Gardening Leave

Deep in the heart of the Royal Hospital Chelsea lies a very special garden. It's relatively small compared to the manicured lawns, borders and vast greenhouses used by the Chelsea Pensioners, but it's just as precious to the ex-services personnel who tend it.

This was my second visit to the garden, which has been relocated since I was there a few years ago. Back then it was in a deeply shaded spot and quite gloomy, but now...

... it's in a totally different place, full of light and promise.

Around 20% of service veterans develop a mental-health problem, often many years after rejoining civilian life. Gardening Leave was formed to provide a much needed lifeline and a way to help them work through their problems via horticultural therapy. It is a place of healing.

The design brief for this kind of garden is totally different to what you or I would choose for ourselves. It's based on need rather than aesthetics, though I still find it beautiful in its own right, especially now I understand more about it.

Enclosure is important because it provides a place of safety and sanctuary. The beds are raised ultra high so veterans with balance problems or bad backs/knees can work comfortably, or they can duck down during traumatic moments if they feel they need to.

The beds are relatively narrow, to encourage chatting amongst the comrades, their therapist and other staff or volunteers. Likewise the spacing isn't wide, so they can get used to someone behind them moving around. It's quite an eye-opener to realise how an everyday occurrence like someone behind you is perceived as very dangerous when you're suffering from hyper-vigilance or having a flashback.

Many garden design briefs have low maintenance as a high priority. Gardening Leave gardens are the opposite, so there's always plenty for everyone to do. Annuals and roses are good plants for this situation, as are plenty of vegetables, with the added benefit they can be eaten. Here Zisky Stovell, the Assistant Horticultural Therapist at the Chelsea garden shows how growing broad beans is the perfect task.

Note the Gardening Leave logo on Zisky's shirt. Its colours represent the earth, plants and the sky i.e. the charity's gardens and methodology used. The surrounding box represents the enclosed nature of the gardens and the typeface was chosen because it looks like fencing and symbolises the safety provided by working in an enclosed space.

Zisky also found the season's first crop of blackfly on the beans, so I expect squishing duties were put on the task list for the next day! I was bowled over by my welcome and humbled by everyone's enthusiasm for my Shows of Hands project for the Chelsea Fringe. As well as Zisky's hand modelling above, Gardening Leave have tweeted lots of pictures from their gardens in Scotland as well as from Chelsea. Thank you :)

The NHS five steps to mental wellbeing are also enshrined in Gardening Leave's approach:

  1. Connect with the people around you and spend time developing these relationships
  2. Be active and make it part of your life
  3. Keep learning, as learning new skills can give a sense of achievement and a new confidence
  4. Give to others - whether its a smile, a thank you or larger acts
  5. Take notice and be more aware of the present moment, including feelings and thoughts, your body and the world around you
It's not a bad philosophy to keep in mind.

My thanks to Gardening Leave for their hospitality and a much-needed cup of coffee after press day at Chelsea Flower Show. All of their Shows of Hands contributions are on my clickable map, which I'll be sharing with everyone next week :)

You may also like to read this recent article about Gardening Leave in The Telegraph.

Update - December 4th 2015: Sadly Gardening Leave have announced that owing to difficulties in raising sufficient funds, they will cease to exist at the end of the year. I hope that some way can be found to continue their vital work with one of the other forces or mental health charities. With the recent news I fear their work will be needed more than ever.


  1. What an inspiring garden - as uplifting as anything I saw on Press Day (although it was great fun and I was more than happy to be there). Gardening can be wonderfully healing and I'm sure this will be well used.

    1. Hi Celia, welcome to Veg Plotting :-) Yes, this was most inspirational and well worth a visit. I've just heard they're opening as part of the London Squares event next weekend.

  2. A good post about a worthy cause. Flighty xx

  3. How interesting. Horticulture should be more widely used for healing. Thank you.

    1. It's something I feel very strongly anout Alison, so it's great to be able to blog about organisations like Gardening Leave

  4. Thank you for this post, Michelle. It's good to know that help and support like this exists; I'm a firm believer in horticultural therapy and there should certainly never be any stigma attached to mental health issues of any form.

    1. As an ex stress sufferer who found her allotment was the key to getting well again, I'm sure that's why I identify so strongly with initiatives like this one.


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