Claire Blakey is an occupational therapist at Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. She was instrumental in setting up the Highbury Community Garden, located at Highbury Hospital in Nottingham. The hospital provides a broad range of mental health services, including adult mental health services, intellectual and developmental disability services, and community teams. Claire talks us through the ideas behind establishing the garden, and how it supports the diverse needs of the service users as inpatients and post-discharge.

The idea of setting up a community garden came from a growing awareness about the health benefits of spending time in green spaces, and the recognition that there was a lack of community green space on the Highbury Hospital site. Our starting point was to gather the views and ideas of service users, staff and volunteers and get as many interested parties as possible involved in the planning and decision making. The initial feedback was that people wanted a multi-purpose green space; a place to learn how to grow your own food; green space to take part in a range of therapeutic activities such as art, music, physical exercise, social and community events; staff wellbeing; and a place to relax away from the wards.

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

From the outset, the aim was for the garden to be a shared community space. It belongs to and is shaped by the community, so service user involvement and community decision making was, and still is, very much at the heart of what we do. In the early days, this meant that service users were actively involved in things like the design of the garden, the choice of the activities provided, the name of the garden, and even the designs each side of the shed.

On a therapeutic level, it’s vital that people’s ideas and contributions are valued and for the long-term future of the garden. It’s vital to build a wide base of individuals and groups who are invested in the garden.

When the garden opened in 2016, it was fairly modest in terms of its resources. We just had one shed, one green house, nine raised beds, one compost bin and four benches. The gardens had to be developed in stages because we’re dependent on sourcing funding each year. What we can do is determined by what grants we can secure, and what funds we can raise. Fortunately, we’ve had quite a lot of success with fundraising, so we now have 20 raised beds, two sheds, two greenhouses, fruit trees, a sensory garden, a wildlife area, a table tennis table, a gazebo to provide much needed shelter.

We now have a full timetable spanning a range of activities, including horticulture, art, physical activity, social community events, and staff welfare. Each ward and community group has their own raised bed. Plus, we have a number of shared beds and the produce is harvested by service users and used in therapeutic kitchens within the hospital. We have a lot of tasting sessions at the garden, and any surplus produce is either sold at events to raise funds or maybe used at staff wellbeing sessions. We’ve also held planting days where service users and staff from each of the wards and units have planted trees, joined in with collaborative art projects…

Highbury Community Garden, Nottingham
Highbury Community Garden, Nottingham. Photo: Miriam Dobson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The way we work is very much about having strong links with community services and resources beyond the hospital, resources that our service users can then access post-discharge. We talk about having a ‘green pathway’, whereby people are supported to access the health benefits of being in green spaces and taking part in green activities during hospital admission, but also beyond, once they’ve been discharged. We talk about the garden as being a stepping stone or a bridge between a person’s inpatient admission, and the wider community. We invite our community partners to the garden to provide taster sessions and information about their services, and how people can access these services post-discharge. For some people, this can be about maintaining engagement with a community resource that they have been accessing before admission. For others, it may be about finding out about a resource or group that they’ve not heard of before, and would like to access post-discharge. By having our community partners coming regularly into the garden, it gives our service users the opportunity to meet the staff, to establish a relationship. We can also support people to visit some of these projects and groups, and complete any referral paperwork.

To complement the physical green space, we provide things like gardening packs for people on discharge. The aim is to support people to develop their own skills and knowledge to enable them to continue to access the health benefits of green spaces beyond the hospital garden.

The feedback from service users is that it’s far less daunting going into a community group post-discharge when you already know the staff, know where you’re going and what to expect. Another way that we link with the wider community is to take part in community events. These could be national conservation events like the big butterfly count, or it could be a local event. In our local area, there’s an annual art festival. Each year, we will hold a collaborative, nature inspired art project in the garden, such as this mosaic project. It culminates in the week of the art festival, we exhibit our work in a community venue before installing it in the garden.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Highbury Community Garden.

Sensory garden at Highbury Community Garden
Sensory garden at Highbury Community Garden. Photo: Claire Blakey / Highbury Hospital. All rights reserved.

Banner photo: Highbury Community Garden, Nottingham. Photo: Claire Blakey / Highbury Hospital. All rights reserved.

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