Gardening your way to better health

As a new report reveals the physical and mental health benefits of gardening, Mary-Claire Mason talks to health professionals who are prescribing gardening therapy and helping patients to transform their lives. 
Garden Project

As a new report reveals the physical and mental health benefits of gardening, Mary-Claire Mason talks to health professionals who are prescribing gardening therapy and helping patients to transform their lives

A King's Fund report published in May found overwhelming evidence of the beneficial effects of gardening on physical and mental wellbeing. Commissioned by the National Gardens scheme last year, Gardens and Health Implications for Policy and Practice shows how gardening can:

  • Help tackle obesity
  • Reduce heart disease and cancer
  • Increase physical activity levels
  • Improve confidence, resilience and self-esteem
  • Reduce falls
  • Improve balance

Picture: Sydenham Gardens

The report's author, King's Fund senior fellow David Buck, says gardening should be prescribed as a non-clinical treatment. He hopes the


As a new report reveals the physical and mental health benefits of gardening, Mary-Claire Mason talks to health professionals who are prescribing gardening therapy and helping patients to transform their lives

A King's Fund report published in May found overwhelming evidence of the beneficial effects of gardening on physical and mental wellbeing. Commissioned by the National Gardens scheme last year, Gardens and Health – Implications for Policy and Practice shows how gardening can:

  • Help tackle obesity
  • Reduce heart disease and cancer
  • Increase physical activity levels
  • Improve confidence, resilience and self-esteem
  • Reduce falls
  • Improve balance 

Garden Project
Picture: Sydenham Gardens

The report's author, King's Fund senior fellow David Buck, says gardening should be prescribed as a non-clinical treatment. He hopes the report will ‘help bring gardening closer to the mainstream of health and care policy debate and practice.’ 

Practice nurse and diabetes specialist Lynn Hunt prescribes gardening at the Sydenham Green Group Practice in Lewisham, London. ‘I know from my own experience the sense of peace, achievement and pleasure you get from growing and nurturing plants,’ she says. ‘I want to have a range of options to offer my patients, and gardening treatment fits the bill. It enables me to provide holistic patient care.’ 

Conditions treated at Sydenham Gardens range from mental health problems and dementia to sleep disorders, heart disease and cancer. 

Meaningful community activity

The practice has offered gardening therapy for 14 years via its Sydenham Gardens community gardening project, whose produce is sold to local restaurants.

GP and mental health lead Jim Sikorski set up the project supported by local residents and others in the practice. ‘We wanted another way of giving hope and support to people with mental health conditions who otherwise had little structure or help in their lives,’ he says.

‘The gardens provide a place where people can carry out meaningful activity working alongside others. Gardening therapy is an appropriate intervention healthcare professionals can offer to transform patients’ lives for the better.'

Sydenham Gardens is five minutes’ walk from the surgery, and has wheelchair access. Other activities offered at Sydenham Gardens include cookery and art classes, with each participant receiving individually tailored support from staff. 

Combating diabetes 

‘Many of the people I refer to Sydenham Gardens have diabetes, are overweight, and feel lonely and isolated,’ says Ms Hunt. 

She recalls one patient with diabetes, a keen gardener whose wife had passed away, leaving him grief-stricken and lonely, with worsening diabetes. He could not move around easily and had to pay someone to look after his garden, which caused him great distress.

Ms Hunt suggested he visit the Sydenham Gardens. ‘Afterwards, he said it was one of the best things he could have done – he made friends, shared his gardening expertise, and felt part of life again.’ 

Ms Hunt also refers patients with leg ulcers, as walking around while gardening can help improve circulation, and pain.  ‘Patients with arthritis may feel better because gardening wih others can help take their mind off the pain,' she says.    

Funding and results

Originally funded by charitable donations, Sydenham Gardens received extra support from the local clinical commissioning group 3 years ago. The additional funding was to provide services for adults with mental health problems and patients recently diagnosed with dementia.

In addition to the CCG support, Sydenham Gardens also gets a social care grant from Lewisham Council. 

Since its opening, hundreds of patients have been referred to Sydenham Gardens from Dr Sikorski's practice. In a self-assessment survy of 37 patients, 68% said it had improved their quality of life.

Cancer therapy

Jan Chalkley, Macmillan lead nurse cancer and palliative care at Luton and Dunstable Hospital, wants to open a therapy garden there. She believes it will help many of her cancer patients who have been through painful and highly stressful treatments. 

Ms Chalkley works with a local exercise pilot programme where cancer patients can be referred for 12 free physical activity sessions. The pilot is run partnership with Luton Active gyms, a not-for-profit sports centre run on behalf of the local council.

‘Being physically active is important for cancer patients, but the gym is not for everyone,’ she says. ‘Patients moving towards palliative care may find gardening a gentler way of being active. We are extending what we have on offer so there is something for everyone which will improve their physical and mental well-being. 

‘We have now been given a green space in Luton by the council and need to get the money to develop it into a garden,’ she adds. 

The private garden will be for patients with cancer who may be in treatment, recovery, facing recurrence or in palliative care. ‘I hope this will be a community garden which will enhance people’s lives by providing a safe haven where they can meet others, make friends, enjoy the peace and beauty of the garden, and take part in gardening if they are able,’ says Ms Chalkley. 

Food for thought

Lambeth GP Food Co-op in London, a 2013 social enterprise project, was highlighted as particularly impressive in the King’s Fund report. Patients, doctors, nurses and local people have created a network of food-growing gardens in 11 GP surgeries in the area.

Nurses have played a leading role in the Co-op, says project director Ed Rosen, with four developing and three now leading groups. 

Patients – particularly those with long-term conditions – learn how to grow food under expert guidance, which is sold to King’s College Hospital. 

The Co-op plans to open a garden in another part of the borough in partnership with two GP surgeries. It is looking to recruit nurses with experience of group facilitation, gardening experience and horticulture to lead groups on a paid basis. 

To find out more, email edward.rosen@nhs.net 


Setting up a garden in a GP surgery

  • Find a space at the practice for a tub of colourful flowers or hanging baskets, or a growbag of seasonal vegetables. This will help trigger interest in the garden.
  • Set up a support network of people who use or work in the GP surgery. Have a clear, consistent message about the gardening group's purpose. 
  • Find a champion in the local community who can help with marketing the project.
  • Make sure the local clinical commissioning group have evidence about the benefits of gardens and gardening.

Building active communities

GP William Bird is a pioneer of the health benefits of gardens and gardening. In response to research from more than 20 years ago that showed walking is good for health, he set up Green Walks. Now called Walking for Health, it is a national charity led by the Ramblers and Mamiillan Cancer Support. 

Dr Bird also implemeted a Green Gym for his patients, which focuses on combining exercise and nature. He set up Intelligent Health, an organisation which aims to get everyone outdoors and more active. 

Dr Bird says the health benefits of connecting to nature are well established. ‘You get a chance to reflect and have some peace which is restorative,’ he says. ‘Gardening improves muscle strength which is important for diabetes prevention and helping to maintain mobility in later life. It also gives a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and the sights, sounds scents and touching the soil connect us back to our roots, which is healing.’

Mary-Claire Mason is a freelance journalist 



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