Way to grow

June 4 2024

Livability’s horticultural expert Dr Anna Sweeney unpacks the thinking behind horticultural and nature therapy as a key part of our further education programme...

What horticulture therapies do you offer at Livability Millie College?

All areas of our horticultural enterprise support students in learning skills for independence and future pathways but our daily horticulture activities also offer opportunities for nature connectedness, opportunities for students to express themselves in positive ways and opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. Social and therapeutic horticulture at Millie College recognises these outcomes and the importance they play in supporting wellbeing and resilience. As a charity, Livability supports this focus across its services, recognising the benefits of horticulture and nature-connectedness for multiple pathways to improved health and learning.

What does that look like at Millie?

The garden at Millie College has been designed as an inclusive space, incorporating the physical and sensory environment. For example, we are currently planting sensory walkways of fragrant plants and herbs that will allow students to explore the garden through sight, smell and touch. We’re also designing restful spaces, where students can observe the wildlife and plants within the garden. The garden as a restorative space is a central part of the horticultural therapies we offer and many students and staff comment on the sense of tranquillity that gardening offers.

Why does being in a garden make us feel better?

The field of eco-psychology recognises how beneficial just spending time out in nature is as it can provide a sense of being away from a part of life that is particularly difficult or demanding; a source of fascination, and so a distraction and a rest from worries or problems and engagement. Staff and students have talked about ‘lost time’ in the garden when absorbed in many aspects of gardening. This is primarily why we grow according to organic principles, so that the students learn different ways of working with nature, from encouraging wildlife for biodiversity and plant health to nurturing the soil and seed-saving.
We also provide sensory exploratory sessions where we facilitate a wide range of sensory experiences, such as soil discovery, handling herbs, making seed bombs with natural red clay or incorporating music during our annual wassail in the apple orchard!

Does gardening feed into employment opportunities for students?

Yes, students are involved in community engagement projects which give excellent training for work. We raise plug plants and perennials for sale at the Courtyard Craft Centre at Lytchett Minster, giving students opportunities to gain vocational skills, and to fulfil existing community contracts for hanging baskets and planters. The students also use their horticultural skills through our partnership with the National Trust.

Students partner with the National Trust

Livability Millie College students are helping the National Trust maintain the beautiful gardens at a Dorset property, Kingston Lacy. Using skills learned at the college, groups of students make regular visits to the site, where they weed, mulch, prune, and maintain the pond. ‘Kingston Lacy gives our post-16 students, and post-25 volunteers, opportunities to rehearse and develop skills in different areas offsite, according to the students’ interests,’ says Anna Sweeney. ‘This is ideal for students looking to pursue voluntary work or a career in horticulture or to build on skills for personal interest. The students also learn how to prepare for work and how to use tools and equipment safely.’

Gaining skills for the workplace and adult life is a key element of the Millie College ‘future pathways’ learning, which the college is developing further through community engagement partnerships, like that with the National Trust. Through another community contract, students are expanding their enterprise skills by planting up containers with colourful bedding plants in the Canford Cliffs area of Poole.

Which task is most popular with students?

Plant propagation – whether raising plants from seed or potting on plug plants and nurturing these until the point of sale or harvest – is what most students particularly enjoy. The students are fully immersed and absorbed in this process, hands in the soil, observing how their plants change week to week and seeing the tangible results of their efforts and care.

How does horticulture develop confidence and self-determination?

Students explore and determine what they would like to grow in their own outdoor learning spaces, in their own raised beds. The students consider the food they like, the catering opportunities onsite and also the plants they enjoy seeing every day. All students have also engaged in creating new spaces within the garden or outside their own learning spaces, for others and themselves to enjoy and benefit from. One group has designed a memorial garden, learning principles of garden design, exploring the value of outdoor spaces and finally taking a trip to a garden nursery to select plants for this space. Another group is creating a wildlife pond, following their interest in wildlife and gardening.

Dr Anna Sweeney has worked in social and therapeutic horticulture for 15 years and has worked at Livability’s Dorset site since 2011. She holds numerous horticulture and teaching qualifications; her PhD research focused on the meanings and emotions that people associate with the natural environment and natural resources.


*Statistics from ‘Thrive’: www.thrive.org.uk/get-gardening/why-gardening-is-good-for-your-health

Read More Articles:

Previous article:
Blooming wonderful

Next article:

Time for a new phone cover image?
Why not run for #TeamLivability at the London Marathon?

  • Training support and fundraising pack
  • Kerb crews on M-day to cheer you along
  • Post-run party complete with masseurs