The healing power of gardening
How a trail-blazing charity is using the therapeutic effects of gardening to help people who have suffered from strokes, or have dementia, disabilities or mental health issues
Like a doctor’s surgery full of patients with all kinds of ailments and things going on in their lives, the gardens run by horticultural therapy charity, Thrive, are busy with people facing all kinds of situations, from strokes or dementia to depression. But while doctors and nurses might give out pills, potions and plasters, Thrive prescribes rakes, hoes and spades in the pursuit of making people’s lives better through gardening. Since 1978 when pioneering horticulturalist Chris Underhill planted the seeds of a charity based on an idea he’d seen in Africa – where gardening was used to help the visually impaired – Thrive has been offering a green-fingered helping hand to the people who need it most. Across three main regional centres nationwide outreach programmes, last year Thrive helped change 1,400 lives with nothing more than soil, plants and a sprinkling of gardening advice. Take one of their most successful programmes, a 12-week scheme with stroke groups around the country, where they use indoor, table-top planting sessions to help improve the health and emotional well-being of people living with the aftereffects of a stroke. “Gardening is great for building up strength and dexterity after a stroke, often without people even realising it. Because the classes are very social it’s a
chance for people to chat, which some people can initially find difficult if the stroke has affected their speech,” says Thrive’s chair of trustees Faith Ramsay. For people dealing with dementia, too, Thrive offers the chance for them to do something with their hands and find joy even if things seem bleak. “Gardening gives people with dementia a meaningful activity to keep them occupied and their hands busy. By being outdoors in the fresh air it often helps them sleep better, too,” says Faith.
Alyson Chorley, a member of staff from Thrive adds: “We had one man called Phil who has Alzheimer’s. Through our programme, he’s been able to tend to veg and even make a posey of flowers for his wife
which was something very special he would never have been able to do before. What’s more, we find the programme gives carers the chance to have respite for a couple of hours while their loved ones garden in a safe space.”
In recent months, Thrive has also teamed up with the British Lung Foundation to offer gardening courses for those living with breathing difficulties, as well as running hugely successful schemes in libraries and community centres to help combat loneliness in later life. While each Thrive programme usually only lasts a few months, the idea is to foster a love for gardening far beyond the end of the course.
“We have a few people who started their own little gardening groups after
we’ve given them the initial confidence and skills they need, which is wonderful,” says Alyson.
Many people who attend the courses also go on to become ‘client gardeners’ where they regularly pop into the one of the regional centres to work on their own patch of garden – some even stay for decades. Many client gardeners then become volunteers or work towards qualifications in horticulture that allow them to gain more opportunities and sometimes even start a new chapter in their life.
One man who did just that was Tom Watson. At the age of 18 he was involved in a bad car accident that left him with epilepsy, brain damage and numerous broken bones. “Because of his injuries he couldn’t hold down an office job and was
falling into depression,” says Alyson. “Then his mum heard of Thrive and he started coming along to our Battersea Park centre. Over two years he gained qualifications in gardening skills and eventually went on to have a career in gardening for a few years. His mum said gardening brought Tom back to how he’d been before the accident and really turned his life around.” Thrive now wants to sow the seed of its mission far and wide to eventually make gardening therapy as popular and well-known as physiotherapy – as well as reaching out to more people who could benefit from its unique benefits. Faith says: “Gardening is great as anyone can do it and the process of caring for something and watching it grow is hugely powerful.
“You’re learning things all the time, you’re being physical, you’re chatting to other people and you’ve got all the amazing benefits of being in nature,” says Alyson. “The benefits to everyone are just enormous.”
DID you know? Exposure to green spaces has been proven to cause a dip in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol which controls mood, memory and immunity. Meanwhile, clearing the garden can burn as many as 400 calories per hour and can help strengthen the heart, muscles and core, improving flexibility and balance.
Thrive’s chair of trustees Faith Ramsay
■ to find out more about volunteering with thrive call 01189 585688 or visit www.thrive.org.uk
For information about gardening with a disability call the advice line on 0118 988 5688.
If you’d like to support thrive’s work please send a cheque payable to thrive to: the Geoffrey Udall Centre, Beech hill, reading, Berkshire rG7 2At. Far left: volunteers helping nurture the gardens. Left and above, thrive helps people from all walks of life