Good Practice: Thrive gardening project in Battersea Park

A variety of social services’ clients are referred to a large-scale garden project that looks to build physical and mental strength, reports Natalie Valios

Project Profile

Project name: Thrive Battersea Garden Project

Manager: Susan Stuart –

Location: Battersea Park, London.

Aims and objectives: To use social and horticultural therapy to improve the health and well-being of people with disabilities or long-term conditions.

Annual cost: £449,000 for 2010-11

How it is funded: A mixture of local authority, primary care trust, mental health trust and charitable trust funding.

Timescale: While time-limited programmes are run at the park, Atheldene gardeners’ attendance is open-ended.

Number of service users: 150, of whom 90 come to the park on a regular basis, including 11 gardeners from the Atheldene day centre in Wandsworth, while 60 have regular outreach gardening sessions.

Number of professional staff: Seven horticultural therapists, two project support workers and the project manager. There are also 60 volunteers.

“If you have spent a lot of your life believing you are not as good as other people, then you can be [on the same level as them] with gardening. Everyone can grow something and nurture it, and at the same time it nurtures them,” says Ruth Yeo, horticultural therapist at Thrive.

Thrive is a charity that uses gardening and horticultural therapists to help disabled people and others improve their health and well-being, increase their confidence and learn new skills. As well as supporting about 900 garden projects around the UK, it runs two garden projects – in Beech Hill near Reading, Berkshire, and in London’s Battersea Park.

Thrive’s clients – or gardeners as they are called – are referred by social services or other professionals such as their GP, or can self refer. The Battersea project had been running outreach gardening sessions for adults with learning disabilities at the Atheldene day centre in Wandsworth for about 10 years. But with the day centre due to close in the near future, the decision was taken to move service users to the project at Battersea Park.

“We put a lot of planning into the move because it was a big change to go from the safe environment of the day centre to gardening in a public park,” says Yeo. “We talked about the move well before it happened so that people could get used to the idea. Families and carers were quite worried too because it was an unknown quantity.”

To dispel any fears, visits were arranged so that clients could see the park, meet staff and other gardeners and family and carers were also invited. Another challenge was transport: clients used local authority transport to get to the day centre but would have to use public transport to reach Battersea Park. So the day centre set up a travel buddy scheme for those who needed support, while others had travel training to help them learn a new route.

The project at Battersea has been running for 24 years. Fifteen gardening sessions are run each week, from 10am-3pm. Sessions include people with a range of conditions, so when the Atheldene gardeners joined 15 months ago they found they were working alongside adults with visual impairment, heart disease, dementia, mental illness and those recovering from a stroke.

Each Atheldene gardener has an individual development programme setting out their goals. Much of the work the therapists carry out with them is around building social skills, confidence and self-esteem, says Yeo. “They have come from the secluded environment of a day centre where most of their friends have learning disabilities and things are done for them. We encourage them to do things for themselves.

“We have a morning meeting every day where we talk about the jobs that need doing and encourage them to choose what they want to do. Quite often they haven’t experienced being given a choice, so it can be scary for them to make decisions at first.”

Gardening is special because it is so flexible, says Susan Stuart, manager of the Battersea Garden Project. “It can deliver improvement in health physically and psychologically. Physically it doesn’t just make them stronger with better stamina but also works on their fine motor skills and improves mobility. Psychologically, it’s almost intangible, people feel good when gardening and research has shown that touching soil creates pheromones.”

And the relaxed, informal nature of gardening means “you can weave in a lot of life skills by stealth,” says Stuart.

So as well as more independent travel, some have learnt to make a hot drink for themselves; literacy and numeracy skills have improved from writing in a diary at the end of each session and helping to sell plants to the public, which involves working out change; and many have learnt to make decisions.

The result, says Yeo, has been enormously increased confidence and social skills: “Gardeners who were shy with strangers now man the sales tables selling plants to the public, taking the money and dealing with change.”

Stuart adds: “If you see your plant grow you don’t want it to die and you take responsibility for it, so gardening has the ability to enable people to build or rebuild skills that they have lost or have never acquired.”

Case study: ‘Gardening has taught him how to make decisions’

“We have done tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, cabbages, carrots, herbs, raking, mowing and planting,” says Billy Manly, one of the Atheldene gardeners at Battersea Park.

Manly, who lives with his family, has learnt to travel to the park on his own for his weekly gardening session, and says this and working in the park have helped him feel more independent and happy.

“I was worried about coming to Battersea Park, that I wouldn’t be able to do [the gardening] I’d been doing at the day centre, but I’m happy because I am. And I have made new friends.”

Asked about his favourite thing about gardening at the park and he says: “We learn things here, about different plants and how to grow them.”

Manly is very enthusiastic so is prone to rush at things which can result in it not being done very well, says horticultural therapist Ruth Yeo. One of the aims on his development programme is to address this. “Gardening works well because it’s easy to show Billy a plant that has been potted well and one that hasn’t and explain that if he is slower it looks neater and the plant does better.”

Another aim is for Manly to stop using inappropriate language as he sometimes swears. “Billy understands things really well so we can explain that his language is fine at home, but people who don’t know him might be upset by his language so he needs to modify it when he’s here.”

This aim feeds into a third, which is to be good at teamwork. “So you take the idea that using appropriate language when talking to other people is very important because it’s easy to be misunderstood or upset someone who may then not want to work with you if you don’t,” Yeo says.

Though Manly was reasonably confident when he came to the park, this has grown and his language has improved.

“He’s also better able to make decisions,” says Yeo. “He will often remember from a previous week if we said we would do something next week and will tell us – that is a mark of confidence.”

More information from Thrive

This article is published in the 16 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Planting seeds of a better life

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