The following case studies show how being outside in nature in a safe, supportive environment can help people living with social isolation, anxiety and a lack of confidence. All activities were tailored to the ability of the person concerned and included general garden maintenance, practical activities like making bird boxes and learning to identify plants and insects.
An important part of all the activities is the tea break which gives everyone a chance to interact as much as they are comfortable with, with no pressure to speak if they don't want to. However, it helps to give people a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose and they can take pride in the positive changes they make in the garden and the skills they are learning.
Case Study 1
"J" reluctantly arrived with his support worker at one of the gardens. He was 16 and had been hospital educated for over a year, completing his GCSEs while there. His head was down, the hood was up, arms were crossed and he refused to speak or look at me. During that first session the support worker and I managed to get him to make a frame out of branches to protect some seeds we'd sown from cats and birds. It took a lot of cajoling!
Over the following weeks he slowly relaxed and one day he arrived with his hood down and a smile on his face. The garden had become his safe space, and the two hours a week he visited was the only time he left his house. He was very bright, called a spade a spade, and had a wicked, dry sense of humour. He would grumble constantly about having to do work in the garden, but did it anyway, and reluctantly admitted he enjoyed it if pushed!
After a while, he was offered a place in a school that could offer him the courses he wanted to study. It was difficult for him to trust other young people due to being bullied in the past and he still came to the garden while slowly making the transition into school. Eventually he stopped coming to the garden as he was in school full time. He did well in his studies and the day came for him to leave. His support worker attended the leaving ceremony and rang me to say that he had stood up in front of and spoken to about 50 parents and teachers - unbelievable! That was not all though. After the ceremony, the head teacher announced what each of the students would be going on to do next. She mentioned all the students except "J" and the support worker was concerned that it meant he wasn't moving on but going back into isolation at home.
However, the reason the head teacher left him until last was to announce that the school was so impressed with him that they had offered him a job as a teaching assistant!
Case Study 2
"V" lived in a house association property. In partnership with the housing association I was running a gardening project that worked with people who because they were elderly, in ill health or were disabled were unable to look after their gardens. "V" had chronic ill health which meant she could do very little other than potter about. She had previously loved her garden, but her illness meant it had become overgrown and it distressed her so much that she kept her living room curtains closed all the time so she didn't have to look at it. She had good family support, but none of them were gardeners and it had got to the stage that they didn't know where to start.
I found some local people who were willing to help volunteer on the project and after discussing with "V" what she wanted in the garden, we set to work. We cleared half the garden of brambles and put in three small raised beds for some vegetables. The other half we left to lawn but worked on the borders to put in low maintenance, pollinator friendly plants and bulbs to give all year round flowering.
Once the work had started, the family stepped up and every time we visited they had added features and plants. We put in a water butt so they could keep it watered and a raised bed with scented herbs by the bedroom window so that "V" could still enjoy the garden on the days she was bed bound.
"V" was thrilled to tell us that the family had started having barbeques in the garden in the summer and she had picked and used the vegetables grown in the raised beds. She loved wildlife and would come outside and chat with us about nature while we were working, or having a cup of tea, and constantly reiterated how much the project had helped her.
Case Study 3
"JT" started coming to one of the gardens as a break from her carer responsibilities for her husband who was having treatment for cancer. She found taking part in repetitive tasks such as weeding while chatting about anything under the sun with other people at the garden allowed her to forget about the situation at home for a while. Her attendance was patchy as her husband's health fluctuated but she was always considered part of the group and welcomed warmly when she was able to come along.