A Tale of Tree Rings: Relating a Tree’s Story to One’s Personal Experiences

I recently did a therapeutic horticulture program with a group of women who are from Afghanistan and clients of a local social services organization serving resettled refugees. On this rainy day, we gathered in the one-bedroom apartment of one of the women. Some of us sat on the floor, while others sat on couches. Our hostess passed around cups of hot tea and cookies. A couple of children played around us while we visited with each other. We communicated via a translator, gestures, and lots of smiles.

To start the session, I passed around some of my favorite sensory plants – lavender, pineapple sage, basil, lemon balm, lamb’s ear, mint, among other – and explained about what I do in my job. I talked about how plants and nature benefit us in many different ways – from lowering stress and anxiety to improving our mood and encouraging physical movement. The group made lavender sachets to keep.

The conversation transitioned to hobbies because gardening is a favorite American pastime, and I asked the group about their hobbies.

Then, to deepen the conversation, I talked about one of the reasons that I like to tend to my garden. I explained that I look to nature to provide perspective on my life. One example is the changing of the seasons and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth – as seen through the lush foliage of summer, followed by the falling of autumn leaves, to the dormancy of winter, then to the first buds of cherry trees and other spring flowers, and back again. How can you relate to the cycle of life to your personal experience?

Then I started talking about trees.

TreeRingsTreeCookieTherapeuticHorticultureHave you ever taken a look at the cross section of a tree? There are a bunch of rings, and if you count them, you can determine the age of the tree. And if you look closer, each ring is slightly different. Sometimes the rings are really close together. Other times the rings are further apart. Sometimes there are blemishes in the rings, and other times they are misshapen.

Why are the rings different from year to year? Well, some years the plant receives all the water, nutrients, sunlight, and other things that it needs in order to thrive – those are indicated by the “healthy-looking” or further spaced rings.

Other years, the rings are close together. That may indicate that the tree didn’t receive all the “goodies” it needed to grow vigorously.

Still other years, the rings may have blemishes or are oddly shaped. That may be due to diseases or insect pests that attacked the plant and affected it. Or, maybe there was a fire that scorched one side of the tree. Or, perhaps someone used a string trimmer around the tree and accidentally nicked the bark of the tree.

Don’t have a “tree cookie” (or cross section of a tree) to look at? Draw it yourself. This is my hand-drawn illustration used during this program. Note: larger and smaller tree rings are shown.

Each ring tells a different story for each year of the tree’s life. Some years were great, and the tree grew and flourished. Some years weren’t so good, when it appears that the tree struggled. Sometimes that indicates that the tree may have succumbed. Or sometimes it shows how the tree, resilient as it is, made it through the challenges and came out on the other end, still bigger than it was the year before.

I have to admit that when I started this last part of the conversation, I could feel a shift in the mood of the room…to a quieter, more reflective mood.

Consider how each of us handle challenging situations. One person may be easily angered when encountering a tough situation and react loudly or in an outward fashion, where people nearby may notice immediately. In the same type of situation, another person may be quiet and prefer to handle her emotions internally, with or without others noticing. I relate that to walking through a forest.

If you look at a forest, there is a wide variety of trees and other plants. Some trees grow up big and tall, reaching for the sun. Some trees are smaller and prefer to be in the understory, shaded by the other trees. No one tree is “better” than the other. They just grow that way and have unique individual responses to their environment. Each tree has a different story to tell. And shouldn’t we celebrate their differences?


A Visit to the Garden for Professional Development

As a therapeutic horticulture practitioner, I find it invaluable to network with professionals who incorporate horticultural therapy or therapeutic horticulture into their work, as well as with others in allied professions, such as occupational therapy, social work, therapeutic recreation, art therapy, animal-assisted therapy, music therapy, horticulture, and more. It can be lonely and unchallenging to work in isolation, so I have developed friendships and working relationships with these professionals and enjoy the shared camaraderie, experiences, and brainstorm sessions. These relationships inform my work and help me to stay relevant and on track.

How do I connect with these folks? Get involved with professional organizations, such as the American Horticultural Therapy Association, and attend their annual conferences and continuing education opportunities. And I don’t just focus on HT-related organizations. For example, the Garden Writers Association has helped me to hone my communication and business skills. Reach out within the community and seek out like-minded people at wellness fairs or other community organizations. I find out about interesting individuals from the newspaper or colleagues and “cold call or email” them in order to connect. Form your own official or unofficial regional network of professionals, such as the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association.

So in honor of networking within horticultural therapy, I am excited to host another guest post on eat|breathe|garden. This time, registered horticultural therapists Kathy Carroll and Lesley Fleming talk about how a visit to a Florida public garden cultivated their networking friendship and professional work.


By Lesley Fleming, HTR, and Kathy Carroll, HTR
Photo credits: L. Fleming & K. Carroll

What do two horticultural therapists talk about when they have a chance to go to a garden for professional development?

The historic Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, Florida, beckoned us as plant enthusiasts and horticultural therapists – Kathy from Michigan and Lesley from Florida: one visitor and one resident. Recognizing that time with a peer can be an opportunity for professional development as part of the continuous process of acquiring new skills and knowledge related to one’s job, the visit went something like this…

The plants are amazing…

Kathy: Having visited Sunken Gardens over the last 35 years, entering this unique masterpiece of outdoor space is like coming home. Each and every time, I see new and familiar favorite plant specimens. The 50 foot high multiple plant/colored bougainvillea hedge that runs hundreds of feet long is a show stopper when in bloom. It is a reminder of the significance of a century old garden (purchased by George Turner in 1903). The psychological and sensory experience the garden offers as it wrap its arms around the visitor is a sanctuary—an anchor, which slows the frenetic pace of the 21st century just beyond its boundaries. The smells of the soils and scents of flora stimulate the senses like nothing else.

Lesley: The old growth of so many of the trees and vines, some from the original 1920’s garden, is something not often seen because of the desire for perfectly shaped and sized plant specimens. This garden demonstrates how foliage and its dominant verdant green color can provide the beauty—it doesn’t always have to be the Disney eye-popping color of flowers. Many Florida gardens rely on foliage, which is often associated with the tropical look.

I’m working on an article on black plants. Can you help me spot any in the garden?

Kathy: I see black seeds from Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis),

Chinese fan palm seeds

…black elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’),

Black Magic elephant ears

…and the tops and undersides of croton leaves (Codiaeum variegatum).


Lesley: Yes, black plants can be interpreted as dark saturated colors – browns, reds, purples, and not necessarily black per say. *Confirmation of plant identification and plant names was undertaken after the visit.

What is that plant – do you know the name?

Spiral ginger, sometimes called red tower ginger (Costus comosus)

Spiral Ginger

Angel trumpet (Brugmansia)  *plant parts are poisonous

Angel trumpet

Bromeliad (Aechmea fasciata) with its pink bloom



What makes the design of this garden so interesting?

Shell Ginger

Kathy: Part of it is the history of the garden as a 1920’s residential garden built from a drained lake, including a sinkhole 15 feet below street level, a “soothing rock,” and very fertile soil. Their mission statement refers to the garden as a tropical forest with many of its original plants preserving and enhancing this unique tropical rainforest space. In the early 1920’s, Mr. Turner was charging a nickel to tour his garden.

Lesley: Sunken Gardens offers a sense of discovery, fascination, and spatial organization — elements that Stephan and Rachel Kaplan (environmental psychologists from the University of Michigan) refer to as landscape preferences. This effectively engages the visitor through a variety of elevations and twists and turns of the paths, gates and hidden garden “rooms.” The very tall plantings provide a sense of seclusion and sanctuary.

Other attention grabbers include shell gingers, mass plantings, scented gardenias (stepping off the path for that sensory experience), signage of plants though limited, and reciprocal admission from American Public Gardens Association (APGA) garden memberships.

What is that?

Kathy: What is that fragrance in the Wedding Garden, the tree with multi-colored bark, and the colorful vine?…

Lesley identified fragrant confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides);

Confederate jasmine

gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), which is sometimes affectionately called the sunburnt tourist tree;

Gumbo Limbo

Dutchman’s pipe vine (Aristolochia macrophylla), which is a larval plant for Pipevine Swallowtail and Tailless Swallowtail butterflies.

Dutchman’s pipe

Lesley: What are those seed pods, groundcover that looks like chenille plant and those markings on stems?

Kathy identified the fishtail palm fruit (Caryota mitis);

Fishtail palm

dwarf chenille plant (Acalypha pendula) [not pictured] with its shorter upright growth habit for use as a groundcover or trailing plant in a hanging basket;

the signature design left from scars on selloum (Philodendron bipinnatifidum) when leaves yellow with age and fall off.



Horticultural therapy inspirations from the Sunken Gardens

  • Glory bush (Tibouchina) – Lesley first used glory bush at the Naples Botanical Garden in Florida, when delivering a program to people with visual impairments for soft and fuzzy tactile stimulation
Glory bush
  • Variety of leaf shapes for leaf painting activity (therapeutic goal includes working fine motor skills – hand dexterity by tracing and painting leaves)


  • Accessible paths with manageable grades, smooth surfaces, and otherwise safe environment


  • Sensory walks, including treasure hunts for numerous and varied scents, visual and tactile horticulture finds throughout the garden.

Professional development can occur in any number of settings and is made more interesting when discussion and hands-on experiences are shared with others who share a passion for their profession.


Brown, Sydney Park and Rick Schoellhorn. (2006). Your Florida guide to perennials: Selection, establishment, and maintenance.

Kaplan, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective.



Tips to Engage Elder Clients in the Outdoor Garden during a Therapeutic Horticulture Activity

Taking advantage of the beautiful spring weather, I have been bringing my elder groups outdoors as much as possible lately. We have been busy gardening in raised beds and sowing seed.

The act of going outdoors can be a bit challenging sometimes. I work mostly in residential facilities and find that some individuals aren’t inclined to go outdoors, even if they are physically and medically able. Some prefer to stay indoors where they feel more comfortable. At one of my client locations, residents are less inclined to go outdoors if they see a waving flag on the flagpole just outside the main hall window. Regardless of the time of year, they naturally think that it must be “cold out there.” So in these circumstances, I employ different strategies to gently encourage clients outdoors.

It is my goal to have clients choose to come outside into the garden with us. And not be taken there. Sometimes I am able to monitor this, sometimes not.

And when clients arrive in the garden, I encourage everyone to get involved, in one way or another. Some people have no interest in working directly at the garden beds. However, they may be enticed to work at tables or other areas adjacent to the garden. As a result, I have employed the following methods to engage clients wherever they choose to be.

Getting Outdoors

FebMar2015 672Extend the olive branch. When approaching individuals before a session, I often bring a flowering plant, colorful watering can, a package of seed (which I often shake when entering the room and talking with people), or other visually interesting object with me and use that as a physical invitation to join the group outdoors. They can get an idea of the task at hand, with the visual and the verbal reinforcing each other.

Be descriptive about today’s activity. As necessary, I elaborate on the activity and use descriptive language to outline the Who, What, When, Where, and Why – the people who are involved, what tasks we intend to accomplish and why, the plants to be worked with, a description of today’s weather and seasonal interests, and so on. Outline the role that you hope they will fill in helping the group achieve the specific goal.

Provide reassurance of assistance. Reassure hesitant individuals that there are others there to help – this reassurance is essential for those who may not have prior gardening experience or lack the confidence to participate. So I might say, “Here [offering the individual the desirable object used as a physical invite], would you like to help us in the garden? We could really use your help and support. We’re getting our garden open for the spring, and I would appreciate your help to plant these beautiful geraniums.” I respond with additional information as necessary.

Therapeutic Horticulture - Tips for Engaging Elders in the Outdoor GardenStill hesitant? “Come and keep us company.” For some, just getting outside is an accomplishment. A simple invitation to “just come and sit with us” is often the trick to entice someone outdoors. And more often than not, these individuals see others having fun and doing different tasks, and then want to participate themselves. Or, they simply do just want to come and sit with the group. And I’m grateful for that too.

If at first you don’t succeed…loop back around. After bringing others outdoors, go back and check in with individuals who originally didn’t want to go outside. They might want to come outside now that they see everyone else out there!

Sometimes there are individuals who can’t be enticed outdoors, no matter what you do or say. With the nature and goals of my programs, that is ok. I respect each individual’s right to make that choice. And, during my next visit, I will extend the same invitation and hope they will come then.

Once Outdoors

So clients have made the decision to join us outdoors. Since I like to give them the ability to make choices about what they can do while outside, I prepare additional activities when appropriate, aside from planting or tending directly to the garden. Some clients don’t want to do those activities, so I strategize about other relevant tasks and make these alternatives available. (Note: I have agency staff and volunteers assist during sessions and employ these strategies when practical.)

Therapeutic Horticulture - tips on engaging elder clients outdoors - sowing seedSowing seed – Think ahead and plan for future plantings. Have clients work together at a table to prepare soil and plant seeds for future gardening activities.

Grooming plants – Show clients how to deadhead and groom plants that are to be or already are planted in the garden. Engage them in conversation and encourage them to make observations about the plants being tended and the garden itself.

Organizing and cleaning pots – When planting, I hand empty pots to clients who love organizing or appreciate a challenge. Organizing and stacking pots is like working a puzzle, so make sure to provide encouragement and direction as appropriate.

Therapeutic Horticulture - tips on engaging elders outdoorsWatering plants or filling up the birdbath – Some individuals view working with water as less “dirty” or easier than other gardening activities. I see it as another opportunity for sensory stimulation, social interaction (working in partnership with those who are planting), and working motor skills.

Therapeutic Horticulture - Tips on Engaging Elders in the Outdoor GardenTouring the garden and making observations – Some individuals want to enjoy the sunshine and walk around the garden. Or some clients are agitated and don’t want to be around people. If possible, make an assignment to locate a favorite plant or see how the bird’s nest full of eggs is progressing, and have a friend or staff member go with that person to explore together. Jot observations in a notebook or pick a flower to tuck behind your ear.