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Book Review: A Therapist's Garden

The somewhat staid and didactic title of Erik Keller’s memoir, A Therapist’s Garden: Using Plants To Revitalize Your Spirits, hardly suggests the content — a remarkably wise, slyly humorous and compassionate review of the year Keller spent gardening with his Connecticut “clients” (as he calls them) — cancer patients, special needs children, kids in juvenile detention facilities. The book celebrates, with beautifully pen and ink illustrations by family members, how gardening and related activities through all the seasons, month by month, can evoke a sense of self, of others and the pleasures of the natural world. That’s “can” evoke, not will. One of the many attractions of this impressive monograph is Keller’s humility, his dedication to try to learn from presumptions that didn’t pan out — “it went bust” he says of one of his enthusiasms.

Add to Keller’s official client base his severely arthritic widowed mother on Long Island whom he saw regularly and his adorable visiting infant/toddler granddaughter. In both he awakens curiosity and joy — and there you have the heart and soul of a guide full of plant lore and love that should appeal to anyone, at any level of learning anything. All from a man who totally delights in the look and scent of vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers — hundreds are discussed here, Latin names alongside colloquial — who admits three-quarters through that he’s colorblind.

Structuring the memoir as a calendar gives Keller the chance immediately to engage a wide audience who will see how much there is to do in winter —fashion sachets, bouquets, force bulbs, distinguish herbs by scent and taste, build a sundial, keep lettuce and carrots going and learn about the “interdependence of animals and plants.”

A master storyteller, Keller seeds the book with entertaining anecdotes, among them, one that stands out for theatrical reasons. Remember “Little Shop of Horrors” — about timid Seymour who works in a plant store and the man-eating plant Audrey that suddenly pops up? Well, Keller gets a new student named Seymour and is cautioned to be alert because his young charge is obsessed with carnivorous plants. Turns out that Keller propagates these as a hobby. Turns out also that Seymour refuses to do anything he’s asked — until Keller promises him a Cape sundew bug zapper, and then if he’s good, a Venus Flytrap. Seymour “becomes the perfect student.”

Keller, who’s been practicing as a horticultural therapist for over 20 years after leaving the world of corporate tech, is a licensed master gardener and a member of leading local and national horticultural associations. In addition to running horticultural therapy programs for physically, emotionally and mentally challenged seniors and tending to the individual needs of diverse special-needs children, he serves as commissioner for the Ridgefield Connecticut Conservation Commission. A writer, researcher, loving husband, father, son and grandfather, he comes across as a gifted natural teacher and a master humanist.

As he says in his prologue, “Understanding the difference between the pistil and the stamen of a flower is important but pales in comparison to connecting with a client and evoking a smile.”

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.