Caroline Pankhurst smalll
Interest in the power of plants and gardens to improve wellbeing is high and can lead to people exploring a career change and becoming a Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) practitioner.

Caroline Pankhurst has been one for the last two years and is a member of the Thrive horticultural therapy team in London. We caught up with her to find out more about her role.

What were you doing before coming to Thrive?

I was working part-time (and still am) as Education & Project Manager at the South London Botanical Institute, managing the plant-related education and day-to-day running of the institute. Previously I had done some gardening with children at the National Trust’s Ham House, which I'd also really enjoyed and realised I liked doing 'gardening with a bit more to it' than just gardening.

What led you to join Thrive?

I have an RHS Level 2 in Horticulture and did Thrive’s Step into STH course. I volunteered for Thrive for about a year, loved it, then did a freelance zero hours contract for about a year, doing cover occasionally, until I was offered a permanent role.

What are the most important qualities and skills needed to be a good STH practitioner?

Patience, flexibility, ability to listen and to support someone to do a job, not do it for them. Also a fair amount of stamina for being outside all day in all weathers.

What are the best and worst parts of the job?

The best is seeing the clients having fun and enjoying their gardening. The worst is when a client gets angry with you and sitting down to paperwork at the end of a long day.

What’s your favourite part of the Thrive gardens or activity you most enjoy?

I like the Herb Garden, as that's where I spend most time, but walking to the other gardens sometimes is a really nice thing to do that everyone enjoys.

Outline some of the conditions of the client gardeners you work with and how that can influence activities you plan?

Pre-Covid, I had eight clients with a range of needs – physical disability, learning difficulty, brain damage, autism, dementia, hearing and sight difficulties, mental ill health. My client with autism likes to have a system and do the same jobs, like sweeping or watering – I try to encourage him to do different things but I need to approach him with the idea and let him think about it for a while before deciding whether he wants to do it or not.

My client with dementia often thinks she needs to leave at lunchtime, so it's important that I have a job for her to get straight on with after lunch. When she's engaged in her work she doesn't get distracted by thoughts of needing to be elsewhere.

Do you think STH gets enough recognition for its benefits?

Probably more so now than a few years ago, with social prescribing etc.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming an STH practitioner?

Volunteer on an STH project first, before doing loads of training – some people find the reality very different to what they imagine, for example, you won't really be doing much gardening! And don't go into it for the money!

What’s the best argument for the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening?

I think anyone who tries it won't need any further convincing.

* Thrive recently launched a Diploma in STH, offering the UK’s only higher education qualification in this area to help people gain the knowledge and expertise to work professionally in this sector. Find out more.

Study STH for two years with Thrive's new diploma

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