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‘What makes a garden? by Debbie Carroll

I was excited to be asked to write a blog for Bright Copper Kettles CIC again and I thought I’d better revisit the series of ten we did back in 2018/19 where we covered a wide range of topics, you may want to take a fresh look at some of these.

I thought that it would be good to pick up the thread from our previous blog 4 ‘We need a sensory garden!’ and explore a little of what makes a garden actively and meaningfully used.

This felt like an important angle that any care setting can benefit from and reflects the key messages underpinning our latest book ‘A Designer Handbook for Creating Actively Used Care Setting Gardens’ which supports Garden Designers and Care settings to work more effectively together.

This book also complements our earlier ‘Care Culture Map and Handbook’ which helps care settings on a culture change journey towards greater person-centred care and more engagement outside.

Previously we explored how simply stepping outside can be an enjoyable and sensory experience. But what to do once you are outside? Do you wonder what the garden should have in it to make you use it more? Do you have ideas of what a garden should look like? Maybe you feel that all is in order?

The solution to these questions may be closer to hand than you might expect and can be an activity in itself. Why not spend some time asking your colleagues and your residents what is important to them and what they love to do in their own gardens.

You will probably find a wide range of answers as to what a garden should look like, what activities people enjoy doing there and the elements that should be included. This may not give you nice neat answer you were hoping for; in fact it probably muddies the water further as the answer is likely to be different for everyone – variety is, after all, the spice of life!

So how do you choose what to include?

Firstly a couple of warnings to avoid disappointment once the novelty of any new changes may have worn off.

Simply buying stuff or creating a new shiny garden will not draw you outside if you do not already find this an easy thing to do!

– for this to happen you may need to unpick what is really holding back stepping outside more.

This is likely to be tied up within your care practices and attitudes (your care culture). This requires time to review and you will need to discuss (and make) any necessary changes across the whole team.

Also take care to not fall for supposed quick wins or the latest internet fad or 'must have' items, these rarely improve engagement levels either.

Our ‘Care Culture Map and Handbook’ provides a tool and checklist (also explored in Blog 6) to help unpick both these areas and are recommended reading before embarking on any costly re-modelling of your garden.

Instead, simply beginning with that chat with residents and colleagues about what people want and like to do outside will be a more valuable place to begin, and more likely to lead to more activity outside.

Simply getting to know your residents more is the key to everything!

Listening to what really gives meaning and joy to going outside will provide the real insights about activities you can do out there, and this is such a simple task anyone can do it so why not get the whole team involved.

Very often the things people enjoy doing outside are so simply we discount them as activities at all!

It maybe to sit and have a cuppa and a chat, watch the birds, do some gardening or even do some tidying up. These can be easily achieved, with minimal equipment, even by care homes who may find it hard to step outside regularly.

Take it a step at a time, work out what equipment or items you may need to help make these simple activities go smoothly.

For example, you may be a need a few cushions to make sitting on hard outdoor chairs more comfortable or a parasol to provide shade in a sunny space.

Don’t forget to consider the way you as a team work, consider if this needs to change to help you step outside easily too.

Try to think of the garden as just another room, how do you continue to support people who move between rooms inside, you probably do this without thinking, how can you transfer this to include the garden too.

Work out ways to co-ordinate between staff inside and those outside so if a resident needs to go back in they can be supported both sides of the threshold without bringing the whole visit to a halt for those who may wish to stay longer and still need support.

Activities that have meaning to individuals can bring so much joy and so when you choose to make changes or a purchase for the garden make sure they are relevant to your residents, your setting and are realistic to things you would find in a typical domestic garden.

Be prepared to change things over time too; put away items that are no longer relevant. Be prepared to have a garden that remains flexible so you can add to, or remove, elements with the changing resident mix and their changing abilities over time.

You could have a store for an activity library from where you can dig out items that have come back into relevance because of a new resident with an interest or simply is appropriate to the change of the season.

Where bigger changes are needed to your garden and you require support from a Garden Designer, or other outside specialist, then our latest handbook may be helpful to understand how to work with Designers more effectively in a way we call ‘Relationship-Centred Design’, or you may wish to point the Designer to this handbook prior to undertaking any changes.

This approach combines the need for changes to practices by yourselves in the care setting while the Designer comes alongside you to facilitate your growing use of the garden over time while ensuring they do not hinder your progress or build back in fears you have overcome.

This can help avoid the risk of a new garden falling out of use after the novelty has worn off.

Stepping outside should be a natural part of all our lives and should not stop when moving into a care setting.

Ultimately the biggest influence on being able to step outside, and any joy gained there, is embedded in the skill, care and support of those who help make going out possible.

Our series of tools and publications are entitled ‘Why don’t we go into the garden?’.

This has a deliberate double meaning – firstly it was the question we set out to answer around why care gardens fell out of use even when designed to the latest guidance.

But it is also the answer – it is in all of our powers to raise this as an invite to residents, so it leaves me to say - ‘Why don’t we go into the garden?’.

For more information and to obtain copies of our resources go to

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