Design tips for an horticultural therapy garden

Here’s our top 10 tips for designing an horticultural therapy garden for troubled veterans aged between 20-60. Our project at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London has all of these features and we’re working on introducing them into all our other gardens….

Working at our raised beds

1. Start with understanding need then move to beauty not the other way round. Designing a garden and then adapting it to need fails. Anything can be made beautiful but not everything works in a treatment context!

2 Raise those beds – really, really raise those beds. Three foot high, three foot wide with at least three foot between. Lots of veterans need to lean to keep their balance when taking medicines and to help bad backs and knees. Bending double in the open is not the most secure pose for someone who may be suffering flashbacks, hyper-vigilance and physical insecurity. Think how safe it must feel to be able to duck down if you need to.

  • Veteran standing either side can reach the whole bed and can talk to their comrade or horticultural therapist while they work. The best conversations are had while people work.
  • Have at least some of the beds back on to each other so that veterans can become used to having someone behind them moving around.

3. Design for high maintenance. Dig up, cut down, tie in. Forget low maintenance, a horticultural therapy garden needs lots and lots of jobs to do every day.

4. Design for task areas and for groups of three or four

  • A rose walk so that each bush can be addressed with pruning, organic greenfly spray, feeding, cutting flowers – put in tall roses in high pots not groundcover at ground level.
  • Lots of pricking out and potting on space in light areas. Forget the small dark shed!

The ‘time out’ seat at Chelsea and our raised pond

5. Plan for a winter garden. Victorian stove houses are the best but green houses are good if large enough or real garden rooms with roofs!

6. The ‘time out’ seat is very important – where a client can sit and know they won’t be spoken to, where others know to leave you alone. Try for smell and colour, dappled shade and something to look at – but don’t totally enclose, this is not a bolthole.

7. Remember shaky hands and vulnerable eyes, confusion and depression. This means lots of cane tops, big seed plants and robust forms, a reason to go to the other end of the garden and move around – the compost bins, the wildlife area, the hose and the tool shed – spread them out – don’t place for convenience, place for distance.

Working in Gardening Leave’s Ayr stove house

8. Design for production. The gardening act is meaningful, from cut flowers to veggies for sale. The garden should be focused on meaningful activities not for just being a garden –think Victorian kitchen garden, think French kitchen gardens – beauty and use.

9. Stepping stones. The main area provides the safety of the walled garden with only one entrance but designing an area or two that is progressively more exposed to the wider community will help veterans develop their sense of safety and their ability to be in the open and with civilians.

10. Raise and still the water feature. Never put it at ground level where people can fall in and unless you have a loo handy, no splashing or tinkling water!

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