Horticultural healing?

I’ve been spending rather a lot of time in hospitals recently. I won’t bore you with gory details but, as Spike Milligan said on his gravestone, ‘I told you I was ill’. Before this summer I’d fortunately had little to do with them, so it’s only recently struck me just how awful they can be. The buildings and interiors have their needs and functions, but surely more effort could be made with the exteriors? Patchy grass and neglected shrubs aren’t going to make anyone feel better, and the courtyard ‘gardens’ I’ve seen (i.e. those specifically designed to be looked out onto from waiting rooms) are doing more to support and encourage the bindweed than the patients.

The therapeutic benefits of horticulture are well known. Charities such as Thrive and Gardening Leave do excellent work helping people with all manner of physical and mental difficulties through the power of growing plants. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show frequently highlights the connection between gardens and health with show gardens by high-profile designers for charities such as Arthritis Research UK. Hospice gardens are specifically designed to bring joy and solace.

But you don’t have to be sick or actually do some gardening to benefit from some greenery either. Research has shown that getting outside in your lunch-break or even just having a pot plant on your desk can increase productivity and the health and well-being of employees. The NHS lists five steps to mental well-being on its website, all of which could be achieved by taking up gardening. Some, such as “Take notice: Be more aware of … the world around you”, are attainable just by being in a garden.

It would therefore seem logical for hospitals to have fantastic outside spaces for patients and staff to use and enjoy. Instead, at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, they get this:



Hardly inspiring are they? Obviously the problem, as every problem does in the end, comes down to money, or lack of it. The gardens clearly aren’t a budget priority for the hospitals but, in an age of austerity, who can blame them for putting clinical services first? However, I think they should be looking at the bigger picture. It would not take, relative to the rest of their spending, a lot of money to create and maintain some decent outdoor spaces in a hospital. I suspect part of the problem is that the benefit is not quantifiable, but given their own website promotes trying to achieve mental well-being, a more holistic approach to healthcare shouldn’t be out of the question.

I’ve often thought that were I to win the lottery (unlikely, I hardly ever play), I would set up a charity specifically to create gardens where they were most needed. It would also pay top-drawer horticulturists to maintain them, working alongside volunteers. The John Radcliffe lists gardening as one of the opportunities for volunteers at the hospital, but until the spaces themselves are inspiring, it will be difficult to attract people to work in them.

I would create gardens that were first and foremost somewhere that people can escape to from the realities of the hospital. Lots of secluded seating would provide some privacy for patients with visitors, and stopping points for those not able to walk far. Plants such as lavender, herbs and roses – familiar fragrances to remind people of home – would stimulate happy memories and take away the lingering medical scent of antiseptic gel. They would be full gardens, brimming with flowers from herbaceous perennials in the spring and summer and evergreen shrubs and bulbs for winter structure and colour.

They would not include the standard ‘car park plants’ (cotoneaster, hypericum) which only serve to remind people they are in a government institution. There would be a garden at every hospital that was a working allotment, with a paid gardener there every day to chat with and assist any in-patient who wanted to come down and do some planting or harvesting. An extensive cut flower patch would allow patients to pick and take some flowers back to their bedside. The veg and fruit harvests could go to the hospital kitchens, or be used by the hospital Friends to turn into cakes and jam to sell at fundraisers.

Is all this a pipe dream? Possibly. Certainly I don’t foresee ever having the funds a lottery win would provide to throw at the problem. But I’m going to start in a small way and see what I can do. I’ll be ringing the John Radcliffe to ask about volunteering as a gardener. Perhaps I can transform one of those courtyard gardens pictured above by next year – a few packets of flower seed here and there would go a long way and not cost much, or maybe I’ll be able to persuade some local nurseries to donate plants. It will bring a smile to my face to see it looking good, and maybe it will make other people smile too. I’ll let you know how I get on.

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