Social Benefits: Gardening can provide a social lifeline

Nicholas Barley at Thrive London

Full doesn’t adequately describe the life that Nicholas Barley enjoyed two years ago. 

The former model was running a successful building restoration business in London that employed 20 people and enjoyed travelling the world and having an active social life.  

But on the 27 April 2017, the day after his 56th birthday, everything changed in a matter of seconds. 

In the middle of an AA meeting he realised he couldn’t move: 'Someone grabbed hold of me, so I didn’t fall over and then said I'd had a stroke. It was out of the blue and horrible,’ says Nicholas. 

An ambulance arrived quickly and Nicholas was getting treatment at a specialist stroke hospital within 45 minutes; that speedy response probably saved his life.


Nicholas can’t remember much about what happened next but recalls lying in bed, unable to eat, speak or walk, but he could hear and remembers a consultant telling his daughter and a close friend that there was no hope. 

`I thought "No way, we’ll see what happens mate",’ says Nicholas and it was that determination to get better that set him on a long and arduous path towards partial recovery.  

Nicholas emerged from a lengthy stint in rehab unable to use his right arm, but able to speak and walk, albeit with some limitations. He received help from the Stroke Association who also made him aware of what Thrive could offer through Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH).

Socially, however, he wasn’t in a good place. Depression had always been a problem and the stroke had also affected his confidence. 


Nicholas took part in a specialised 12-week stroke programme that uses gardening to support rehabilitation through tasks aimed at improving fine motor skills and dexterity, while strengthening limbs. 

`Initially coming here was scary and really hard work because I was very withdrawn. But the lady that ran the course didn’t place any expectations on me which was great.’  

Nicholas admits it took a while to become part of the group, but the friendly welcome and encouragement of fellow client gardeners, staff and volunteers made a real difference: 

`They’ve helped me a massive amount. There is a huge community here, people in the office and in the groups have been great,’ says Nicholas, who now volunteers at Thrive once a week selling plants to the public where he enjoys talking to Battersea Park’s diverse visitors and being tested on his plant knowledge. 

Nicholas tending the kiosk at Thrive London

Reflecting on his Thrive experience, Nicholas said: 'The hard work has paid off, but I don’t notice it as much as other people who say "Nicholas, look how far you have come". 

'Mentally it is a continual challenge, but I wouldn’t stop it, no way. I’ve made very good friends here so I’m a happy customer.  

'I rate the work of the staff here very highly because of their skills. To get a person to open up and talk is pretty massive. Everyone is here to help.’ 

Social contact

Nicholas' experience of STH is not unique. A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care by Natural England found they can help increase social contact and a sense of belonging.

When more than 300 people aged over-50 took part in a Thrive gardening project, 86 per cent of them said afterwards they felt less isolated and socialised more, while 76 per cent said they had become more engaged in their local community.

And Thrive's 40 years experience in delivering STH has shown that therapeutic gardening projects for those with learning disabilities and poor mental health can counteract social isolation.

Ready to help

If you would like to find out how Thrive could help you, or someone you know, overcome loneliness and social isolation, do get in touch.

We have regional centres in Birmingham, London and near Reading that offer therapeutic gardening programmes. If we can't help directly, we will try and connect you with other providers across the country who can.

Send an email to

Tips for easier gardening - Growing Alpines

You don't need a garden to grow Alpines as they can be grown in any container with good drainage and are easy to grow and need little care.

Buy small Alpines such as Spring Gentian, Saxifrages and Sedums

Pots that are 25-30cm wide and 10-15cm deep are ideal for first timers and need to be filled with a compost mix to within 1cm of the rim. 

The compost mix should be: 3 parts John Innes compost; 2 parts sieved composted bark; 1 part coarse grit and one part sharp sand. Ensure the mix is damp.

Plant the Alpines carefully in the compost, spacing them carefully as they will spread.

Put a layer of coarse grit on top of the compost so no compost is showing.

Find out more

Gardening with a disability? 

 Carry on Gardening website has many more practical tips to help you continue gardening. 
  Learning new skills

Discover how gardening can develop new skills or go back to our It's Not Just Gardening campaign page
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