Of gardens seeds, and sunburn.
Subject: Gardening (Psychological aspects)
Gardening (Health aspects)
Psychotherapy (Methods)
Author: Hixson, Ronald
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 12 Source Issue: 3
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 208639922

Living in South Texas has some advantages. There are still places you can go where you do not have to see anyone for hours, sometimes days. I have staked out 10 acres of my own that I refer to as a ranchito (small ranch). There are those who have purchased an acre outside the city limits and have called it a ranch. It is not uncommon for goats and chickens to suddenly appear on these parcels of wild frontier and for people to talk about "going to the ranch and letting go." This type of "roughing it" seems to meet some basic nature in humans. I personally blame my father; he got me started with a small garden of corn, tomatoes, lettuce, peas, and beans when I was still in the first years of elementary school. It was something he learned when working as part of a migrant family in Colorado. My grandmother was said to be from a German farming community in Odessa, Russia, before politics forced the German community to flee their homes and farms over a hundred years ago. Cultures change, fads come and go, and families pass on values and beliefs to future generations. I blame my ancestors for planting seeds of dissatisfaction accompanied with an itch to "go plant something." There are no laws or regulations ensuring that these traits are passed to the next generation, so it must be human nature. This theory is proven by the estimated 43 million Americans who will be working to develop a vegetable garden this year (ConsumerReports, 2009).


Gaining these insights has enabled me to generalize my learning and share it with my extended family and to families that visit my therapy office. The concept of "living green" has swept the nation. While some people see "green" as a new color or a new experience, others have continued to live their lives as if "green" is not something new. Each individual sees things degrees, and sometimes miles, differently. Remember the tree-hugging hippies of the sixties? At one time, there were signs up at the University of California at Berkley and other universities recruiting people to join a commune and drive up to Northern California, Oregon, Washington, or Idaho to stake out a farming community to grow crops and raise children in a safe and healthy community. There were stories told of free land for those who were willing to build a house in one of these rural communities. While pondering this concept, I was torn by my need to stay in school and the desire to try something new and daring. There are always consequences to trying new behaviors. I personally blame my morn for holding me back. This conservative vein was another family influence seeded within me. I often had thoughts of challenging the conservative and traditional way of nurturing a family, working 40 years for one company, and building that white picket fence around a house overrun by kids, dogs, and cats.

When I first saw the untamed acres, I saw a place where I could hide from my practice pressures, where I could dance naked in the moonlight, and where exciting new adventures waited battle-scarred emotions. I didn't realize what actually waited for me. It took about 18 months before I started clearing a pathway that would eventually expand into a road around my piece of land. Every day was spent cutting, trimming, digging out stumps, drinking gallons of water, sitting and panting, taking aspirins, and questioning my sanity at attempting such an undertaking at an age when I should be sitting in a rocking chair. The Texas sun can be unforgiving; burning holes through the Coppertone and wearing down the strained muscles. I would find myself sitting on the ground panting like a dog, sweat racing down my body and bouncing off the rocklike soil. The sunburns hurt the worst, as my white, whale-like body turned shades of red and brown.

The tools of gardening are like the tools of" car repair or of any trade with names and purposes any bookworm would have trouble understanding, and I was no exception. Terms such as stretch knee pads, pivoting watering wand, poly-tough cart, deluxe tractor scoot, nitrile gloves, and pro weed mat. I felt like I needed pictures and a coach. I searched the Interact and was shocked to find that there are people who teach gardening skills, professional landscaper courses, and a certification by the Professional Grounds Management Society. Penn Foster career school offers courses in landscape tool use and safety, tree and shrub identification books, software, instructional support, and boasts that 97% of graduates are satisfied with their studies.

It seems as if there are an unlimited number of blogs about gardening. My vocabulary consisted of names such as roses, pansies, bougainvillea, and "those yellow flowers." A search through the book Plants for Texas (Garrett, 1996) introduced me to other names such as Pavonia lasiopetala (aka Rock Rose) and Heliopsis scabra (aka Yellow Coneflower). Gardening is a lot like psychotherapy. If people feel like they need to save money on rood, they are likely to start a garden. In poor economic times this is the norm. Gardening has its audience, tools, training, language, and philosophy. Gardening draws people who are looking to work off stress, to take their minds off the struggles of life, and have the promise of some reward in the future.

Much like gardening, psychotherapy draws patients of all ages, cultures, and educational backgrounds. We have our own tools: listening skills developed in graduate school and matured in years of practice. Other tools include psychological evaluations, ADHD surveys, IQ tests, Rorschach, Beck's Depression and Anxiety inventories, compatibility questions, and numerous forms. Many therapists distribute educational and informational material for patients and families, some of which include diseases such as diabetes and disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. Apparently there is not enough paper in the world already, so health care has joined forces with managed care and the government to find more uses for paperwork. This, I suspect, is in support of logging and bureaucracy.

Our tools may include a biofeedback machine and/or neurofeedback equipment. Some of us use play therapy and hypnosis, and we have developed a language that our children refer to as psychobabble. The mental health field has developed a truckload of training programs, beginning with four years in undergraduate school to four to six years in graduate school. We must sit for a state or national exam, and each year we must show proof of continuing education courses. Then we are required to purchase malpractice insurance, building or equipment insurance, office liability insurance, and maybe health insurance if we have any money left over.

Gardening has a philosophy of taking care of mother earth and nurturing plants, trees, shrubs, flowers, and entertaining (sometimes feeding) rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and birds. To do these wonderful things it takes patience, organization, flexibility, and knowledge about the plants, trees, flowers, and vegetables you plant in your garden and yard. Unlike psychotherapy, there often is not the need for graduate school. The true essence of a gardener is a passion for growth and the patience to consistently pull weeds and shoo birds and rabbits from the early buds of hope. You can love the land, but respect is needed for the challenges brought by weather and natural disasters, and an appreciation for the uniqueness of different plants and how to nurture them through storms and floods. Gardeners view nature differently then psychotherapists, but they can have even more insight at times.

Psychotherapy's philosophy is planted in helping people gain more insight into their lives, whether they be experiencing sadness, ineffectiveness, or physical and emotional pain. This is the seeding process; we need to support the patients' efforts to dig themselves out of a rut and help them to not be afraid of getting sunburned or embarrassed when trying new behaviors. This is the watering, weeding, and thinning process. Trying new behaviors, re-learning, refusing to accept old habits, and taking more control over situations brings about a certain awkwardness that often disappoints and brings fear to timid hearts. These are the rabbits and javelinas that threaten a garden. It takes an essence that is uniquely therapeutic to do all these things (Mahoney, 2000, p. 727). First, we need to be aware of our own feelings and thoughts and how we lose them as well as how we take control. Knowing our limitations and how to adjust our balance is uniquely human. Secondly, we need to be sensitive to our relationships--personal and social--and what works and what doesn't and why. Lastly, we must have compassion for people and be able to share feelings rather than offering rhetorical, half-baked statements. People come to us to learn to connect; if we build up artificial barriers, we are not making a connection. We are different than non-therapists. We are different from physicians and nurses. People come to us for something different. They want to be touched and encouraged. We offer unconditional regard and care for others with a willingness to be with them in the moment of their pain and crisis.

Another essence of psychotherapy is ethics. We need to be more than just legally correct; we need to act as if we can be trusted. Our patients often have experienced a fraud, scare, or some form of deception in their lives. What they want from us is a real and honest moment with another human being. Where else can people go for a nonjudgmental conversation? Perfection in our craft is a lifetime process. Graduate school provides the basics we need to get started and the licensing process gives us the legal tools to practice. The state regulations for the organization of our business give us the structure for billing, management, and paying taxes. Both the years of experience and the number of patients give us the time to develop and sharpen our tools and skills. Appreciating how the seeds of past generations can continue to contribute well into the future is even more satisfying, even humbling. The harvest will be different than the harvest of a vegetable garden, but it can be just as rewarding.


ConsumerReports. (2009, March 12). By the numbers: More Americans to dig into food gardening in 2009. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from http://blogs.consumerreports.org/home/2009/03/ national-garden-ing-association-food-gardens-staycation-ruralpolitantomatoes -vegetabies.html?resultPageIndex=1&resultIndex=1&searchTerm national%20 gardening%20association

Garrett, H. (1996). Plants for Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mahoney, M. J. (2000). Training future psychotherapists. In Handbook of Psychological Change. C. R. Snyder & Rick E. Ingrain, Eds. NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

By Ronald Hixson, PhD, MBA, LPC, LMFT, DAPA BCPC

Ronald Hixson, PhD, BCPC, MBA, LPC, LMFT, DAPA, has been a therapist for more than 25 years. He has a Texas corporation private practice and has founded a non-profit group mental health organization where he serves as President/Executive Director. He has a PhD in Health Administration from Kennedy-Western University, an MBA from Webster University, and graduate degrees from the University of Northern Colorado and the University of California (Sacramento).
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