Alyson Chorley chats with Siân Chattle about Lindengate which celebrates its first birthday in November. Pictures were kindly supplied free of charge from davidpoolephotographer.com
Lindengate is a charity based in Buckinghamshire offering a range of gardening and horticulture activities for people with mental ill health.
Friends Siân Chattle and Charlie Powell are the driving forces behind Lindengate which they started after attending Thrive’s 'Setting up a Social and Therapeutic Horticulture Project’ course.
Now the charity is going from strength to strength, helping more than 30 people last year, with more in the pipeline.
It started after a chance conversation between Siân and Charlie who both discovered they shared a dream: to create a garden that could offer escape, solace and hope to people in need of recuperation.
Charlie had retrained as a gardener after a career in marketing, while Siân felt ready for a change after 30 years as a teacher.
"I wanted to leave teaching and, having seen pupils’ positive response to being outdoors and learning about the environment at the Eco Club I ran at the school, I wanted to use gardening to help isolated, vulnerable adults.
"So when Charlie mentioned her idea for a garden, something clicked."
In 2013, hoping to operate a pilot scheme that would provide horticultural therapy for local adults with mental-health issues, they asked for a small plot on an underused allotment adjoining Wyevale Garden Centre near their homes in Wendover, Buckinghamshire.
The garden centre offered them the entire five acres!
'It was waist-high in thistles and had rotten sheds and broken greenhouses, but we knew it was the right thing to do,’ says Siân.
Now the weeds have gone, the sheds are repaired and painted and two huge polytunnels have been constructed.
Volunteers, including horticultural experts and psychologists, helped get the site ready, advising on both mental-health issues and garden maintenance.
There is growing evidence that gardening creates feelings of wellbeing and aids recovery from mental illness.
Last year, Thrive had a peer reviewed paper published in The British Journal of Occupational Therapy which shows that STH participants include most, if not all, vulnerable groups (Sempik et al 2014).
The two largest groups are people with a mental health problem and those with a learning disability. In the UK these each comprise around 40% of the client base.
Research into effectiveness has shown that STH can reduce the symptoms of depression (Gonzalez et al 2009) and lead to greater group cohesiveness in depressed participants who consider social aspects to be particularly important (Gonzalez et al 2011).
Other studies have also found that STH improves the self-esteem and social interaction of participants with a mental health problem (Sempik et al 2003).
Studies have also provided further evidence that horticulture, used in a structured manner, can serve as a tool to promote social inclusion among vulnerable groups.
As STH continues to gain credibility as a proven, cost-effective treatment that could help vulnerable people with a range of support needs and save the NHS millions of pounds each year, it is little surprise that the interest of the medical profession has once again been aroused.
Former President of the Royal College of Physicians and Thrive Patron Sir Richard Thompson was one of the first to call for gardening to be prescribed on the NHS.
He said: "I have, for some time, thought doctors should prescribe a course of gardening for people who come to them with depression or stroke.
"Drug therapy can be really expensive, but gardening costs little and anyone can do it."
Dr William Bird, a GP who advises Public Health England on physical activity, believes that every £1 spent on horticultural therapy could save the health service £5 in other treatments:
"Some doctors have not yet accepted that something so simple can be more effective than drugs," said Dr Bird.
"But we know it works; and I would say the 'green gym’ is good for everyone, but it is particularly beneficial for people with mental ill health, depression, anxiety and dementia."
"The savings made could see money being channelled in other directions such as cancer drugs."
With the NHS spending millions annually on antidepressants, Siân and Charlie believe that charities such as Thrive and Lindengate are vital.
Individuals come to Lindengate following professional diagnosis or self-referral.
"To cover ongoing costs we have to charge for sessions, but we are determined to remain independent as we fear we would fall victim to funding cuts if we were part of the NHS," says Siân.
To get the project underway, the local community helped raise more than £100,000 via garden parties and market stalls.
In November 2014, less than three years after their initial conversation, the first gardeners started to use the social and horticultural therapy site.
Now, one year on Lindengate operates with six part time staff and 80 volunteers.
"It has grown beyond anything we envisaged which shows how much something like this is needed," said Sian.
Siân and Charlie named it Lindengate after the blossom of the linden tree, which for centuries has been used to make a stress-reducing tea. The gate symbolises an opening to a new life.
A new environment can be daunting for people in a bout of depression, so gardeners are often supported by a friend or care worker.
A three-hour session costs £25 and gardeners work alongside trained volunteers. Bursaries and grants from trust funds and groups such as Paradigm Housing, Heart of Bucks and Prevention Matters have been invaluable.
"So many people with mental-health issues would benefit hugely from Lindengate but can’t afford to access the site on their own.
"The bursaries are a lifeline and top up what they can afford," says Siân.
She added: "Everything is working very well for us and one of our gardeners’ said: 'for the first time my mind is clear
’ while another said: 'I’ve just realised that not everything dies in the winter
Next year plans for Lindengate include the creation of a cottage garden and pond, a rainbow garden, seating areas and a wildflower meadow.
"As the whole garden develops, it will provide nature’s therapy: butterflies, bees, birdsong, the scent of sweet peas and lavender," said Siân.
At this time of year gardeners enjoy nature-inspired art and craft projects – willow nesting boxes, scarecrows and natural collages – and vegetables grown on site will be sold at market stalls or used to help people develop cookery skills.
"Lindengate is a community that allows you to leave your diagnosis at the gate; it puts its arm around you," says Siân.
In time, Lindengate plans to offer courses such as gardening national vocational qualifications. There are on-site courses in work skills, managing stress and improving confidence too.
Charlie and Siân have drawn on all their personal experience and knowledge to create a garden where hope and wellbeing can grow. We wish them well.
Gonzalez MT, Hartig T, Patil GG, Martinsen EW, Kirkevold M (2011) A prospective study of group cohesiveness in therapeutic horticulture for clinical depression. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 20(2), 119–129.
Gonzalez MT, Hartig T, Patil GG, Martinsen EW, Kirkevold M (2009) Therapeutic horticulture in clinical depression: a prospective study. Research and Theory for Nursing Practice: An International Journal, 23(4), 312–328.
Sempik, J., Rickhuss, C., & Beeston, A. (2014). The effects of social and therapeutic horticulture on aspects of social behaviour. The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 77(6), 313-319.
Sempik J, Aldridge J, Becker S (2003) Social and therapeutic horticulture: evidence and messages from research. Reading: Centre for Child and Family Research.