Wardipedia – 19. Gardening

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Green fingers, green socks


Gardening offers a unique combination of physical, emotional, spiritual and sensory pleasures. Patients can spend a leisurely morning in the sun, pulling out a few weeds, or do a full day’s aerobic and horticultural workout in an allotment. And if there’s no sun or allotment, most wards now have access to if not their own garden. It’s very common for ward gardens to be mainly paved. No problem! Fabulous plants and impressive vegetables can be grown in containers. Veteran and novice gardeners can get stuck into indoor gardening, TV and radio programmes, magazines and books.

The reason that gardening is so popular is that it’s so fabulous. Here are just some of the reasons that patients benefit from gardening:

  • Multi-sensory
  • Pleasure of doing the whole nature thing
  • Sense of accomplishment
  • Sense of purpose
  • Sense of control
  • Companionship and privacy – can be a group or individual activity
  • Can involve relatives and volunteers, including ex-patients
  • Source of interest and conversation (including when plants are going wonky)
  • Exercise
  • Creativity
  • Intense satisfaction of nurturing plants
  • Successfully growing vegetables and then eating them
  • Valued escape from intensity and stresses of the ward, illness, treatment etc.
  • Relief of stress helps to bolster the immune system and stimulate the body’s natural healing proclivity.
  • Being out in those (rare and precious!) hours of sunlight, is very important for boosting a person’s Vitamin D levels, helping strengthen bones and keeping their body clock a bit more on the straight and narrow, which of course is good for night-time sleeping.
  • Developing problem-solving skills and coping with things going wrong
  • Continuity with home life – or discovering a new  leisure interest which can be kept going when back home

The diagram below is from Thrive, the excellent national charity which promotes gardening for disabled people.

Ward examples


  • Garden – like a mini, landscaped park, backing onto woods. Big pergola and a kennel, with a plaque for George Junior above the door. The eponymous part-time resident is a whopping Great Dane, ‘Pets as Therapy’ registered dog. His human is an OT and George Junior enjoys taking patients for runs around the garden and nearby.
  • Rethink redeveloped garden. Beautiful courtyard. Lovely shrubs and trees, leading off from day space and café.
  • Biodiversity project, garden, allotment, sell plants, chill-out summer house.
  • A ‘wandering path’, a route around an inside or outside area which is continuous rather than having an end as this ‘block’ can be distressing for confused patients.
  • Wildlife area – with the oldest tree in the city!
  • The hospital has a weekly gardening group where patients are responsible for the poly-tunnel and dedicated garden space.


  • Greenhouses to nurture vegetables, plants and herbs
  • Occupational Therapist provides Tubs & Shrubs group on the unit for planting and pruning in any weather conditions, also use of enclosed garden when weather is appropriate for gardening. Patients assist with watering of potted plants just outside the unit and the filling of the bird feeders.
  • Unit has access to own ‘Sensory Garden’ and Veranda.  Patients are regularly encouraged to engage in gardening occupations such as planting or watering. For several years the unit has grown a number of vegetables such as potatoes and tomatoes.
  • Have secured some land that will be used as allotments for patients across the system of care. Patients can grow the vegetables that they can then cook them back at the unit.
  • Garden plants and green house is now in situ.  Last year we grew tomatoes. peppers and cucumbers in the garden.
  • Gardening group started on the Unit which is open to all and the plan is to sell plants at the Hospital summer fete to raise money for the unit. People can progress onto and access Horticulture course run by Cornwall College and achieve an accredited course in Horticulture. From here they can progress onto a higher level course at the Eden Project where they are enrolled as volunteers. This is done through the Unit’s Social Inclusion Worker.
  • Local garden centre or DIY supermarket for supplies and advice.


  • Local Toyota plant funded the pergola in garden
  • Managed to get B&Q to donate garden furniture through their wildlife scheme, by pointing out that this would enable patients to enjoy the visiting rabbits, partridges and birds.


  • Volunteers are mainly service users and carers. When Marion visited, she was impressed to see patient doing gardening – even clearing up fag butts! The charity has a gardening project in the community, so there’s great continuity for people.
  • A 94 year old gardening volunteer! He was a university lecturer and while no longer able to do the planting and weeding, his advice informs and motivates the gardening enthusiast patients who keep the borders looking beautiful.
  • Volunteers are mainly service users and carers.

Indoor gardening

  • Flowers on the tables and beautiful plants – inspiredly, looking after the plants is one patient’s ward role. Patients can get £24 worth of lilies for £4 from Waitrose at the end of the day.
  • The Great Chili Off 2007!! Each patient has been given a chili plant to love and nurture in their room, or wherever else they like. As the plants produce their fiery fruit there will be a competition, prizes for 1st ripe chili, most chilies and biggest chili.
  • Even growing a potato head with hair made of cress is a creative way of growing on a small scale and is an activity a patient can take home with them.

The word from the ward
“In my experience, male patient’s especially love being able to get their green fingers in to the latest planting project. Where an inpatient ward may not have a garden area big enough for large scale gardening projects, charities such as Thrive can provide advice and guidance about projects such as window boxes and herb growing.” (Healthcare Support Worker)

Patient Examples

  • I was encouraged to plant a sunflower seed. I took it home and planted in my garden. Seeing it grow tall and strong with its face to the sun mirrored me getting well. It was really easy to look after and I was really proud when it flowered.
  • There was a scheme that used to pick us up and take us to an allotment to do some gardening. I learnt such a lot about patience, devotion and dedication.
  • We had access to a garden where we could grow vegetables. I loved watching things grow from a tiny seed to something I could feel proud of.
  • Responsibility makes me fear failure. I have a small plant to look after on the ward and this is helping me learn to trust myself that I won’t let everyone down.
  • Gentle gardening, growing of things outdoors.


Practical ideas

Ulrich’s ground-breaking  research on hospital gardens (did you see what we did there?) suggests that there are some features of gardens which are particularly stress-busting:

  • Leafy things
  • Flowers
  • Gently flowing water,
  • harmonious nature sounds (birds, breezes, water)
  • Visible wildlife (eg birds)
  • Ideally also park- like qualities (grassy spaces with scattered trees)

And that there are characteristics that at best don’t help reduce stress and at worst make people feel gloomier eg:

  • Too much ‘hardscape’ eg concrete, especially if it’s stark. Japanese ‘dry gardens’, which we strongly recommend, look stunning and are a perfect option when it’s not possible to have stuff that is alive and growing such as grass and plants.
  • cigarette smoke
  • intrusive, incongruent urban or machine sounds (traffic, for example)
  • crowding
  • perceived insecurity or risk; prominent litter; and abstract, ambiguous sculpture or other built features that can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Japanese dry gardens are excellent in terms of low-maintenance (as long as no-one is precious about perfectly raked designs!), safety, calm, beauty, stylishness….

A small bouquet of assorted other ideas

  • Pleasant seating areas to meet with friends and family, especially if they’ve brought a nice double-chocolate cheesecake with them.
  • A relaxing alternative space for activities in addition to gardening – anything from painting to therapeutic groups if your ward is blessed with a nice big garden, allowing for patient privacy.
  • Volunteers and community groups helping out
  • Probation service bringing supervised groups of offenders doing compulsory community service
  • Containers (including creatively recycled equipment) and grow-bags offer lots of scope where it’s not possible to plant in the ground



Indoor gardening

  1. Houseplants
  2. Fresh flowers
  3. Armchair gardening – books, TV and radio programmes, magazines, seed and plant catalogues

1. Houseplants
Where it’s possible to have houseplants on a ward, it’s also necessary to look after these! Often this task falls to the housekeeper or cleaner, but it’s a nice role or one-off task for patients.
Apparently house plants are healthy as well as adding colour, nature and homeliness to a ward. The science suggests that indoor plants serve as front-line air filters against dust, allergens, and toxins and raise humidity levels for a more oxygen-rich environment.
Indoor gardening extends beyond watering the plants and provides the satisfaction of watching step by step as patients nurture the seeds through seedlinghood and (if they’re on a longish-term ward) full maturity. This doesn’t require much space, (a small container or window box, or some herbs on a sunny window sill) and is something that OTs are often very enthusiastic about.
2. Fresh flowers
Heavy glass vases full of water and flowers aren’t such a great idea on lots of wards – but safe and delightful on others. Substituting glass vases is a craft and recycling activity opportunity! Or just be boldly funky and go for a range of different shapes, sizes and designs of plastic drinks bottles, with the neck upwards removed if they’re to receive nice big bouquets.
Sources of flowers include:

  • Local shops – another nice task for patients able to leave the ward
  • Visitors
  • Ward garden or (for the lucky ones) allotment
  • If you have a local hotel, conference centre or other venue which has large events, it’s worth seeing if they’ll let you have the floral table-arrangements that get left behind. They’re usually gorgeous and should last a week – in nice safe, soft florists’ foam.

3. Armchair gardening
No sore backs or blisters. Oh – nor vitamin D boosts nor improved sleep patterns. But, if it’s cold, dark and rainy outside (eg August bank holiday), it’s such a treat to curl up on a sofa with all the stunning photos in gardening magazines, catalogues, books and, naturally, on the radio and TV.



Categories: Mindfulness, Wardipedia