Gifted Chelsea garden thrives in NHS mental health hospital

Patients and staff in Camden & Islington are benefitting from a Chelsea garden designed to promote mental health

Camden and Islington Garden

The RHS Feel Good Garden, designed by Matt Keightley, established a new generation of gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show when it was launched in 2018. It was the first design borne from the partnership between the RHS and the NHS to promote the wellbeing benefits of gardens. 

The ongoing partnership sees Chelsea gardens relocated to an NHS trust after the show is over, with trusts up and down the country entering a competition to win the garden. 

“Looking through the submissions was a really moving experience and demonstrated just how valuable a green space or garden can be for patients and staff,” said Matt Keightley. “There were so many inspiring entries, it was not an easy decision.”

The RHS Feel Good Garden found a permanent home at Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust. It’s now located at the trust’s Highgate Mental Health Centre, one of its two inpatient psychiatric sites that is dedicated to caring for older adults with acute mental health illness.

“What’s fantastic is that the garden has gone from a space that was basically wasteland to one that is now cared for,” explained Andrew Kingston, Recovery Service Manager at Camden and Islington. “Having a garden that’s cared for helps patients to feel cared for too.”

Relocating the RHS Feel Good Garden

Garden designer Matt Keightley, centre, with Angela McNab, CEO of the winning NHS Trust and Tim Kendall, National Clinical Director of HealthSince its arrival, the garden has provided a much-needed area of respite for patients, their families and staff, often offering a source of relaxation and tranquility. 

“The garden has given people a space that’s outside the world of being unwell,” said Andrew. ““People admitted to hospital for mental health treatment are often agitated and distressed and using the garden gives them a different focus. It’s a reminder that there are other things going on beyond their illness.”

In a short space of time (and with the help of several volunteers), the garden at Camden and Islington has been transformed. What was once a neglected patch of grass now has borders packed with the planting from Chelsea and a seating area for quiet contemplation or chats with loved ones. As Andrew explained, the planting has already been a great source of discussion for patients and staff alike. 

"One of the challenges was learning about the plants," he said. "We created a catalogue of all the different plants of the garden with some interesting facts – it was quite a challenge to find interesting things to say about all the grasses!

“People often don’t know what to say when confronted with mental distress. If you have a broken leg, everyone knows how to respond but when it comes to deep depression or unusual ideas, it can be harder to connect with the experience of loved ones.

"Gardens give people something to focus on other than the condition. You might talk about the blue of the Geranium 'Rozanne' or the new blooms on the Japanese anemones. Plants have the power to connect people in ways they don’t always expect.”

The future of the NHS and RHS partnership

HRH Duchess of Cambridge with children on RHS Back to Nature GardenSince the relocation of the RHS Feel Good Garden, the relationship between the NHS and the RHS has continued to go from strength to strength. In 2019, HRH The Duchess of Cambridge collaborated with designers Andrée Davies and Adam White to create the RHS Back to Nature Garden, which will be relocated to the Devon Partnership NHS Trust Dewnans Centre.

The Dewnans Centre is a 60 bed medium-secure hospital on a site with an additional 54 beds in other buildings. It supports the recovery of some of the most socially disenfranchised people who often have no access to natural habitats. 

“This partnership with the NHS is really so important to the RHS," said Sue Biggs, RHS Director General. "There is thankfully a growing realisation that gardening can and does make an immensely positive difference to our health and wellbeing, and we’re committed to continuing to do more and more to raise awareness of this and to help more people have access to gardens, green spaces and growing plants.”

What the science says 

The King's Fund report on Gardens and Health states that: “The mental health benefits of gardening are broad and diverse. Studies have shown significant reductions in depression and anxiety, improved social functioning and wider effects, including opportunities for vocational development.*

“In particular, some quantitative studies found significant reductions in symptoms of depression and anxiety while qualitative studies found enhanced emotional wellbeing, improved social functioning, improved physical health and opportunities for vocational development.”**

Interest in social prescribing by the NHS and doctors – where patients are referred to local, non-clinical community services which could include gardening – is on the increase across England. An estimated 20% of GPs’ time is spent on problems with social causes, and social prescribing could be a way to manage increasing demands on the NHS, including pressures on GPs’ time.***

* page 6; **page 26;
*** Torjesen, I. (2016) Social Prescribing could help alleviate pressure on GPs. BMJ, 352:i1436

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