A recent report by the King’s Fund for the National Gardens Scheme has linked gardening to better health but it also has a role to play in end of life care as shown at the Sue Ryder Leckhampton Court Hospice.
Gardening at Leckhampton Court
It’s the view that’s most surprising. An almost panoramic vista across the Gloucestershire countryside with the Cotswolds and Malverns visible in the distance, it seems at odds with the hospice’s location just on the edge of town. At odds, but also somehow fitting: if anywhere should have the benefit of a close link with nature, it’s here.
Then there’s the garden: nothing fancy but carefully tended and filled with colour, adding to the sense that this is just a well-loved family home rather than a modern, specialist centre for palliative care.
It’s an impression the team at Leckhampton Court are keen to foster: not only does it help to humanise what is often a distressing experience, the garden and indeed gardening have been shown to help in their work.
“It’s an important part of the care we provide here,” says Hayley Clemmens, the hospice’s spokeswoman, who stresses that the hospice is not just somewhere people go to die.
“Fifty-four per cent of our patients come in and go home again,” she explains.
Most are day patients – Leckhampton Court has just 16 in-patient beds – and many are being helped with long-term, life-limiting conditions such as multiple sclerosis and dementia.
As well as providing soothing, peaceful surroundings for patients, their families and the hospice staff, the gardens have been used in assessment and treatment, while difficult conversations are often eased by walking around the grounds or sitting on one of the many benches.
A new feature that is proving particularly helpful is a raised vegetable bed near the day hospice room.
Tall enough to be accessible to even the frailest patient, it is filled with a delightful mix of colourful flowers and veg: celeriac, curly kale, purple sprouting broccoli, beans and sweetcorn rub shoulders with sunflowers, petunias and marigolds. Meanwhile, tomatoes are being grown in pots alongside.
The mini veg plot is popular with patients, some of whom are distressed at no longer being able to care for their own gardens, and many take home bags of produce.
Tending the plants can also help with those in pain, says Senior Staff Nurse Katherine Grace.
“I did a lot of planting with one MS patient who was struggling that week. It really took her out of herself.”
Her colleague, occupational therapist Anna Primrose-Wells, uses the raised veg bed when assessing patients, such as those with dementia.
“One voluntarily picked up the courgette plant label and read it, which was massively informative for me to understand the level of his perception.”
The plants have all been donated while the bed itself was built by volunteers. Indeed, Leckhampton Court is reliant on volunteer gardeners as, along with the rest of the hospice’s work most of the costs have to be met through fundraising by the local community.
A small team meets weekly to care for around five acres of garden in the total of just over 14 acres of grounds; there’s a sizeable wood as well as a lake and even the car park has planted boundaries.
There’s also an area of donated trees on the site of a former orchard, although tools rather than trees would be a more welcome gift today with wheelbarrows top of the list.
As well as tending borders filled with lavender, spiraea, hollyhocks, hemerocallis, leucanthemum and roses, the team also raise cuttings from existing plants to help fill spaces; penstemon are being targeted when I visit.
Pride of place is a new border by the main entrance created by Peter Dowle, a Chelsea gold medal-winning designer who donated the plan to the hospice.
“The bed was full of roses that were about 40 years old,” explains John Millington, who organises the team of volunteers. “We couldn’t replace them and had to go for something different.”
Planting for the raised bed was funded thanks to the Farrell family, who raised the money with a charity golf event.
The new border was still being finished when I visited but already perennial wallflower, thyme and Erigeron karvinskianus were settling in around old stones from the manor house that have been carefully placed so that initials chiselled into them can be seen.
“It’s such an important bed as it’s the first one people see going up to the front door,” says John.
It’s also an important part of the ‘home from home’ feel that the hospice tries to create and the sense of peace that is so apparent.
“Lady Ryder believed that healing was helped by the environment,” says John. “This environment has healing properties because it’s peaceful and tranquil.”
• For more information about Sue Ryder Leckhampton Court hospice see here
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