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Horatio’s Garden

The charity, Horatio’s Garden, has opened the second of its beautiful and life-affirming gardens at NHS Spinal Injury Centres. With the help of designer James Alexander-Sinclair, a peaceful haven has been created for patients at the Scottish National Spinal Unit at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.


These gardens are not just life changing for patients with spinal cord injuries, they’re also helpful for the future of healthcare. Every Horatio’s Garden that opens demonstrates the remarkable benefits that can result when high quality design is used to provide easy access to nature on an NHS site.


The initial idea of a garden for patients with spinal injuries began at Salisbury District Hospital’s spinal unit. It belongs to a special young man, Horatio Chapple, who died in 2011. The charity, Horatio’s Garden was set up and continues to develop in his memory.


With the help of top garden designers and using the best evidence-based research available, patients who would otherwise spend many months inside a hospital ward can now begin to rebuild their lives with the help of the natural environment.


As Roger Ulrich’s 1984 research demonstrated, merely viewing a garden through a hospital window can be very beneficial. Glass sided garden-rooms at Glasgow and at the Cleve West designed Salisbury garden give patients the opportunity to escape the ward, whatever the weather.


At Salisbury, the adjacent road and car park disappear behind native hedging as the eye is drawn to the distant hills. In a very different setting, butterfly friendly planting and bird tables outside the ward windows in the Glasgow garden ensure there’s always an opportunity to be in contact with the wildlife outside.


But these gardens offer far more than a good view. Greenhouses provide space for head gardeners to organise regular garden therapy sessions with patients and occupational therapists. All the produce grown is either eaten or sold – helping to re-establish a sense of purpose and success.


At Salisbury, clever use of space allows patients and their families to find privacy in plant-filled alcoves. Low limestone walls that echo the form of the spine, offer additional seating when necessary. Large, stylish sunshades and a long wisteria arch provide areas of shade – particularly important for those whose injury makes it difficult to regulate body temperature.


Plants in the gardens have been chosen for their multi-sensory qualities. They’re also easy to maintain rather than being ‘low maintenance’ in its traditional and often rather drab sense. A vibrant mix of pollinator attracting plants has been deliberately used to be as stimulating and fun for the volunteer gardeners to work with, as it is for the patients to enjoy.


It’s easy to imagine that a project in a hospital setting might be stifled by health and safety concerns. Instead, at Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury, compassionate common sense has ensured that the needs and enjoyment of the patients remain paramount.   Water flows gently into a rill, while a crop of apples dangle from the arch they share with Wisteria floribunda ‘Alba’. All accompanied by the gentle buzz of the garden’s many bees. It’s a healthy reminder of life beyond the sterility of a hospital ward.


Many projects that bring people into close contact with nature have welcome but unexpected consequences. Horatio’s Garden is no exception. It’s important for the rehabilitation of patients in the spinal unit that they begin to create a narrative about their life-changing experience. For many reasons, it can be difficult for them to feel comfortable about starting this process on a ward.


In the garden on the other hand, conversations between patients and volunteers flow quite naturally. There’s no pressure on patients to talk or to continue with a conversation that might be uncomfortable, and yet they do. Horatio’s Garden volunteers are playing an important but unexpected role in the rehabilitation process.


Horatio’s Garden charity is creating gardens that really work – for patients, staff, and for the volunteers on which they rely. Fundraising is now underway to develop a third garden at the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville.

BBC Gardeners’ World presenter, Joe Swift is its designer.


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