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Getting any therapeutic gardening project off the ground is not for the faint-hearted and community buy-in is often key. This year is set to be a big one for The Walled Garden at Mells in Somerset as we discovered when we spoke to its director, Dr Samantha Evans.

What prompted the desire to launch therapeutic gardening programmes?

With its history deep-rooted in medieval times, the Walled Garden Nursery is on the site of an old monastery that was formally part of Glastonbury Abbey. The project has been to turn this half acre underutilised space into a productive garden built on the principles of permaculture, allowing the nursery to become a real community hub for learning and sharing of horticultural knowledge.

The Walled Garden is a beautiful setting to have a community nursery. It is somewhere, by the very nature of the ancient walls, that nurtures and encourages not just plants to grow, but people too. To reimagine the space and make it more accessible with a therapeutic gardening programme is both exciting and very rewarding.

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What stage are you at with programme development?

During 2019, I have been piloting programmes with organisations in Frome to understand local need. These projects have helped develop some initial working relationships and engagement with the community and helped to understand how the nursery space could be adapted and developed to deliver activities and programmes. It also identified challenges with accessibility, risk, health and safety and general comfort and well-being of participants in the garden.

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Working with a local garden designer Diane Samway, we started to look at how the space can be transformed to be both functional and beautiful with a contemporary take on a traditional monastic garden with the use of green rooms. The main challenge will be to design a space that meets the needs of a functional plant nursery and promotes conversation and companionship.

This autumn saw the community interest company formally established and launched with a drive to develop volunteer support and apply for funding for both initial operational and infrastructure costs. It is anticipated that the nursery will become increasing self-sufficient through the sale of perennial plants through the summer season which will help fund the therapeutic programmes.

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What scale of programming do you envisage?

Programming starts in earnest in April 2020 when the Walled Garden reopens for the season. However, all of the piloted initiatives in 2019 were so successful that they have continued over the winter months. For the 2020 summer season it is anticipated that we will have approximately 20 hours of programming established every week, supporting 600 people a year.

The vision is to run a programme of initiatives, events and workshops that alleviate the health and wellbeing effects of loneliness whether as a result of social, economic, geographic or generational isolation.

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Initially we will focus on providing gardening-based activities and events for the elderly to improve physical wellbeing and provide opportunities to socialise and connect; promote, inform and support vocational and experiential learning by young adults, especially those with disabilities to improve their employability and participation in society; and provide an outdoor learning environment for young children and encourage intergenerational learning. However, programming will be very adaptable and developed based on local needs.

We work very closely with local community groups, schools and NHS health connectors to identify potential participants.

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What's your personal take on the value of therapeutic gardening - do you have any testimonies you can share?

There is a lot of research that links gardening with a number of health and social wellbeing benefits. Tracking the impact of our work will be key going forward and we are particularly keen to work with local health care professionals to understand the cost effectiveness of therapeutic horticulture as a supportive mechanism within a treatment programme.

We are also looking at the potential positive environment impacts. One of the NHS’s biggest environmental footprints is through the production and use of pharmaceuticals. It would be interesting to see if work that we could do to educate on medicinal, herbal and edible and useful plants could reduce over-prescription or encourage the deprescribing of some drugs.

We are still at the early stages of developing the programmes, but we have already seen the positive effects that working in the nursery is having on both volunteers and participants on a very personal level. For example,

  • one of the school groups have reported improved attendance and reported behaviour with some of their pupils.
  • We have been working with one student to provide work skills development and we will hopefully be transitioning that student through an assisted process into paid employment when they finish school. The nursery is working towards being a disability confident employer.

For volunteers there are many personal reasons why they want to get involved and participation maybe as valuable as it is for participants. One volunteer told us: “I am looking forward to returning to the garden and seeing it grow and develop, it is really exciting, although I am aware that there is a lot of hard work ahead….. it has helped me more than I can put adequately into words. I have met some lovely people, and feel part of something wonderful.”

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What has been the community reaction to your plans?

Our local community has been very supportive. We’ve been engaging with the community through community stakeholder workshops, interviews and one to one meetings. Most importantly, we have been looking for opportunities to work on initiatives that bring a variety of local organisations together to work in a collaborative and joined up way.

You’ve got someone working with you who has completed training with Thrive; how will they help out?

Emily Bradly completed the ‘Step into Social and Therapeutic Horticulture Course’; ‘Award Access Course for Occupational Therapists’ and the ‘Award in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture’.

Having a Thrive trained instructor who has horticultural expertise and occupational therapy experience working as part of the start-up team has been really valuable in thinking about programme development. It will open up more opportunities to support a range of gardening therapy groups for older people living with conditions such as dementia, as well as supporting people with more diverse needs.

Gardening for health conference announced

The Reading Gardening for Health and Wellbeing Network will be staging its inaugural conference on 30th April.

Find out more