Lucy’s Story

Dorothy House Occupational Therapist Lucy Burley talks about how therapeutic horticulture is improving the lives of people with life limiting illness.

I joined Dorothy House in 2011, working across all our occupational therapy services and have always championed the benefits and use of horticulture.  I work within the community seeing patients at home, co-lead our symptom management COPE group and lung disease service, lead Zoom relaxation sessions and oversee an amazing team of volunteers who run our weekly allotment group.  Research strongly suggests that even a short time outside, connecting with our natural world, has lasting benefits to our wellbeing.

Using our senses helps bring nature closer to us; we observe seasonal changes, notice details on leaves, bark, or insects, hear the crunch of frost underfoot and smell the flowers in bloom. Being in the moment like this helps us to be distracted from everyday worries and can reduce our stress response. This helps us think more clearly, enhance our concentration, sleep better and feel more energised.

My inspiration for bringing therapeutic horticulture to Dorothy House was an article I read about Incredible Edible Todmorden, a town in Yorkshire where the whole community has embraced gardening. Although my horticulture knowledge is limited, I have enthusiasm and a passion to want to enable our patients and their families to continue gardening or to learn new skills at a time when life for them is challenging. Research shows that engaging with nature-based activities and being outdoors improves both physical and mental health and helps people cope better with symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness and anxiety.  Working alongside others with similar worries reduces the feeling of isolation and helps build confidence.

In April 2012, I led a group of patients, carers, the bereaved and volunteers over six weeks to design, source materials and plant up an apothecary garden at our Trowbridge outreach centre. In November 2013 we embarked on a similar project at our Peasedown St John outreach centre – this time creating an alpine garden in a raised bed.  Although we no longer have our outreach centres these plants continue to grow.

In April 2014 Trowbridge Council and the Gloucester Road Allotment Association gave us a raised bed to cultivate in their community allotments. Our occupational therapy-led Plot to Plate group was born and we’ve used this space every week since then. We’ve now got two raised beds and manage a ground plot, too.  Facilities at the site include level wheelchair friendly paths, an accessible toilet and a club hut for refreshments. The group has won awards from Trowbridge in Bloom, including Best Raised Bed, The Lisa Denny Cup in 2014 and the prestigious Chairman’s Award in 2016.

Following the success of these projects, I decided to work towards a qualification in social and therapeutic horticulture so I applied for – and won – the Charles Notcutt bursary via Thrive – a national charity whose vision is to enable those touched by disability to transform their lives using gardening. The £550 bursary enabled me to complete a two-day course in social and therapeutic horticulture. Part of the course entailed an assignment detailing the setting up a programme for people within end of life care and adapting activities to enable people to continue to engage in gardening despite physical or emotional challenges.  I successfully gained my award in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture in February 2017.

I was delighted to win the bursary and am very grateful to both the Notcutt family and to Thrive for providing me with this opportunity. The knowledge I’ve gained is invaluable. Our allotment group continues to meet every Tuesday morning and is now led by an amazing team of volunteers. The group is open to patients, carers and the bereaved so if you’re interested, do contact our clinical co-ordination centre for further information. Throughout the season we grow vegetables and fruit which is donated to local Alzheimers uk day services, whose volunteers prepare fresh meals five days a week across three centres in Wiltshire. Throughout the pandemic our volunteers have supported the group via phone and Zoom which has been invaluable to reduce isolation to those shielding.  The allotment group is now back onsite growing again with increased social distancing and hygiene in place.

My next challenge is to bring more horticultural opportunity to those who access our services but are too unwell to attend the allotment.  I was able to offer 1:1 tabletop gardening sessions within the inpatient unit during lockdown which were hugely valued.  As a result of the pandemic the wider public have realised the potential wellbeing benefits of nature and being outdoors so I would like to offer this to more inpatients and day services users in the coming months.