WALNUT CREEK -- In the morning as people commute to work, Patrice Hanlon is already at the garden being serenaded by a host of birds. As garden director of The Gardens at Heather Farm, Hanlon said she's lucky to work in such a serene environment.

"All the robins are out," said Hanlon, who commutes to the garden from her Concord home. "I like coming out here first thing in the morning when all the bird activity is at its peak and see the scrub jays and the finches hang on the tree branches."

One of the best times to walk in a garden is during winter, she said.

Hanlon, a horticultural therapist, along with ecotherapist Jackie Jordan, want people to see the garden as a winter sanctuary and not just as a warm-weather destination. They are leading a series of guided Winter Walks to relieve the winter doldrums. Each walk is designed to provide a respite from the darker days of winter by observing the subtleties and beauty of the winter garden, Hanlon said.

Participants of each specially-themed walk, to be held from 9:30 to 11 a.m. rain or shine, are encouraged to dress warmly and wear comfortable walking shoes.

Hanlon and Jordan said what makes these walks unique is that each will feature guided meditations, reflection and opportunities to sketch or write in a personal journal. Keeping a nature journal is a wonderful way to improve observation skills and memory, they said.

"The Bones of the Garden," on Feb. 22, will encourage people to observe things that they may not normally pause to appreciate. "Sometimes in the process of slowing down, things are revealed, such as the spores on a fern, shelf fungus decomposing a stump, or the pattern of a bud still held tight waiting for light and warmth to help it unfurl," Hanlon said.

"Spring Equinox and Bud Break, the Garden Awakens," is the theme for the walk March 22.

"We will revisit some of the trees and shrubs we observed in February to see how they have changed," Hanlon said.

She will recite her favorite e.e. cummings poem at the last winter walk,"All Things Green and Wonderful," on April 19, when the garden should be in full bloom.

Both women combine their knowledge and passion for gardens with their therapeutic backgrounds to help visitors use the garden for healing purposes. As a horticultural therapist, Hanlon developed a garden program designed for students with Asperger's syndrome and is in the process of developing programs for seniors.

"Lots of people think that horticultural therapy is about healing plants, but it's more about healing people," Hanlon said. "Besides this being a sustainable habitat, it's a healing space."

The look of the gardens evolves as the weather and seasons change, she said.

"The point is to get them to actually see the garden and the notice the subtleties of nature," said Hanlon. "There's always a new discovery, something new to see every time."

Jordan, a transplant from Honolulu, who now calls Concord home, spent much of the past 17 years working as a nonprofit arts administrator in Hawaii and San Francisco. Needing to spend more time in the sunlight, Jordan said she left the theater and took a job as operations assistant at The Gardens at Heather Farm, and recently completed a certificate in ecotherapy.

"I look at the garden from a meditative standpoint," Jordan said. "Even if we quickly take the same path we always do, we could slow down, breathe and connect with the earth. Slowing down gives us a chance to observe the gardens in a new way."

Spending time in a garden helps relieve stress, Jordan said.

Gardens at Heather Farm regulars such as the weeping mulberry tree and the butterfly habitat are worth observing in the winter, they said.

"We don't have a bird feeder, but in the morning the butterfly habitat is packed with birds," said Hanlon.

A $5 donation for each walk helps build more therapeutic garden programs Hanlon and Jordan hope to offer in the future.

"The garden is cyclical just like life," Hanlon said.

Winter Walks
WHEN: 9:30-11 a.m. Feb. 22, March 22 and April 19
WHERE: The Gardens at Heather Farm, 1540 Marchbanks Drive, Walnut Creek
INFORMATION: $5 per walk. Call 925-947-1678 or go to gardenshf.org