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Jan with clients 1 of 1
As recognition of gardening’s health benefits increases, interest in working with people and plants is growing. But what does being a Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) Practitioner actually involve? We spoke to our very own Jan Broady to find out.

How long have you been an STH Practitioner?

I started as a trainee practitioner in 2010. I undertook some horticultural qualifications with City & Guilds and have been a full-time STH practitioner since 2011.

What did you do before – what’s your background?

My background is in secondary teaching. I spent a good amount of time in Special Educational Needs departments. This, along with some coaching in extra-curricular activities, was my favourite part of the job.

Why did you become an STH Practitioner?

I love working with people and seeing people achieve and develop. Working in the natural environment is brilliant, and there are so many benefits available to people. Horticultural therapy seemed to combine these passions.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love seeing the pride that our clients take in their work, and the value and self-worth that is generated through their meaningful occupation. Our clients are responsible for working the gardens and I love over-hearing them speak of it as their work. I think that being able to describe a role of occupation and responsibility is fundamental to our human experience; we all derive so much worth from our occupation.

Reading open day
Jan leading a tour of the Thrive Reading gardens during an open day

What does a typical working day look like?

The days are largely structured, and routine is maintained as far as possible. This helps reduce anxieties for a lot of our clients.

I will have up to 8 clients in my group for the day. I create some group-goals that we will work on for the day, as well as a few individual goals that I want to encourage the clients in. I will create a plan of activities in the garden to help the group achieve these goals.

We start with a briefing about what we are going to do. We will work for an hour in the garden on various tasks. We pause for a well-earned tea break, and then work for another hour. We share lunch together and work for our final hour.

There is time to tidy up and a debrief, and then our clients head home. There is reflection and evaluation to complete at the end of each day, and plan and set up for the next.

Describe the needs of clients you work with

We see people with a variety of support needs, including learning disability, autism, mental health difficulties, sight loss, physical disability, dementia, to name a few. Some people will have multiple and complex support needs.

In what ways does your work help client gardeners?

I think the two greatest universal benefits are meaningful occupation and the social setting. We have all realised just how important interaction with other people is. On top of this, we are able to work in ways that help people achieve unique and nuanced personal goals.

Jan with snowdrops 1 of 1
Getting up close to enjoy the snowdrops

What’s the most satisfying part of your job?

Seeing a greater independence in people. I love seeing people equipped with skills and confidence. We ‘lost’ a client one day. They turned up a few minutes later having harvested the rhubarb. They had done a brilliant job and took the initiative to complete a task that they were obviously desperate to do. It was a surprise to everyone, and a great success for that person.

And what’s the less favourite part of the role?

Managing a decline can be really hard. Some people have degenerative conditions, and our goal is to extend their independence as far as possible and maintain their level of ability for as long as possible. There can be a large emotional burden that is shared as you see the person decline.

How much gardening do you do at home and what do you like growing?

I live in a flat with no garden! But I love propagating plants. The two house plants I have had most success caring for and propagating are Jade plants (Crassula ovata), and dragon trees (Dracaena marginata), these are both hardy plants, and forgiving of my neglect. We also have a few moth orchids (Phalaenopsis). The air-roots always remind me of the epiphytic bromeliads that I saw on a trip to Peru. I think anything that provokes that sort of reminiscence is worth having around.

Client plots 1 of 1
Plots cared for by client gardeners are one of Jan's favourite places

Favourite part of the Thrive garden or activity you enjoy most?

There are two areas of the garden that hold a special place in my heart.

We have a border beneath our dry-stone wall that l was able to redesign. It looks fabulous in late winter/early spring. The scent from the sarcococca is heavenly. The colour and contrast of the hellebores, snowdrops, and dog woods, offset against the mossy drystone is beautiful to look at.

I also love the client plots. Every client who comes is offered one of the 1.5m2 boxes to look after. This is their land that they treasure. They paint and decorate the raised border, and they plan and implement the planting, and in some cases the landscaping that goes on in the plot.

You really see people’s personalities and their creativity shining through. The plots are so personal and a great motivating tool. During this lockdown as we have been in contact with our clients, they miss the people most, but the next question is usually, “How is my plot doing?”

What skills/attributes do you feel are key to the job?

Communication is key to the role. You will need an ability to communicate things clearly and simply, and in a variety of different ways (spoken, with pictures, perhaps using Makaton for example). Listening to and understanding a client is also key. Helping them to articulate their thoughts can take a great amount of patience and perseverance.

Is there anything people thinking of becoming an STH Practitioner should be aware of before they embark on a career change?

We are striving for horticultural therapy to be officially recognised within the health care world, and for general awareness of horticulture as a therapy. Helping people to understand the value of horticultural therapy and prove the benefit of it are still challenging tasks.

What advice would you give to someone looking to become an STH Practitioner?

I am fortunate to have colleagues to share my experiences with, however many practitioners will be lone working for most of the time. Build a good professional network that you can draw upon for support.