Every year since 2016 when Highbury Community Garden was set up, it has been awarded Outstanding in Britain in Bloom’s ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ Awards. Visiting the garden at Nottingham’s Highbury Hostpial on a bright May morning, it’s easy to see why. As I sit surrounded by fruit, vegetables, flowers and bespoke art, Claire Blakey, an occupational therapist at the hospital, tells me about the diversity of projects that take place here and the massive impact the garden has had on the hospital and wider community,

Claire established Highbury Community Garden and its associated green spaces to provide a setting for social activities and for people to sit and relax outside of the hospital environment.

“I think people find their interactions and their communication is so different when they’re in this setting as opposed to being on a ward in a very clinical setting,” she says, speaking to me on one of the picnic benches in the garden area which is open to staff and community each lunchtime.

Highbury Community Garden, Nottingham
Highbury Community Garden, Nottingham. Photo: Miriam Dobson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Sensory garden at Highbury Community Garden
Sensory garden at Highbury Community Garden. Photo: Claire Blakey / Highbury Hospital. All rights reserved.

Harvesting more than food

Food growing is at the heart of the Highbury project. Each hospital ward has its own designated raised bed, and all the participants have access to the communal shed, greenhouse and fruit trees. Other garden features include a no-mow zone where cowslip is just starting to bloom when I visit. And the wildflower meadow is coming up into a shock of summer colour. The sensory planting area and herb circles ensure that rich aromas float around the spaces, while a garden wall screening the nearby road creates an enclosed sanctuary. Picnic benches occupy a central area, while more private seating is provided in relatively secluded corners of the garden.

Every year the garden participates in the community arts festival, on one occasion turning the whole space into a gallery with artwork all the way around. Another year, they obtained funding to work with local mosaic artist Anna Dickson to produce permanent artworks for the garden.

“It was lovely because we had all the different groups, so we had patients who were adult mental health ward, we had older people, we had learning disabilities – we had everyone together, sat round these huge tables, working together. Then we did an exhibition down at the Riverside, which has a gallery space. We all went down and saw their work up in the exhibition and then came back and the mosaic was installed in the garden. That was a real highlight.”

– Claire Blakey, Occupational therapist, Highbury Hospital

Social games, including boules, table tennis and giant chess, as well as events such as Bonfire Night, provide other ways to enjoy the garden’s spaces. The garden’s fresh produce itself doesn’t get forgotten either: baking and cooking top some patients’ lists of the joys they’ve had from participating in the garden. Eating the fruit and veg also helps engage sceptics; seeing the literal fruits of the labour can inspire people to get out and have a go themselves.

Once a month, local mental health charity Nature in Mind runs a gardening group at the hospital. This introduces post-discharge patients to gardening as an activity and the community garden as a local resource that is open and welcoming to them.

Wildflower meadow area at Highbury Community Garden
Wildflower meadow area at Highbury Community Garden. Photo: Miriam Dobson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Highbury Community Garden
Highbury Community Garden. Photo: Miriam Dobson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

“We get to chat, and have that bridge between here and the community,” says Claire, emphasising the powerful effect this can have on a person’s recovery. This has led to increased success with post-discharge engagement, and the impact is obvious. In the words of one participant: “Part of me always thought gardening was something I would enjoy but I didn’t have the confidence to have a go. My experience at Highbury Community Garden means that I’m going to go home with a gardening pack and do my own garden now.”

The wider community

One staff member describes Come Grow with Me as, “a stepping stone between the in-patient experience and the wider community,” and this relationship goes both ways. The working-age dementia team offer gardening packs to people in the community who would benefit from this activity in their own homes. Local community groups in turn come in to the garden and  run workshops to develop the skills of the patients and volunteers. Much of the garden’s physical infrastructure (e.g. chairs from a primary school), many of the objects (pots and tools), and plants have been donated or upcycled from the hospital and local communities.

Gardening books for volunteers at Highbury Community Garden
Gardening books for volunteers at Highbury Community Garden. Photo: Miriam Dobson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Mosaics at Highbury Community Garden
Mosaics at Highbury Community Garden. Photo: Miriam Dobson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Challenges

Running a community garden comes with specific challenges. One of the key issues that Claire highlights is the ongoing need to ensure funding. The garden has had previous success with the Lottery Community Fund and Aviva Community Fund, and received donations for some of the bigger purchases, such as the shed.

Ensuring momentum is also a challenge, given nature’s tendency to keep growing even when no one is looking. Claire aims to set up “systems and processes that can run as much as possible without our input… we want it to be owned by the community.” Come Grow With Me has found ongoing funding in the hospital’s Grounds and Gardens budget to support the employment of a community gardener, Karen, who works three mornings a week, tending to the gardens and ensuring that everything runs smoothly. This helps create a buffer, where if none of the gardening groups are keen on doing a certain job, Karen can ensure that things are still taken care of.

Risk management is also key, from making sure that all tools are signed in and locked away when not in use, to finding creative ways around not being able to have water butts because of the risk of Legionella. Claire is optimistic that none of the risks or challenges outweigh the rewards: she describes these things as “not huge obstacles… just little frustrations.”

The positive impact of the garden is clear from the words of staff and patients, as well as the atmosphere of the garden itself – the instant calm that descends after spending just a few minutes sitting quietly amongst the trees and flowers. It feels a million miles away from the busy hospital environment.

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Further reading

Banner image; Highbury Community Garden. Photo: Claire Blakey / Highbury Community Garden. All rights reserved.