Blooming wonderful

May 17 2024

Why does Livability invest in beautiful gardens, with the people we support?

In the first of two blogs, we find out how and why getting grafted into gardening helps people we support to blossom.

If you were to pop round to see Claire in her Wrexham house, it’s likely you’d find her in her potting shed, getting ready to plant out some vegetable seedlings. Or if in Dorset at Livability Millie College, you could see the students harvesting produce from their large kitchen garden.

Gardening is busting out all over Livability services and people we support, like Claire, are reaping the benefits. The charity invests time and money in enabling people we support to access gardening, sometimes at home, sometimes in the community – however they want to garden. This approach is research-based, with many studies showing the benefits of gardening on mental health, including stress reduction even if only balcony plants are available*, and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety**.

Take Claire’s house in Wrexham, which she shares with three others. The house has a large garden and service delivery lead Kay Mills felt, with a little investment, the housemates could make even better use of the outdoor space. ‘I researched the physical and mental benefits of gardening, including reduction in anxiety and anger, lower blood pressure and increased vitamin D levels. Plus improved strength and dexterity – I notice that Claire’s mobility is better after a gardening session. And her mood lifts, just coming out into the garden and doing some tasks.’

Kay also finds that the gardening tasks can increase a sense of agency: ‘We bought some new garden furniture and without prompting, Claire was using an allen key to put together some of the items.’ Other residents aren’t so keen on gardening – but make the most of the garden for sunbathing, Kay reports. The old potting shed was given a makeover, fitted out with a potting table and chair for Claire, and Claire’s green fingers are keeping the garden beautiful this summer.


Enchanted gardening

In Essex, the people who live at Livability Netteswell Rectory wanted their large woodland garden to be transformed into – a fairy garden. They planned out their favourite elements and the local community generously donated large amounts of materials as well as ‘time, love and hard work’, says staff member Sue Mbiangandu. The Netteswell housemates were supported to visit a local nursery to select plants and the garden emerged, complete with garden gnomes, wishing well, pergola and seating areas, and electric power.

The revamped garden has proved to be a tranquil place for residents to enjoy nature and summer barbeques. ‘One of the most amazing things has been our connection with a local stone painting group,’ says Sue. ‘They leave painted stones around the locality for people to find, pick up and replace. They wanted to get involved with us so we asked the people we support about their favourite things – music, interests, hobbies. The group then painted 250 stones for our guys, all personalised, for them to find around the garden! When they presented them to us, it was so heartwarming!’ These stones have also been poignant and comforting reminder of lost friends: ‘After a much-loved resident died, his friends here would pick up ‘his’ stones and remember him. Many of the people we support are getting older now and this is a calm place to just get ourselves together and remember.’

Sound therapy in the garden has proved a hit too, led by a friend of Netteswell who brings drums, a huge gong, a harp and percussion for a ‘gong bath’, thought to reduce stress and improve relaxation, using sound and vibration. This has definitely been the experience at Netteswell, says Sue: ‘We’ve done this twice and people feel so relaxed afterwards. Being in such a beautiful place makes it special.’


Breath of fresh air

Outdoor learning and horticulture are firmly rooted in the curriculum at our Dorset FE centre, Livability Millie College. Students engage with horticulture for up to four hours a week, on Millie’s beautiful 350-acre countryside site, as well as daily walks for wellbeing, conservation and animal care.

Why does this connection with nature help? Millie’s horticultural expert Dr Anna Sweeney cites several reasons, including plants’ need for care: ‘The responsiveness of plants is an important therapeutic quality as they respond to direct care or neglect – there is an interdependence between the student and the plant,’ says horticulture lead Dr Anna Sweeney. ‘All the student groups at Millie College have houseplants to care for and are involved in every stage of a plant’s journey in our kitchen garden, from sowing the seeds in the greenhouse, to potting on and planting out and eventually harvesting produce, whether vegetables or flowers.’

Learning skills for employment is key at Millie and horticulture and conservation skills are an important part of this. ‘The students are involved in community engagement projects, raising plug plants and perennials for sale at the Courtyard Craft Centre at Lytchett Minster,’ says Anna. ‘This gives them opportunities to gain vocational skills, and to fulfil community contracts for hanging baskets and planters. They also use their horticultural skills in the community through our partnership with the National Trust, helping to maintain gardens at some of their properties on the Kingston Lacy estate.’


Here comes summer

Many more people we support are discovering the joy of gardening this summer, in recently renovated or newly created gardens. Train company LNER through their Customer and Community Investment Fund, funded garden improvements at Livability New Court Place, in Hertfordshire, and Livability York House in Ossett, West Yorkshire. In both homes, garden access has been improved, with better paving, new raised beds designed for wheelchair users, and at York House, a water feature replacing a dilapidated fountain. ‘Our garden quadrangle is a real sun-trap and we now have lovely big tables people can use to have lunch outside,’ says area manager Emma Wheeler. ‘We’ve planted a range of herbs to create a sensory garden and Peter, one of our residents, particularly loves pottering out here and keeping things tidy.

At Livability’s South East service, garden work began last year and will be finished this summer. ‘Our project aim is to create a safe and welcoming space for the people we support who live here, to socialise, relax and have a moment of peacefulness and calm. We want to involve the people we support in the process from start to finish, enabling them to gain a sense of achievement and ownership of their garden area. The project also includes building an outside wooden cabin that will provide a quiet space for prayer, sensory engagement and private meetings when people need.’ says support worker Gemma Walker. ‘The summerhouse was donated and the company who gave it are putting it up in their own time. With the people we support, we’ve created a decorative, spray-painted wall of tyres and we’ve got tyres as planters. People are growing all sorts including tomatoes and peppers and we’ve got four fruit trees.’ The wet spring has kept people indoors, says Gemma, ‘but they can’t wait to get out and try out the summerhouse.’

Look out next time for our garden therapy expert Anna Sweeney, who will be digging deeper into how and why we enable people with disabilities to tap into gardening happiness …



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