When she started as NHS Forest Nature Recovery Ranger at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre in April 2021, she realised there were a lot of neglected spaces hidden in plain sight in the hospital grounds. If they could be greened and nurtured, they would benefit staff, patients and visitors, as well as the area’s abundant wildlife, from butterflies and bats to badgers. She devised an innovative way to brighten up these spaces, in a way that ensured they would be cared for into the future, and boost staff wellbeing along the way.
Karen tells us how she came up with her approach to brightening up these ‘patches’, ensuring that they will be cared for into the future and boost staff wellbeing along the way. Her huge, site-wide gardening competition has totally changed the look of the hospital grounds, and brought staff closer together.
I got staff to garden in little patches near to where they work and just improve neglected spaces – there’s lots of them around this hospital site. I turned it into a competitive event because it’s an extra element to get people interested. We had themed awards, like the Greta Thunberg Award for Best Climate Mitigation in a patch. There were daft prizes, daft awards and multiple ways of getting people into doing it together as a team. And it really has worked to get people inspired. There’s 25 teams I know of, and there’s at least two staff members in each team. One team has 40 members of staff!
The responses to have been really varied and wonderful. A lot of people say, “Oh no, I’m not a gardener, I can’t do anything,” but then they’re the ones that want to get out there. It’s the teamwork of it, and the fact that they’ve got something to focus on other than the hospital and what’s going on inside – the cancer treatments and all that darkness that they’re dealing with and the stress of their job. I’m getting reports that they’re just having fun getting together, they’re feeling better.
There’s been lots and lots of good feedback from people walking through the grounds saying, “I’m loving what you’re doing, all these flowers are amazing, I come here every time my partner’s in for treatment and I have to spend three hours waiting.” People are noticing. It’s really magical.
One patch was a completely neglected courtyard garden in the middle of lots of wards, and it was so overgrown you couldn’t get out of the doors into it. But when I came in and introduced the competition to the teams around here, there was a new ward matron who was really keen to use it as a staff team building opportunity. It’s really worked, and they’ve got a lovely space now for patients to use.
My team’s patch is in front of the Lynda Jackson Macmillan Centre. We work with complementary therapies and information and support, so we’ve made our patch aromatherapy-themed. You can touch and smell a lot of the plants that are in our planters, and they’re the plants that make oils for aromatherapy. We’ve got chocolate mint and rosemary and all sorts of camomile. We’ve got marjoram, purple sage, French lavender, fathead lavender. All of these things, I’m told, can be reduced to oils for aromatherapy. My favourite is lemon verbena – just put some in a cup of tea!
We’ve also made a garden with different types of grasses. It’s really incredible how they move and wave in different ways. They’re very physically sensory and really beautiful to look at. These are all ideas from staff, it’s great to see the imagination coming out.
It’s so nice to see people benefiting from it. The patients, but particularly the staff that I work with just loving the fact that they’ve done this and they’re walking into work every day, really proud of their patch.
There is a patch next to the residents’ buildings where some of the families have been living in the block for 15 years. When I came and approached them about doing something in this patch, which had nothing for them to sit on or be outside with, I suggested that they rolled around one of the cable reels that was over in another part of the hospital. They looked at me a bit funny at first, “Oh, ok, are we allowed?” And I said, “Yeah, we’ve got permission.” So we went and rolled the cable reel, dug it into the ground, and now it’s a really cool use of something that was just going to get left as an eyesore for a long, long time. And they’ve gone wild on the seating.
They told me in that moment, when they were all collaboratively digging, that they hadn’t really talked to each other in the years and years of living together in the same block. They hadn’t got together to do anything. So it was really fab to see them get excited about something and have an area outdoors where they could eat and hang out and be a little community.
At the beginning of this project, everyone was a bit like, “oh, do we have to do something?” And then as they started getting together in little groups and deciding what would happen, and what the theme would be and how it would go, momentum built. People are coming out and gardening and making sure everything’s watered. That’s my favourite thing about this kind of project – people taking on the ownership and enjoying it and getting a health benefit, but also taking on the responsibility. If I brought volunteers in to do this patch, it would fall away; the volunteers might be doing something else next year, and it just wouldn’t get the same attention. I expect these patches to keep going year after year. People have invested in them and will keep them going.