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Names of all service users have been changed

The quote attributed to Napoleon while in exile in St Helena
that “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers”
(“England is a nation of shopkeepers”), has had its Waterloo with
the boom in retail parks and out-of-town malls. With less shops to
keep it seems we have traded in our aprons and counters for wellies
and gardens: the English entrepreneur has, well, gone to seed.

Gardening is a therapeutic pastime and perhaps particularly so
for older people. The garden often commands, for example, the hours
in retirement once filled by work. But often age, illness or
accident can mean that you’re no longer able to care for
yourself let alone your garden. However, moving into, say, a care
home should not signal the end of these interests and

Indeed back in 1999 the Relatives and Residents Association
published Gardening in Homes as a guide on how to get the
best out of indoor and outdoor gardening in residential and nursing
care homes. It shows how a mutual interest in plants and flowers
can ease the transition into a home, provide a stimulating pastime
and conversation topics, and give pleasure to relative and resident
alike. As one relative says, “My mother doesn’t talk anymore
but her face lights up when I bring in another of her favourite
plants.” A resident adds: “My husband was so fond of gardening that
it is a special time to remember him when we take part.”

“It can transform what otherwise might be a negative visit into
a worthwhile activity that makes a positive use of the time that is
available to share,” says the report’s author Pam Hutchence.
“It can also enhance the sense of being part of a community rather
than being shut away and put apart, which is sadly too often the
feeling of people in residential homes,” she adds.

Many homes have set up successful garden clubs. For those unsure
what to do, Hutchence identifies local horticultural societies as
possible sources of expert advice and guidance and of help for
residents who have no regular visiting from family or friends. Not
only would this introduce the home and its residents to new
community contacts, but society members may be able to keep costs
down by donating surplus plants or even tools and equipment.
Members may be willing to help with watering, which is often a
problem (residents themselves may be too frail and staff too busy
to ensure regular attention). They may also agree to give talks and

The power of gardening in care homes is reflected by garden
designer Annie Pollock who had created “A Dementia Garden” for the
Scottish National Garden Show. She had been inspired by an older
resident called Bob in a nursing home in Tayside. Bob had been a
keen gardener but was withdrawn, his memory gone and “he seemed to
know nothing of his past or present”. A patch of lawn had been dug
up to create a vegetable garden. Every day Bob would turn up to
work the garden – growing vegetables for the benefit of residents
in the home. “He knew instinctively what to do and for a few hours
each day gardening drew him back to a familiar world and gave his
life renewed meaning.”

It is allotments that provide the grounding for personal growth
at the Development Of Motivation In New Outlooks, or
Domino, the West Glamorgan Council on Alcohol and Drug
Abuse’s horticultural therapy project in South Wales. In the
shadow of the impressive ruins of Oystermouth Castle in the busy
seaside resort of Mumbles, the project aims to support substance
(including alcohol) abusers who are about to commit to, or have
just completed, abstinence-based treatment. Set up in April 1997
and originally funded through a three-year national lottery grant
it is now funded by the Welsh Assembly’s Challenge Fund and support
from Lloyds TSB.

Importantly, the project is mostly staffed by recovered clients
lending an immediate credibility that would otherwise take time
(which may not be available) to achieve. People such as Mark Thomas
– clean since 1996: “Today I am a recovering alcoholic,” he says.
“Tomorrow I could be a using alcoholic. When I knocked on the door
in 1996 my drinking was totally unmanageable. I needed help.” And
that help came through Domino. The clearance and cultivation of an
allotment was so successful that a second and third were
subsequently taken on.

Thomas and other clients also helped to design and build a
greenhouse. “This was an achievement,” he says. “We came from a
background where we had done a lot of destroying. Other
people’s lives. Our own lives. To do something in reverse was
quite amazing for us. It might not have sounded a lot, but to a
recovering addict or alcoholic it was pretty amazing stuff. A lot
of emotions came out. We were proud. Embarrassed because we asked
ourselves did we really do this thing? Are we this good?”
Thomas’s progress was so good he was offered a job as a
pre-treatment worker for the project.


Providing a venue for chat, relaxation, problem-solving and
learning, the project provides an effective antidote to temptation.
As the project coordinator says: “Clients want help immediately.
They are in crisis when they arrive but the waiting list for places
in primary treatment can be up to two months. The Domino keeps them
engaged until there is a space for them.” Another project worker
and recovering addict agrees: “Heroin is in the mind,” he says.
“When you take heroin away it’s the mind you have to fill
again and ideally that’s what we are here for.”

Indeed the notion that gardening can help people’s health and
well-being to grow is the subject of a £322,526 research grant
from the national lottery’s community fund to examine the
benefits of horticulture as a tool for improving the quality of
life of older, disabled and socially excluded people. The three
year study is being carried out by Loughborough University’s
Centre for Child and Family Research, based in the department of
social sciences.

“This is an exciting and innovative study – the first of
its kind in the UK – to look at the ways by which gardening
and horticulture can help promote vulnerable people’s health,
well-being and their wider participation in local communities,”
says research director Professor Saul Becker. “The study will have
important implications for future policy, not just with regard to
environmental management and horticultural issues, but also in
health and social care. We need to think creatively. In years to
come, some people may be just as likely to turn to the land to help
their own health and general well-being, as they would be now to
seek help from health, social services or other agencies,” he

“Gardening is known to benefit a wide range of people, from
older and disabled people to those with learning difficulties or
mental health problems,” says Tim Spurgeon, advisory services
manager for Thrive, formerly the Society for Horticultural Therapy,
which is a partner in the research. “Projects operate in a wide
variety of settings including day centres and hospitals, allotments
and prisons. Most clients are referred by social services
departments but an increasing number of GPs are recognising the
benefits of horticulture as a therapy. It increases self-esteem,
builds confidence, offers basic and social skills and, for some,
even leads to qualifications and the opportunity to move into

Thrive, formed in 1978, is a national charity that uses
gardening to improve the lives of disabled, disadvantaged and older
people. It co-ordinates a national network of 1,600 projects, as
well as running its own training and therapeutic gardens, and has
contact with 60,000 people through its network.

Thrive understands well the potential devastation for people who
have been gardening all their lives and, for whatever reason, have
that hobby removed. Its website – –
provides excellent information on tools and techniques to help
everyone, regardless of age, strength or mobility, to carry on

Thrive has made extraordinary impacts on many people’s
lives. People such as Peter Ross, 44 and Darren Clough, 18.

Ross is a paranoid schizophrenic. He always had to sit at the back
of the Thrive bus by the exit so he knew no one was behind him.
Thrive therapists always knew when he was having a bad day because
he would be unshaven when they collected him.

Ross was undiagnosed until his 30s. He had a wife and children
in Scotland and a variety of jobs from carpet fitter to
electrician. The frequency and scope of his abilities reflected the
number of lapses or episodes of his condition, causing him to lose
job after job. His condition led to the breakdown of his marriage,
causing him to move to England to be a shop fitter. He became
addicted to amphetamines, had a bad lapse, was sectioned,
hospitalised and lost his job. On release from hospital he lived in
a shared house but was scared to venture out because he had been
beaten up several times and taunted by people calling him

Ross’s work at Thrive began to give him some confidence
and the regular pattern of activity took the focus off his voices.
Over his years with Thrive he refused to get involved in the garden
activities but did handyman jobs; fitting out workshop and tool
rooms, and creating compost bins. When he finally tried some
gardening it was as a “dare” – but it worked. He enjoyed it
and started to work towards NPTC (National Proficiency Tests
Council) qualifications and was a mentor to other clients, mainly
those with learning difficulties. Thrive’s therapists knew
they were making progress with him when one day he announced that
he was going to try a different seat in the bus, “to see if it
would be OK”.

Ross eventually moved back to Scotland to try and rebuild his
life there. Thrive has heard from him twice and the last time was a
phone call to say, “I’m doing all right”.

Darren Clough’s story is different but no less remarkable.
He and his older brother had been subjected to child abuse. Both
boys had been separated and moved away from their family and given
new identities. Social services were committed to helping them try
to have a normal life without any further contact from anyone they
knew before.

When Clough arrived at the garden project, Thrive therapists
made sure he was never left alone on site, that the volunteers
working with him were police-checked and that there were no
visitors expected on the days he attended.

He exhibited socially inappropriate behaviour so Thrive had to
work on setting and maintaining boundaries – something which Clough
found difficult. However, he liked the outdoors – it was fun – and
he would have a go at anything. At the time he arrived, Thrive was
preparing for a flower show. Clough was set the task of creating
something spectacular with a major flowerbed. He decided on
creating an alpine bed. He researched what plants would work,
designed how it should look and then did it. And how. This was the
first time he had been given responsibility and indeed became his
first achievement ever – and it delighted him and everyone

After this, he was given his own plot and has since won
competitions for design and for growing. He built relationships at
Thrive and better managed his behaviour. He progressed rapidly and
won a place at a residential horticultural college to develop this
natural talent – and to start his life.

With gardening a little imagination and commitment can go a very
long way. However, water that imagination and commitment, cultivate
it, and see it blossom. English history’s most famous
landscaper was Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-83). He earned his
nickname because he would tell his clients that their gardens had
excellent “capabilities”. A similar sentiment could apply to
gardening and social care. Lives can be landscaped too. You reap
what you sow.


Relatives and Residents Association

5 Tavistock Place

London WC1H 9SN

(020) 7692 4302

Advice and helpline: (020) 7916 6055 (10am-12.30;


Gardening in Homes is available for £6


The Geoffrey Udall Centre

Beech Road

Reading RG7 2AT

(0118) 988 5688


West Glamorgan Council on Alcohol and Drug

40 St James Crescent




(01792) 472519

Thanks to Patrick Ellis who provided
information on the Domino project:

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