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J. People Plants Environ > Volume 26(5); 2023 > Article
Song and Song: A Phenomenological Study on Self-growth through the Experience of Horticultural Therapy by Welfare Horticultural Therapists

ABSTRACT

Background and objective: The purpose of this study is to investigate whether welfare horticultural therapists (hereinafter referred to as “welfare HTs”) have achieved self-growth through horticultural therapy experiences.
Methods: The subjects of this study are 8 welfare HTs who have actively worked for more than 3 years after receiving a welfare HT license from the Korea Horticultural Therapy Welfare Association. As a research method, Colaizzi’s phenomenological method was used. Through the study, a total of 123 semantic components, 34 themes, and 14 theme clusters were collected under 5 categories.
Results: The five categories are ‘feeling dissatisfied with life’, ‘encountering horticultural therapy’, ‘being mesmerized by horticultural therapy’, ‘difficulties in horticultural therapy’, and ‘experiencing self-growth through horticultural therapy’. The findings of this study are as follows. Welfare HTs have developed themselves through horticultural therapy experiences. They have had a desire to develop themself into a better existence since learning about horticultural therapy, and working in the treatment field, using plants, through the recovery of clients and various difficult experiences, has consoled them and improved their emotional control and self-esteem.
Conclusion: This study has the following significance. First, it focused on the specific context of working as a welfare HT. Second, it attempts an empirical study on self-growth through the experiences of welfare HTs, an important element in the field of horticultural therapy, research of which has thus far been focused only on therapy programs. Third, it sought to determine how welfare HTs achieve self-growth, so it seems that welfare HTs will be able to use these findings to learn about and develop the abilities required to prepare themselves as mature experts.

Introduction

Individuals living in modern society want to enjoy happy lives, but it seems that many actually fail to do so because they are under stress. On the national happiness index, South Korea ranks 33rd among the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is almost last (Lee, 2017). The stress people are subject to lowers their happiness index, making it difficult for them to find hope in their lives in this era. As a solution to this, psychological support services to help individuals live happier lives in modern society are increasing. These involve counseling and psychotherapy programs, including individual counseling, art therapy, music therapy, expressive arts therapy, hypnotherapy, doll therapy, and sandplay therapy, which are actively being used. Among them, horticultural therapy began as an offshoot of horticulture, a field that studies techniques and theories related to growing vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and is now evolving into a medical service worldwide (Haller and Kramer, 2010). In South Korea, the importance of horticultural therapy was introduced in 1984, by Professor Kwak Byeong-hwa at the Korean Society for Horticultural Science. Afterwards, the first horticultural therapist qualifications were established in 2000, the name of which was changed to welfare horticultural therapist (hereinafter referred to as “welfare HT”) in 2013, a practice which continues to this day.
Horticultural therapy is actively practiced in clinical settings (schools, kindergartens, hospitals, welfare centers, nursing homes, companies, public institutions, etc.), and findings showing physical and mental improvements after horticultural therapy have continued to be published (Jung, 2009). Despite these benefits, research on welfare HTs is insufficient compared to research on other types of counseling therapists. Based on data from 1999 to 2020 searched through the Research Information Sharing Service (RISS), there are approximately 1,900 dissertations and academic papers related to horticultural therapy in South Korea, but most of the studies are on horticultural therapy programs. Looking at the research trend of horticultural therapy programs based on master’s and doctoral dissertations, the largest amount of research was on craft activities, followed by cultivation activities, learning activities, and cooking activities (Ji et al., 2010). For other psychotherapy fields, including art therapy (285 papers) and music therapy (186 papers), research related to the psychological aspects of therapists has been actively conducted, but there are only 7 papers on welfare HTs. Among papers related to welfare HTs, most have been focused on their roles and job abilities, rather than their psychological aspect.
The basic elements of horticultural therapy are the welfare HTs who provide horticultural therapy, the patients who receive treatment, the plants, and the horticultural activities. As a priority, it is desirable for welfare HTs to experience their own self-growth through gardening activities in order to effectively fulfill their role as therapists. Accordingly, if welfare HTs are not prepared with such experience, they might fail to provide successful horticultural therapy. Before prospective welfare HTs act as therapists, it is most important for them to get a chance to reflect on themselves and experience therapeutic effects through gardening activities.
In this study, we aim to examine how welfare HTs develop their abilities as experts and achieve self-growth through insight into the charms of horticultural therapy that they think about from their introductory courses, and the frustrations that they might experience as therapists. It is expected that this study will contribute to increasing the understanding of welfare HTs, enabling those who seek to become welfare HTs to have not only a rough idea of the work of horticultural therapy but also a more practical and accurate understanding. Based on this study, it also is expected that organizations that train and support welfare HTs will be able to systematically supplement and help them promote their self-growth as experts and overcome difficulties.
To achieve the research objective of this study, the research questions were set as follows.
  1. What do welfare HTs experience during the treatment process?

  2. Do welfare HTs achieve self-growth through treatment experiences?

Research Methods

Phenomenological research

This study adopted phenomenological research, a qualitative research approach, to examine the self-growth experiences of welfare HTs and delve deeper into the meaning. The approach seeks to understand a concept or phenomenon by investigating the daily experiences of individuals related to it (Creswell, 2015). It involves examining the various subjective experiences that individuals experience regarding a concept or phenomenon, identifying commonalities among such experiences, and describing them. The description consists of what individuals experienced, and how they experienced it (Kim, 2017).
Colaizzi’s phenomenological method has the advantage of being able to grasp not only the technical and phenomenological level based on collected data, but also the level of the implicit structure of experience, and focuses on commonality rather than characteristics such as individual situation or individuality. As such, Colaizzi’s method was used in this study as it was thought to be an appropriate method for finding the common phenomenon of self-growth among welfare HTs (Choi, 2019).

Research participants

The selection criteria for research participants are as follows. First, welfare HTs who acquired qualifications recognized and granted by the Korea Horticultural Therapy Welfare Association (KHTA) were selected as participants. Second, welfare HTs were targeted who are currently active in the fields of schools, welfare centers, hospitals, counseling organizations, gardening cafes, wild flower farm operations, and social farming. Third, since the activity of welfare HTs involves the concept of treatment, they had basically three years or more of full-time experience.
There were eight research participants in total: two males and six females. Their personal information is shown in Table 1.

Data collection

As a data collection method, an in-depth, open-ended interview with the participants was used. The in-depth interview was conducted in a semi-structured manner that combines a pre-determined set of open questions with an opportunity for the participants to explore their point of view regarding particular questions further.
Before the interviews were conducted, all participants were informed of the purpose of and pertinent information on this study, and gave their permission to participate in the interview by signing a consent form. Interviews took place in each participant’s workplace at a convenient time. Interviews took about one hour on average per participant, and were recorded with the consent of the participants. After the interview, any insufficient areas were addressed with the participants through follow-up phone calls, and then corrected and supplemented.

Data analysis

In this study, we sought to determine what was commonly experienced through the activities of welfare HTs using Colaizzi’s method of data analysis, and the data analysis procedure was as follows.
First, the files recorded during the interview were repeatedly listened to and directly transcribed into documents. Second, to find meaningful statements based on the participants’ repeated statements related to the research topic, words or phrases that well-conveyed their experiences or meaning of the topic were underlined and noted. Third, the hidden meanings of sentences underlined or noted were identified and reorganized into general concepts. Fourth, the meanings reorganized were presented as themes, and related themes were clustered. Fifth, based on the results of the clustered themes, the content of themes was repeatedly reviewed and clustered again to describe them in a sentence. Sixth, common elements of various experiences were clearly stated and the essential structure was identified and formulated. Finally, the validity of the analysis results was reviewed to determine whether the results were consistent with the participants’ opinions by sending the results to the participants by email.

Results and Discussion

A total of 123 semantic components were determined based on the data analysis. Afterwards, they were organized into 34 themes and grouped into 14 theme clusters under five categories. The five categories derived from the analysis included “feeling dissatisfied with life,” “encountering horticultural therapy,” “being mesmerized by horticultural therapy,” “difficulties in horticultural therapy,” and “experiencing self-growth through horticultural therapy.” Table 2 presents detailed information on the 34 themes, 14 theme clusters, and 5 categories that clearly express the experiences and meanings of welfare HTs’ self-growth through the experiences of welfare horticultural therapy.
First, the participants were generally dissatisfied with their lives before encountering horticultural therapy. They often felt that it was difficult to continue with their previous jobs as they became older, or that they were exhausted physically and mentally with work and their relationships with the people around them. They also had an interest in learning about themselves, and a desire to live a more meaningful life.
Second, the participants’ encounters with horticultural therapy took place in the following manner. While they were dissatisfied with their lives, they longed for the rural area where they spent their childhood and had cherished memories. They realized the therapeutic power of familiar plants and wanted to choose a career that would allow them to work with plants in nature. In addition, some participants decided to become welfare HTs because they had acquaintances who worked as welfare HTs and were satisfied with their lives, and the participants thought that they could also be happy. Other participants, who chose horticultural therapy as it seemed to have good prospects, expected that they would be able to have a positive influence on people by doing what they liked, and began studying horticultural therapy.
Third, the participants were mesmerized by and became immersed in horticultural therapy, which they are currently pursuing as a profession, and had a deep love and affection for their career. Since horticultural therapy produces more fruitful results than any other therapies, they felt that it had the power to open the hearts of those who were treated with it. In addition, they felt the unique charm of horticultural therapy, which offers the joy of learning about the laws of nature. The participants were well aware of the power of plants as a medium for horticultural therapy, and that the power of nature, which most people enjoy and feel familiar with, makes even the most closed-minded person with a wounded heart smile and be moved.
Fourth, it seemed that the participants not only had positive experiences while working as horticultural therapists, but also often experienced challenges, and overcame them. As for frustrating experiences related to the clients, the participants felt challenged when some clients ignored them and did not participate in the therapy process well. Notably, there were cases in which the ambience of therapy programs became negative, as some elderly clients coveted materials they liked and tried to have them. The participants had heartbreaking experiences when horticultural treatment could not be provided to handicapped children for sufficiently long periods of time due to practical reasons including therapy cost, despite needing continuous treatment. They also experienced frustration with the organizations in charge of running such programs, mainly reporting that they felt emotionally distressed and embarrassed when the organizations treated horticultural therapy as a craft rather than treatment, or when the person in charge wanted to take materials intended for clients. A further challenge that the participants often expressed was the need to prepare a lot of materials due to the nature of horticultural therapy. Since plants are used as materials, they reported that they have a hard time moving heavy soil, flowerpots, and stones, managing various materials so they do not wilt, organizing them harmoniously, or purchasing them.
Fifth, horticultural therapists achieved self-growth through a range of processes and experiences. They made many efforts to build their skills, and worked faithfully at the treatment site without frustration. They first healed themselves through the preparation and treatment process of horticultural therapy, and although their work is to comfort and care for others, they themselves were consoled through the process. In addition, as they handled beautiful plants, they experienced recovery from the appearance, scent, and growth of the plants. They also experienced an improvement in their ability to control their emotions, reported that their personality became more relaxed and less impatient, and saw improvements in controlling their anger, while expressing more appreciation of their daily lives. Furthermore, as they met clients whose condition improved through horticultural therapy, and realized that the clients had become happier with their help, they came to have a higher self-esteem, have a feeling that they were doing a very good thing, and love themselves. As their self-understanding, ability to control emotions and self-esteem improved, they naturally experienced better relationships with their families and others. Their attitudes toward others became more generous and their lives expanded into a life of service rather than a life lived only for their own benefit. In growing as professional welfare HTs, they experienced the self-growth of improving their academic background and skills through constant study and efforts. They acquired related certifications to develop and provide more diverse and better therapeutic programs, and went on to graduate school to gain a deeper understanding of clients and improve their skills. They also conducted program research and studies with other welfare HTs around them, and continued to study counseling.

Conclusion

This study aimed at investigating the self-growth of welfare HTs through their horticultural therapy experience. To this end, phenomenological research was conducted targeting eight expert-level welfare HTs with three years or more of counseling experience, who have been actively providing horticultural therapy. By analyzing the participants’ statements, sentences that clearly revealed the phenomenon and meaning of welfare HTs’ experience of self-growth were extracted, and a total of 123 semantic components were derived. These were then organized into 34 themes and 14 theme clusters under five categories.
The findings can be summarized as follows. Although the participants started the work with different majors and lifestyles, they all love plants and nature. Even after completing the certification course and training, they performed their work in earnest with warm hearts, and devoted themselves to the work with care for plants and people. While working as therapists, they had pleasant experiences and developed a sense of self-identity as competent professionals. However, just as there are always two sides to a coin, the participants not only had positive experiences, but also experienced frustration with clients, institutions, and materials management. What is common to all participants is that they have achieved self-growth through all of their life experiences. They could understand themselves and others, began to look at their lives with gratitude, and expanded their lives to caring for and serving those around them, rather than to being only immersed in themselves.
When comparing these findings with those of phenomenological studies on the self-growth of therapists in other psychotherapy fields, they have the following in common. In music therapy research, music therapists experienced internal maturity through changes in will and internal insight based on their relationships with clients. As a rapport was formed between therapists and their clients, the therapists developed a sense of responsibility and an obligation to provide good treatment to them by improving their own qualities. They experienced their exhaustion and burnout from therapy sessions being transformed into new passion through the clients’ response (Kyung, 2014). Five essential themes were derived from research papers on the experiences of art therapists involved in hospice care: treating patients in hospice and their families become a difficult hurdle; lack of understanding of art therapy and unpredictable therapeutic environment; burnout resulting from therapeutic work with dying patients; feeling the significance and worth of art therapy; and reflecting on death and life and experiencing self-growth as an art therapist (Woo, 2020). It seemed that by overcoming these challenges, they commonly prepare themselves as experts and achieved self-growth. However, an important difference from horticultural therapists is that while in art or music therapy, therapists’ self-growth or therapeutic work is achieved through any action or artificial thing, such as drawing or playing music, in horticultural therapy, nature itself becomes the source of treatment.
This study has the following significance. First, unlike studies on counseling experiences that were mainly conducted in the general counseling context, empirical research was conducted by focusing on the specific context of welfare HTs in this study. Second, most studies related to horticultural therapy so far have dealt with treatment programs, and even studies on welfare HTs have focused on job skills or training processes. Unlike such previous studies on horticultural therapy, this study is significant in that it attempted to study the self-growth of welfare HTs.
Based on the findings of this study, the following directions for follow-up research are suggested. First, this study targeted only eight professional horticultural therapists who had obtained certification from the KHTA and had been actively engaged in horticultural therapy for three years or more. As such, there may be limitations in generalizing these findings to novice horticultural therapists or to all horticultural therapists. Therefore, in follow-up research it is necessary to focus on the self-growth of novice horticultural therapists. Second, since this study was conducted as a phenomenological study through in-depth interviews, it is necessary in follow-up research to study what factors affect the self-growth of horticultural therapists through quantitative research targeting a larger number of horticultural therapists.

Table 1
Personal information of research participants
Gender Age Education Major Career Field of work
1 Female 54 Bachelor’s degree Youth education 10 Youth center horticultural Therapist
2 Female 39 Bachelor’s degree Physical education 5 Horticultural cafe operator
3 Female 46 Master Mathematics 9 Horticultural Therapist
4 Male 58 Master Horticulture 10 Wildflower farm operator
5 Female 52 Master Home Economics 10 Horticultural Therapist
6 Female 44 Bachelor’s degree Physical education 5 Horticultural Therapist
7 Male 59 Master Horticultural therapy 12 Horticultural Therapist
8 Female 54 Bachelor’s degree Youth education 5 Horticultural Therapist
Table 2
Themes by category derived from analysis results
Category (5) Theme cluster (14) Theme (34)
Feeling dissatisfied with life Decreased job security of previous jobs The older you get, the harder it is to keep working
Faced with an unsustainable situation
As you work, your body and mind guide you
A wish to be a better me Curious to know me
I want to live a meaningful life
Encountering horticultural therapy Longing for nature I grew up in a rural area when I was young and have a longing for nature
I love plants and wanted to pursue them as a career
Horticultural therapy looks promising The senior welfare horticultural therapist looked happy, so I thought I could be happy too
Many institutions prefer horticultural therapy
Being mesmerized by horticultural therapy Experienced positive change in clients A tool that can make people laugh
The tone and expression of people who were cold become warmer as the session progresses
Deeper understanding of nature The more you know, the more amazing and warm nature you experience
Difficulties in horticultural therapy Experienced frustration with the client Ignoring the therapist and unwilling to engage
Greedy for material, trying to take good things
I need continuous treatment, but I regret not being able to do it for a long time
Limitations of the institution’s view of Horticultural therapy Accepted as a craft activity, not a treatment
The person in charge covets what to give to the subjects
Difficulty preparing materials Difficulty organizing, purchasing, and managing various materials
Experiencing self-growth through horticultural therapy Healed by itself It comforts me and I am comforted
I am healed by handling plants
Improving emotion regulation ability Improved ability to control anger
Relaxed, not in a hurry
Increased self-esteem I have confidence in using what I like and can do well as a medium
I feel like I’m doing a great job
I feel that people can change in a good direction because of me
Come to love me
Better relationships with people around you Increased understanding of children
Increased ability to resolve conflicts between couples
The way you look at others becomes softer
Wanting to live a life of service
Improvement of skills through intensive training Acquisition of license related to horticultural therapy graduate school
Do program research and study
Continuing to study counseling

References

Choi, S.M. 2019. A phenomenological study on biblical counselor’s identity experience and meaning. Doctoral dissertation Seoul Bible and Theological Seminary University. Seoul, Korea:

Creswell, John W 2015. Qualitative inquiry and research design: choosing among five approaches Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Jung, E.S. 2009. Current Research Trends of Horticultural Science in Korea Using Analysis of Korean Journal of Horticultural Science and Technology. Master’s thesis. Kangwon National University, Chuncheon, Korea.

Ji, S.Y., Y.J. Jang, C.H. Park. 2010. Analysis of Trends in Master’s and Doctorate Dissertations in Horticultural Therapy in Korea. Journal of Horticultural Science and Technology. 28(2):328-336.

Kim, S.Y. 2017. A Phenomenological Study on Counselors’ Experience of Empathy. Master’s thesis. Kyonggi University, Suwon, Korea.

Kyung, N.L. 2014. A phenomenological study on the growth experience of music therapists through a music therapy internship process Inje University Graduate School. Gimhae, Korea:

Lee, J.J. 2017. The main enemy is inequality Goyang City: Gaemagowon.

Haller, Rebecca L, Christine L kramer, Youngae Choi. 2010. Horticultural therapy methods Seoul: Hakjisa.

Woo, J.H. 2020. A hermeneutic phenomenological study on the art therapy experience of hospice art therapists Yeungnam University Graduate School of Environmental Health. Daegu, Korea:

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