Therapeutic landscapes: An area of growth for designers

A plethora of gardens at this year's RHS Chelsea, Chatsworth and Hampton Court Palace Flower Shows featured a therapeutic theme.

Ian Price's design for the Mind Trap Garden at RHS Chelsea. Image: HW
Ian Price's design for the Mind Trap Garden at RHS Chelsea. Image: HW

Garden designers and landscape architects report growth in the market for gardens and landscapes specifically designed to help recovery or wellness. Outside space connected to hospitals, hospices and care homes, and related horticultural knowledge is increasingly sought after to aid positive health outcomes in these settings.  

At Hampton Court, Tom Massey designed the Perennial Sanctuary Garden, which featured a colourful spiral design with a changing colour palette of plants to symbolically represent the journey a Perennial client makes from crisis to calm with the charity's help. The show closely followed the completion of a "secret" garden at Kingston Hospital for child cancer patients.

"The idea is that it creates a private space at the hospital for children going through cancer treatment who may be sensitive to the sun — maybe they have lost their hair. They often don’t feel confident enough to play with other children so it’s a place to get away from the hospital environment, to get some respite and to feel surrounded by green," says Massey.  

"It’s incredibly important especially if you’re going through cancer treatment and stuck on a ward most of the time. It makes you feel so much better just being around green plants." Massey adds that the connection between green space and wellness, long-understood by those in horticulture, is increasingly being realised further afield.

"The market probably is growing. I think for a long time people have known that access to green space is good for our health but there is a growing interest in it. Increasingly we are going to see more and more healing gardens and spaces that take us away from this hectic world we live in."

Shared properties

Wilson McWilliam co-founder Andrew Wilson says more and more hospices and care homes are looking to garden designers for their landscapes.  

"That area of design is a growing need as we all get into our dotage. In effect, what you’re creating is gardens with several shared properties and historically that’s been the domain of landscape architects, but increasingly people are saying it’s a garden and for that we need a garden designer.

 "In care homes and hospices where there’s maybe a limited time left for people to enjoy and be in touch with the natural world, that’s a growth area. Increasingly people are seeing the need for those green, calming, health-giving spaces."

Fellow Chelsea designer Charlotte Harris of Harris Bugg is currently working on a pro bono hospice garden project. "There has been a rise in people noticing the value of green space," she says. "Things like the Maggie’s Centres — charity support centres built in the grounds of NHS hospitals to high design standards both inside and out — have, in a valid way, raised that the outdoors is as important as the indoors and what that brings us health-wise. Nature and gardens positively impact on mental health. I just think there is greater preparedness now to discuss these things."

Ian Price’s Mind Trap Garden at Chelsea, sponsored and built by idverde, with the help of Cormac McConway (Conway Landscape), Craig Nester (Habitat Landscaping), Ross Conquest (Conquest Hard Landscaping) and Writtle College students, is a "great" example, she adds. Price won a gold medal for the garden and significant media coverage at his first Chelsea. "He brought something special to Chelsea and people really responded to it," says Harris.

Business diversification

Janine Pattison Studios (JPS) has developed a reputation for its care home garden designs, alongside its creations for high-end private and commercial property clients, something that is both pleasing creatively and a useful diversification for the business, according to founder Janine Pattison.

Current projects include two dementia gardens for NHS Dorset in Poole, a 0.4ha design for a new 92-bed care home development in Camberley, and a pro bono 20sq m "Petal Garden" for The Royal Bournemouth Hospital’s five dementia wards, designed by practice managing director Denise Wright. She and Pattison proposed the garden to the hospital, after seeing a sad and neglected courtyard ripe for transformation, and together with the hospital estates manager and staff they have raised the £20,000 needed to build it from fundraising and local company donations, the biggest of which was £6,000 from Bournemouth-headquartered LV, with no NHS funds used.

Hospital contractors currently working on other projects on-site are donating hard landscaping, raised beds and seating, while JPS staff are due to plant the garden as a team-building exercise in September. "The problem is that the dementia wards don’t have any outside space at all so any patients that are there potentially don’t go outside," says Pattison. "And when people are checked in, they might never leave."

With a therapeutic garden, consultation is even more important than usual, she adds, and careful consideration of how a garden is used is essential. "What we found when we consulted with nurses and patients is that they all have very powerful memories of growing plants. They are from t­­­­­­­­hat post-war gene­­ration when vegetable-growing was really popular. That was often the only way people could afford to get fresh fruit and veg — it wasn’t a lifestyle thing. It is all about evoking those memories and also providing things to do in the garden.

"We don’t want it to be too immaculate — there will be weeding to do, there will be beans to pick, there will be watering. We wanted to make it look like a lived-in loved garden. It’s not a show garden, it’s there to be used."

Practical issues such as a non-slip, flat surface to walk on — Wright has specified resin-bound surfacing —  brightly coloured handrails and graduated raised beds that allow for people to kneel, sit or stand at them are the difference between a successful and non-successful dementia garden, because the condition can impair vision, balance and muscle function, Pattison adds.  

Sunflowers are central to the planting, both because they can be grown easily by patients from seed and because of their yellow colour, which is both cheerful and easier for people with impaired vision to see. Wright has also included lavender and rosemary to evoke memories with scent, as well as sourcing a vintage potting shed and tools to add to familiar sights and smells.

Massey recommends using green for a calming effect, alongside plants that sway in the breeze. He used bamboo in the Perennial Sanctuary garden that rustled in the breeze and he also used sunflowers, which "gave happy aspects to the planting" he says. "If you want to create a stimulating uplifting environment, use bright colours — reds, oranges, yellows."

This is not only an area of growth for designers. On the landscape build and maintenance front, donating materials and services for therapeutic gardens can help win and maintain contracts. For example, Ground Control created a pro bono grow-your-own area at Liverpool children’s hospital Alder Hey. It is the first such area to be built in a park, enabling local people, patients and staff to plant and grow organic ingredients on-site, to be used in patient meals.

The hospital was designed to flow into Springfield Park, with green roofs and park views for most bedrooms, in a design by multidisciplinary practice BDP. Wards lead onto play decks so that children who cannot leave them benefit from outdoor space. Ground Control completed hard and soft landscaping across the site in 2015 and has since been awarded the grounds maintenance contract for the site.

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