How do you turn a neglected space between buildings into a green retreat? Landscape specialists, Kirry Mitchell and Andre Curtis of Gardens for All, recommend consulting closely with health staff to understand how adjacent areas are being used in practice and work out who will be able to access the space and how.

Cirencester Hospital, Gloucestershire

The small garden courtyard they are restoring at Cirencester Hospital is already popular with staff for breaks. They hope that as visitors return to hospitals after the pandemic, it will also become somewhere that patients can meet comfortably with their families.

Kirry suggests choosing plants with generous foliage and long-flowering periods – day lilies, tall shrubby fuchsia, hydrangeas and philadelphus – with a view to providing privacy and a degree of screening between different seating areas. At Cirencester, the use of a couple of arches, together with climbers such as honeysuckle, clematis and big leafed ivy have been helpful in creating height and a greater sense of enclosure. Low stone walls that were crumbling have been topped with timber, with the bonus of providing additional informal seating.

The area is still a work in progress – held back over many months by Covid restrictions on volunteer access – but Kirry aims for the space to be ultimately fuller and greener, while avoiding plants that will grow to be too big for their narrow borders. With courtyards especially, says Kirry, you need to consider not just the experience of entering the garden, but the views that it offers for wards and day rooms.

Donna Nicholas, a senior sister at the hospital says seeing the hospital gardens from the wards can be a great comfort for patients, and a positive focus for people to talk about: “We have had doves nesting outside the window of the ward that have hatched two lots of fledglings. During Covid, being able to look out and enjoy the view from the window has been really helpful. When the doves laid their eggs it was all about how long before they would hatch.” In more normal times, she adds, they have volunteers who take patients outside into courtyards: “Some of the roses are amazing in terms of the smell. It gives patients a sense of normality.”

Gloucestershire Royal Hospital

Landscape consultant Kirry Mitchell in the pharmacy garden at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital
Landscape consultant Kirry Mitchell in the pharmacy garden at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. Photo: Carey Newson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Pharmacy garden, Gloucestershire Royal Hospital
Pharmacy garden, Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. Photo: Carey Newson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Where hospital staff take ownership of courtyard space, their needs and interests can help to shape the project in creative and unexpected ways. At Gloucestershire Royal Hospital in Gloucester the head of the pharmacology department asked that a courtyard area be turned into a pharmacy garden, including medicinal plants and an area with benches for teaching small groups of students. The space sits between Pathology and Pharmacy and is not open to the public but readily accessible for staff.

When Andre and Kirry started work there it was badly in need of restoration having become littered, weedy and overgrown. Because of the nature of the adjacent clinical areas, materials had to be brought through the building in sealed bags. With a budget of just £300 for plants, Kirry selected those that would grow in the restrictive conditions of the courtyard: part-shade with no depth of soil and minimal access for maintenance.

“I made a very big list and then I had to boil it down to what I could find,” she remembers. “They all have different purposes… some of them were homeopathic uses, some were very old pharmacy, some were herbal.”

All of the plants she chose – some of them toxic – had reputed medicinal properties. Among them is common marigold (Calendula officinalis), historically used as a wound salve, and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), whose oil has been promoted for a wide variety of conditions.

Andre used a line of wooden rods as vertical palisades, screening the wall behind to define the informal outdoor teaching space. The timber took the remainder of their modest budget, and he worked with volunteers to construct garden tables from reclaimed wooden pallets.

“I think we’ve demonstrated that whatever the space you can do something with it,” he says. “Having the involvement of the department was great. It wouldn’t have happened without the consultant taking an interest.” He adds that courtyard gardens have received fresh attention with the pandemic and a clamour for outdoor seating.

Kirry has been pleased to see the garden in use by staff: “Each time I’ve been here there’s been somebody out here.”

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