excuse, to a degree, to slow down. If it becomes too much of a chore, then I think a lot of the therapeutic benefits and joys we get out of being gardeners can be lost on us.

Margaret: When you look at your list, do you gravitate toward a particular thing, or do you do what’s the first thing on the list? Do you know what I mean?

Erik: Well, it’s actually sort of … I have a list, but it’s sort of a function of mood. If I’m in more of, let’s say, I want to be more contemplative, then maybe I’ll do some deadheading or trimming, and I’ll think back upon what was there before. So in the last week or so, I’ve been taking off the flowers for the mountain laurel, because when you do that, you’ll enhance flowering in the next year. When you do that, you can feel the stickiness of the stamens, and there’s still a slight scent there of the mountain laurel.

So those things will remind me of what was there in the past and what will come back in the future. So that’s sort of a mindful moment. If I feel like, hey, I want to get out and do something, I’ll get behind the lawnmower and push it and get that done.

So I try to manage my garden task by how I feel at any given point in time. I think you probably have so many garden tasks, that’s not a hard thing to figure out [laughter].

Margaret: Yeah. It sounds like … Maybe this is from the book. I wrote it down in my notes here. You said something about, “Choose a task that will create a moment for you.”

Erik: Yeah. I mean there are so many great things to find in the garden to look at and just look at in a certain way with a child’s wonder. I mean I’m blessed by having two wonderful grandchildren live near me. And so, I’m introducing them to the gardens in a way that I would have liked to have been introduced.

So my youngest granddaughter, Olivia, I’m teaching her how to pick strawberries [above], although I don’t think she needs a lot of help [laughter]. For instance, she loves sorrel or lemon leaf. So she has this thing where she goes into the vegetable garden, she goes and grabs a sorrel leaf, and then she heads off to the strawberry patch to see what’s ripe, if she can beat out her older sister who’s already gotten into the garden. So it’s an interesting combination. A lot of fun.

Margaret: That is interesting to watch a child go into the garden. Maybe that’s a good example that’s being set for us.

Erik: Yeah, because everything is new. Everything is new-

Margaret: Wonder.

Erik: … and different to them, and it’s wonder. That’s the thing to do. When I work with either my clients or one of my kids, I have like stupid gardener tricks, like the David Letterman Stupid Pet Tricks. So these are stupid gardener tricks.

So one of the things that you can do is that if you have a dogwood near you, if you crease the leaf and just crack it ever so slightly, what you’ll see is that it appears like you have two halves of the leaf, one of which is hanging in midair. That’s because there’s little tiny bits of resin that come from the vein. So it looks like you’re doing a magic trick, but it’s not. Again, it’s a stupid garden trick, but kids love it. They think, “Oh, wow, that’s so cool. How’d you do that?”

Margaret: Right, right, right.

Erik: Even adults do, too. So, again, it’s having fun with those sorts of things.

Margaret: So some of the exercises … I don’t know whether you call them exercises or what, that you’ve done with clients in the past—like I was asking in the beginning about the “aromatherapy.” Just describe one of those. How would that help? I think in the book, there’s one about someone pulling mint and there’s I think another one about …

Erik: Right. Well, it’s-

Margaret: Tell us a little bit about that, about the power of scent and so forth.

Erik: Yeah. It’s funny you mention that because it can have both incredibly … Aromatherapy, I think, is incredibly powerful because we underestimate the remembrances and the experiences we’ve had based upon smell. So, in fact, I’ll give you two examples, one of which worked out really well and the other one worked out really badly.

Margaret: Uh-oh.

Erik: Uh-oh, yeah. So I was doing this class and it was aromatherapy; we were making sachets [above]. I had this new client, a gentleman, let’s call him Fred. He had just lost his wife to cancer, and he came to Ann’s Place looking for some help and solace.

So we’re making sachets, and one of the things you do is you pass around essential oils that you can use to make the sachets. So things are being passed around. All of a sudden he starts looking very uncomfortable and I go, “Fred, are you O.K.?” He looks up and he starts tearing up. He says, “This is lilac. My wife loved lilac. Our house always smells of lilac, and that’s not there anymore.” So he couldn’t continue. He had to leave. He said, “Look, I’m sorry. I just can’t do this right now,” and he left. So that’s really not how you want to start out a therapeutic class [laughter].

Margaret: No. No, of course.

Erik: So that wasn’t good. However, on another instance, another client, same kind of thing; we’re making sachets. Let’s call her Susan. Susan has been having a rough time. She’s been going through both chemotherapy and radiation. She has a kerchief on her head because she doesn’t have any hair. She’s very pale. Her eyes are sunken into her skull. She’s super-thin from the ravages that not only cancer, but the treatment for cancer can ravage on your body.

So, again, she’s being passed around stuff. All of a sudden she says, “I can smell the lavender.” I’m like, “O.K.” She goes, “You don’t understand. I have not been able to smell anything for the past two years.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s wonderful.”

She goes, “Quick, pass me the rosemary.” So somebody passes her the rosemary. She’s like, “I can smell the rosemary, too. This is fantastic.” So she starts crying. Then the class starts crying because everybody’s so happy for her that she had this kind of epiphany, that there was this moment where things came back to her in the way in which they were before she contracted this horrible disease. There was just this moment of wonder that everybody shared with her.

So, again, that’s two diametrically opposed examples of how doing something like aromatherapy, or making scented sachets, can affect you both in a positive and maybe not-so-positive way.

Margaret: Right, this kind of reawakening moment potentially that can happen. I think that’s a really good example because even without the illness and so forth, that damaged her sense of smell and so forth, a lot of us are, again: We’re moving so fast, we’re not paying attention. We’re not … Do you know what I mean? We’re not drinking it in. We’re not savoring things.

Erik: Right. The thing is that, for instance, when you’re identifying plants, actually the smell can be a really important factor in figuring out what kind of plant you have there. I mean, for instance, if you look at Queen Anne’s lace and you look at poison hemlock, they look very similar. But, for instance, if you smell the root of Queen Anne’s lace, it smells like a carrot. If you smell the root of poison hemlock, it’s actually not such a nice smell.

Margaret: And don’t pull it up and do that [laughter].

Erik: And don’t pull it up and do that. That would be a bad thing.

Margaret: A very, very bad thing. Yeah. I both love and hate the powerlessness of gardening, the reality of there are forces bigger than us at work and I’m not really in control. Although, of course, horticulture is an act of trying to control nature: make things perform, and stay in place, and all that kind of stuff.

But I love when it doesn’t work out. I mean I scream and yell [laughter]. But I love it too because it reminds us of our place in the scheme of things, I think. I wonder if that’s something that you ever work with in horticultural therapy, the kind of bigger-than-us stuff.

Erik: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean one of the things that often happens is that when you practice as I do with a bunch of different clients, you become the plant doctor. I mean before every session I have with a client or a group, I always say, “Hey, does anybody have questions?” And people will bring me their sick plants, or ask me why this died, or why somebody can’t get it to grow. So you have those issues.

What I tell people is I said, “Look, we’re … Even the most experienced gardeners, it doesn’t always work out for them.” I always told clients, I said, “We never have failures in the garden, only lessons.”

That’s the way I like to look at it because, to your point before, to believe that you can anticipate everything or look at things … I mean there’s all sorts of things in gardening that are being thrown at you all the time. There’s things that you can see, like, “Oh, gee, this plant needs water.” And there’s all sorts of things that you can’t see, which are various kinds of viruses or nematodes or bugs that come like just out of nowhere and wipe out everything.

I mean I was at Ann’s Place last week, and I had a viburnum that was totally denuded of leaves. I mean literally on Friday, it was full of leaves and healthy, and on Monday, they were all gone. I’m like some bug came by and just devastated it in one weekend.

Margaret: Interesting. Frustrating. Yeah. But I think the practice of horticulture can make us pursue perfection, and also let go of the notion of ever finding perfection [laughter].

Erik: Yeah, I mean I always think of the gardens that I work in as shabby chic. I like them to look good when they’re not thoroughly well taken care of. So you will never see me around one of these perfect English-like gardens with hedges trimmed to infinity and beyond in a straight line. I mean I can’t do that. I mean, that requires so much work.

Then your belief or perception is like, well, if that’s not perfect, if there’s something sticking out, then there’s something wrong. It’s almost like one of my grandchildren not having combed hair. I mean I kind of like that. So I just like the gardens like that, too.

Margaret: Yeah. So we’re out there in the yard a lot of times on our own, or maybe we’re with a family member or a friend or whatever, but a lot of us do our chores on our own. Are there mindful practices or are there things, rituals, I don’t know what, that we can do on our own out there that are derived from the practice of horticultural therapy? Do you know what I mean?

Erik: Well, yeah, I think, again, if you look at the four main things that you try to deal with, I often use it as a way to … I mean I’m in a different profession now, and retired from a prior life. I was a corporate management consultant in a prior life. During that life, I had a lot of pressure. I was dealing with very, very high-powered clients, a lot of money, and things were on the line. And sometimes I would come home and I would not be a good person.

And so, actually what I did, even before … I mean I would pull the car in the driveway, and before I would go and say hi to my wife and kids, I would go in the garden. I would pull weeds, I would water, because I needed that time to detox from the day, and just become a person, rather than an angry management consultant. That was a great thing for me, and 15, 20 minutes later, I could come out and talk and play with my wife and kids and be a good person, and a good father and husband.

But I think we can do that all the time in the garden. I mean if we are doing certain things, I mean let’s say if you’ve suffered some sort of physical damage and you’re going through some kind of physical therapy, incorporate the physical therapy as part of your gardening. So don’t pick up big, heavy things, but if there’s a certain type of repetitive motion that will assist you to heal whatever is wrong, then do that.

To your point, you’ve mentioned this a couple of times, is be mindful of the moment and enjoy what you’re doing, and make the actual act of gardening part of your persona and emotional being at the time in which you do it.

Margaret: Yeah. Are there … Like with every profession or vocation, we know that our audience, there are greatest hits, things that most resonate. You gave examples of extremes where the aromatherapy idea resonated and didn’t resonate in very different ways. But are there other things besides that that are basic horticultural therapy exercises that, sesides the scent-driven one that can-

Erik: Oh, yeah. I mean one of the things that I talk about in my book “A Therapist’s Garden” is in fact it’s arranged by season. So it starts in January and ends in December. In every chapter, I actually have an exercise that people can do, as well as a place to go. Because what I want to do, and I think a lot of people don’t think about it this way, is that I think gardening, even up here in New England where we both live … Or you live, I think, in New York-

Margaret: Yes.

Erik: … it’s a 12-month thing. I mean you can do this around the clock, all throughout the year. Now there’s different aspects of it that you do, obviously, in February versus when you’re in July, but there’s all sorts of different things and exercises you can do. So you can do aromatherapy. You can do propagation [above]. You can go off and create different kinds of pieces of … You can make bird feeders out of pine cones. You can start little plants. I mean there’s all sorts of things you can do, and they all can address various therapeutic issues.

Margaret: So propagation is one that-

Erik: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean the thing that people love about propagation is everybody’s, deep inside, cheap. So to be able to take a single stalk of a plant and get six plants out of it is an amazing thing. Then if you actually teach them the prospects of how you propagate a plant, and the different things you have to do for the different types of plants, then it empowers them. In a certain way, it gives them the ability to create and maintain life.

Particularly for some of my clients who are cancer patients, that’s an incredibly empowering thing, because a lot of their lives and their power has been muted by this horrible disease. So for them to be able to go off and do that and then in a couple of months say, “Oh, look, these clippings I made from a begonia leaf are growing,” “Oh, look, I’m able to propagate these different mints,” that’s incredibly powerful. Again, if they take care of their plants … Or you’d never have to take care of mint. [laughter]. But if you take care of them, they will live forever.

Margaret: Yes. So that’s great. So there’s the aroma exercises, the propagation. You said … And I know in the book you show people how to put peanut butter and seed in the pine cones and make the little bird feeders and things like that. Any other ones you want to share in the last couple of minutes that we might … Especially at this time of year that we-

Erik: Yeah. Well, I mean at this time of year, one of the things I’m doing actually for my next class at Ann’s Place, I’ll be making shrubs and sun teas. So showing people how you can create different kinds of sun teas depending upon the different kinds of mints and things you pull, as well as different sorts of shrubs, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. These were created back in the 1700s as a way to help preserve vegetables and fruit.

Another one that we’ll be doing probably pretty soon is I’ll also be working with them to make flavored vinegars. We’ll be harvesting things from my garden, as well as the gardens at Ann’s Place, to create different sorts of flavored vinegars. So those are just a couple of things that we do at this time of year.

There’s flower pressing in another time of year, more in the spring. We do flower pounding, which is you get flowers like pansies or violas and basically smack the living heck out of them with a hammer to create these beautiful images that basically is almost a photograph of the flowers that you are destroying.

So there’s all sorts of different things you can do. But, again, what I always try to do in these exercises is create a sense of wonder for things that they maybe never thought of before. Also, I try to do things that will evoke as many senses as possible, because you don’t know with a client what is the sense—be it smell, be it taste, be it touch, be it sight—that they will most resonate with. So one of the things I try to do is try to create exercises that will touch all of those. But if I can’t, as many as possible.

Margaret: That’s actually a very good thing to remember because, again, to the point about not stopping and smelling the roses, I mean a lot of times you could be pruning the roses and not, as you pointed out earlier, you and your … I guess your wife … hadn’t noticed the clove scent in that rose.

Erik: Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. So to engage in each activity with as many of the senses as we can I think is really great advice.

You said pressed flowers. It’s funny, my grandmother … Just a little final thing I’ll say: My grandmother, long ago, a Victorian lady, she had a wonderful wooden Swedish flower press. And she pressed flowers and made intricate pictures, which she then put under glass, framed and under glass and so forth. It was a very mindful thing. She was a gardener, and they were all her flowers. I think it brought her great joy. So you just made me think of something that I should be doing [laughter].

Erik: Well, it is … Yeah, for certain flowers, it’s time to put them in the press. So actually with that example, that actually creates two different things. One is the act of pressing flowers and figuring out how to do that. Then three to four months later, when they’re dry, using them to create a piece of artwork or something that you could do. I mean you could make a card out of it for somebody.

Margaret: Exactly. Yeah.

Erik: You could do a bookmark and put plastic over ithttps://www.annsplace.org/> There’s all sorts of wonderful things you can do.

Margaret: Yeah. Well, Erik Keller, author of “A Therapist’s Garden,” thanks for making time today. I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.

Erik: Well, thank you very much for the opportunity.

(Photos from Erik Keller, used with permission.)

enter to win a copy of ‘a therapist’s garden’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “A Therapist’s Garden” by Erik Keller for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box  below:

What aspect of gardening, or otherwise working with plants, feels the most therapeutic in your life?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 3, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Tim Passmore says:

    This podcast was very interesting and provided many ideas of methods to use when in the garden with individuals who might be recovering from an illness.

  2. Linda says:

    It is raining here today. After our spring drought, the rain is touching all the senses. It has been great to watch the plants, flowers and trees dance in the rain! A day to slow down and enjoy the gifts of nature!

  3. Gayle says:

    To see new creatures as I continue to add specific plant species is so rewarding, for that is my intention. I feel like I am contributing to well being and in return, I enhance my own, while feeling connected into real life.

  4. Frankie Elder says:

    This discussion evoked memories of loved ones no longer with us and how the scents and plants that they loved are so intertwined with their personality, and or memory of them.

  5. Kathy Orr says:

    I loved this discussion! My sister, a horticultural professional, must have known about the peace one can find in gardening. These were the things she loved to do and to share with others. She would have loved these ideas. I am looking forward to reading and sharing this book and this discussion with our family.

  6. Denise says:

    I love the idea of doing projects with plants and flowers according to the seasons each month. I am a coach to teachers and this would be a wonderful way to get together and just be present with nature and destress. Also I love the idea of these same projects to use with children. Thank you so much for the discussion.

  7. Lynn S. says:

    I volunteer at an adult daycare facility and we try to think of “sort therapy” projects that would be easy for the group to create. I would love to read more about the topic. Count me in! And thanks!

  8. Martha Wicker says:

    Every time that I’m in the garden I think of my 92 year old mother who had dementia and passed away after a fall in December 2022. My husband and I were her caregivers for the last three years. We moved to her home two years ago to take care of her and created a garden full of beautiful flowering perennials. Mother grew up on a farm where her mother loved to grow flowers; all her siblings were gardeners. The garden that I developed gave her enormous pleasure and helped me cope with her decline. The garden is lovely this summer and I think of her every day as I’m watering, pulling weeds, and seeing the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds that are enjoying the flowers. What wonderful therapy!

  9. Leona says:

    I can relate to Susan having gone through cancer therapies myself & how you feel working in the garden when you realize you can smell the lavender etc again & also taste again. Sadly I can also relate to fred having lost my Husband a few months ago. When I work in the flowers & spell scents he liked. I also live in Ct. & had no idea that Ann’s place existed in Danbury. Wish there were more places like that. I will definitely be reading the book win or not. Thanks tp people like him that help others along the way with the joy of plants

  10. Monica says:

    Starting annuals from seeds each year is a gift from Mother Nature as is the returning blooms of my perennials.

  11. RajaSri Rutenbeck says:

    I always consider being in the garden a form of therapy, which is extended by working in the garden.

    It brings such joy in every level, and what could be bad in that?

  12. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNER IS: J. Thanks to all for sharing what your gardens mean to you, and how therapeutic you find them to be.

  13. Marcia Bartczak says:

    I feel very lucky today. This podcast is great and the book is perfect. I am a horticultural therapist who adopted an existing garden that needs TLC and more therapeutic elements. I will be listening to several episodes today.

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