Gloucestershire Royal Hospital
It’s a sun-baked July morning and the hottest day of the year to date, but outside the Redwood Café for staff in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, tables are bathed in a cool and leafy shade. Thanks to its spreading grapevine, this sweet and tranquil spot is a green oasis, the perfect place to catch up on emails with a cold drink.
The wooden pergola that supports the vine went up in the 1990s, with help from probationers on community service. Andre Curtis and Kirry Mitchell, the hospital grounds consultants who designed the scheme for this Gloucester hospital, say they wanted a climbing plant that would quickly provide adequate cover. The grapevine achieved this in its first year and has been doing great service as a living canopy ever since. The terrace is well used all year round, says Kirry, and pruning in autumn ensures that the space has an open feel and is not concealing or intimidating. Close by, a mix of colourful perennials – such as herbaceous geraniums, sedums and fuchsias – were chosen to flower through the year, with minimal maintenance. An hour later, the success of the scheme is evident in the café’s midday rush: while there are plenty of empty tables indoors, the terrace is teeming, and every seat under the vine is taken.
Outdoor eating is currently on the rise; in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many UK towns and cities are enjoying a cheerful eruption in pavement café culture, as councils encourage restaurants and coffee shops to bring tables, chairs and planters on to the streets. Providing garden dining for hospital health staff offers a similar win for wellbeing.
In research by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare carried out in 2019, more than eight out of ten health staff surveyed said they would like to spend more time in their sites’ gardens and green spaces. Pressure of work and the need to remain close by were major barriers to a achieving a green break, for clinical staff especially. Staff restaurants with attractive garden seating can help make a difference. And even in colder months, when eating outdoors is less of a draw, café gardens can offer restorative green views for harried workers.
Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford
At Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, a ‘wellbeing terrace’, though not attached to a restaurant, also testifies to the popularity of outdoor eating space. With the addition of large planters, picnic tables, games, and an interactive sound sculpture, an unpromising expanse of tarmac has become a much-used meeting place, and one well valued by staff. In our research at Broomfield, more than a fifth of staff surveyed said they had sat out on the terrace to relax or eat.
The planting scheme includes lofty hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’), the lacey-looking lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and delicately scented star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides). Box hedging (Buxus sempervirens) helps to define the space and provides a degree of screening to what might otherwise feel an exposed area.
Richard Hughes, Broomfield’s senior grounds and gardens officer, recommends including evergreens in planters to give better structure; the avoidance of plants that will grow too large or prove invasive; and a good plan for keeping them watered. As always, shade is a critical issue. The terrace can be so hot, he says, that the tarmac melts. Staff have been known to pick up the tables and carry them into the shade of nearby trees – a useful steer perhaps for positioning new site furniture. Some of the parasols first installed on the terrace have gone missing over time, but there are new ones now on order, which will be chained in place.
The design of outdoor seating needs careful thought. Picnic tables with built-in seats are often chosen for their robustness. In open areas, movable chairs are likely to need more day-to-day oversight and management but offer more comfort and are easier to use for people with mobility difficulties. Similar maintenance issues apply to games that have been provided such as table tennis and swingball, which need to be routinely put away overnight and replaced in the morning, but have been warmly received by staff.
Southmead Hospital, Bristol
Five floors up, on a roof terrace overlooking North Bristol, the Vu Restaurant at Southmead Hospital provides a dramatic lunch setting. Adjoined to the staff canteen on top of the new Brunel Building, this terrace can only be accessed by workers, making it a scenic retreat during a busy shift. On a sunny day the benches and tables are packed – although the lack of shade created a heat trap in midsummer.
This is more than just a pleasant lunch spot though; the raised beds between the seating areas form a productive kitchen garden that provides rosemary, thyme and different varieties of sage to be used in the award-winning restaurant. As head chef Mike Sharp explains, “we work very closely together with the team to plant the things that we need to be able to supply to the staff on a daily basis, rather than buying it in, adding more miles to every dish that we produce. So this is a massive asset for us and I’d recommend it anywhere… we don’t buy any hard herbs anymore. They’re all from here.”
He says they are lucky that the birds mostly stay away, while lavender planted amongst the herbs provides seasonal fragrance and colour, as well as attracting bees and other pollinators. Staff are welcome to harvest the herbs for themselves, although there has been little take up so far.
“They’ll see herbs and they probably see weeds, for a lot of people. So I think it’s about us being able to educate people and make them understand why this is here and that they could have it if they wanted to,” says Mike.
Part of that education is taking place in Southmead’s staff allotment five storeys below, where CSH’s Nature Recovery Ranger Phoebe Webster runs weekly volunteer gardening sessions at lunchtimes, sharing her horticultural knowledge with staff. Although the lush, tree-lined plot feels like a world away from the neat, paved rooftop terrace, these green spaces have an important relationship. While staff can take their allotment knowledge up to the terrace to pick herbs, food waste from the canteen is brought back down for composting, nourishing the vegetable beds that have – on occasion – been used in Mike’s meals.
Phoebe is pleased with how the composting project has created a much more circular food ecology on the site, as well as saving on costs. “We’ve been getting coffee grounds and using them in the [allotment] compost instead of putting them in the compostable waste that goes out to be processed. So it saves them money and it adds to our compost… It adds loads of nutrients.”
Head chef Mike agrees. “We’re reusing everything we can, rather than having to throw things into food waste, which again is just something that you don’t want to do.”
Just as in nature, these manmade green spaces are organically interlinked, and shouldn’t be considered in isolation. A garden’s yield can be infinite when it’s considered not just as a scenic spot for a few picnic benches, but a place which produces and consumes compost, attracts pollinators, educates staff and patients and contributes to everyone’s wellbeing. As one of the busiest green spaces on a hospital site, a café garden has the potential to fulfil many of these roles, in a particularly enjoyable way.