Gardening: Hope springs in horticulture

Gardening really is therapeutic. By Patricia Cleveland Peck
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The Independent Travel
Horticultural Therapy recently opened a new garden in the East End of London. HT is a charity dedicated to helping people with physical or mental disabilities enjoy a better quality of life through gardening - last year they helped at least 20,000 people. Their three-quarter-acre site, St Mary's Garden, situated behind the Geffrye Museum in Haggerston, Hackney, not only provides a welcome green space in a rather grim urban area but is also particularly suitable for people with special needs.

It was in fact originally laid out as a community garden some years ago, and beneath a blanket of brambles and weeds, HT volunteers uncovered a well-designed space containing not only wide paths, hard surfaces and the vestiges of raised beds - all of importance to wheelchair users - but also arched trellises and spreading shrubs.

During its years of neglect, the garden had been vandalised, but many of the plants have proved incredibly resilient. Among them are huge architectural phormiums, clematis, a herb area and banks of mauve cistus. A pond will be the only addition to a large wild area with mature ash, birch and lime trees, thick undergrowth and grass studded with wildflowers.

Another large area has been Rotovated and awaits soil improvement and vegetable planting. It will be divided into beds one metre square, a size which the physically and mentally handicapped clients, some of whom are also blind, will not find too daunting. Wide paths between the beds will allow them to sit, kneel or even lie down to work.

Clients will come on day placement, and for each of them, HT's trained staff prepare a programme based on individual rehabilitation or learning needs. The numbers in each group range from a dozen or so down to two or three in the case of the severely disabled or those with very challenging behaviour.

Karen Osborn, HT's dynamic London Regional manager, explained that for many clients, the job of growing even a lettuce can be a complicated one: from sowing to harvesting, they need to exercise the physical skills of digging, raking, drilling, watering, weeding and cutting, as well as the mental skills of basic numeracy skills in counting seedlings and measuring space between rows.

And the clients are working with others in a green and pleasant environment. Ray Castle, an ex-publican and regular user of HT's Battersea Garden, comments "When you have a stroke you lose so much self-confidence. People don't know how to react - even my friends. I became very depressed. Coming here has given me all that back. It's about being part of the community; getting to know people and carrying on friendships while you develop new skills."

In fact the therapy of horticulture is nothing new. The 18th-century poet William Cowper wrote movingly of the respite his garden and greenhouse offered him when he was in the throes of suicidal depression. What is new, and something to which HT has been able make a valuable contribution during the 18 years it has been operating, is research based on client data which has put the subject on a firm scientific footing. There are now courses to train horticultural therapists in the US and Germany and at Coventry University in this country. HT also runs its own Land Use Volunteers Service, known as LUVS, to train horticulturalists in therapeutic skills.

Meanwhile, the opening of St Mary's Garden represents a triumphant outcome of a long struggle. In such a densely residential area, this little patch of green could so easily have disappeared beneath bulldozers if HT had not prevailed upon Hackney Council to lease it to them at a peppercorn rent. It is HT's hope that local people will appreciate the enhancement to the environment and even participate by coming into the garden as volunteers - and probably improve their own outlook on life in doing so.

St Mary's Garden is in Pearson Street, Haggerston, London E2. Other HT gardens are at Battersea Park, London SW11; Trunkwell Park, Reading; and Ryton, near Coventry.

Horticultural Therapy is at Goulds Ground, Vallis Way, Frome, Somerset BA11 3BY (01373 464782)