Garden Buddies is a project by Outside the Box which helps people of all ages and abilities to enjoy being in gardens. Sometimes being in the garden is about planting and digging, sometimes it is about spending time chatting and drinking tea in beautiful natural surroundings. Just because a person is getting older or less able, this does not mean they have to stop doing these things. Even if a person has memory issues, they can enjoy being in a green space and perhaps rekindle memories through the sights and smells of a garden.
Spending time in nature is good for everyone. It can help you physically and keep you feeling well and happy. Garden Buddies have spoken to people who feel much happier because they spend time in green spaces. If you spend time in gardens with other people this can help you strengthen relationships, enjoy sharing time and experiences together and learn from each other.
Garden Buddies have been speaking to people in different gardens around the country, getting some ideas and tips for making the most of gardens for everyone. Here are some of the tips for making gardens suitable for people as they develop memory or mobility issues, and for supporting different groups to work together in gardens.
These tips were developed by older people in early 2020 just as COVID-19 restrictions happened. A lot of what is here will still apply, but you may need to take account of current arrangements.
Ask people what they want
Don’t assume everyone wants the same kind of garden. Who uses this garden? Is it used by several different groups? If so, make sure you speak to everyone involved. What do they use it for? What would they like to do there? How do people want to feel in this space – calm, relaxed, energised? What would make it better? What would people like to grow – ask about favourite flowers, fruit or vegetables. Use pictures or real flowers and vegetables to let people see examples of what’s possible. Everyone can use a post-it to vote for their favourites.
Garden layout and design
Ideally there should be a clear path leading round the garden and back to the entrance/exit. The path should be smooth and level, and wide enough for a wheelchair or walking frame. Some older people have told us they get upset or confused by weeds growing in between slabs – in one garden we asked some younger folk to deal with these (using hand tools and power washer, best to avoid weedkiller). Lighter coloured slabs are better as dark slabs can look like a big hole to some people with poor eyesight.
• Plastic garden furniture can be very difficult to get out of if you are unsteady on your feet as it moves. Where possible have heavy stable furniture.
• Check your paths regularly for cracks. The weather and changing seasons can cause cracks to appear. If you can’t fix them immediately highlight the area to make people aware.
Dumbarton dementia-friendly garden told us: “Our allotment has easy access, no stairs, raised beds, paved areas, a safe shed, a meeting shelter and a safe plastic greenhouse. Everyone takes great care to protect people living with dementia.”
A raised bed is easy to access, both for people who are unsteady on their feet and for wheelchair users. We talked to people who showed us a raised bed at waist height – they said this was ideal for everyone who used the garden. They also said the bed should not be too wide – so that people could reach across it comfortably.
This is an excellent way to create labour-saving, accessible planting space. There are kits available to buy, or there are some great DIY ideas online. Everyone can then plant at the height that suits them best.
Bird Feeders/other wildlife
Gardens are places to share with nature. It is easy to grow herbs and flowers to attract bees and butterflies. We also heard how people are leaving flower stalks for insects and woodpiles for hedgehogs and frogs. Bird feeders and nesting boxes will encourage more birds to come to the garden. This gives people something to watch out of the window, even in bad weather.
Speak to Froglife or another group who might be able to come in and help create habitats.
“We learned some new skills when we made the nesting boxes. I didn’t know I could do that with my hands!”
Sturdy, comfortable seating/shaded areas
Gardens are not all about work! They should be a place to enjoy resting in, chatting, reading or eating. A suitable sturdy bench/table in a shady spot, maybe with comfy cushions, provides a welcome break for everyone. If there is no natural shade see if you can get a gazebo or simple tarpaulin as a canopy.
“We need shelter from the sun and from the rain.” “We have a lovely mural of important buildings and hills in our quiet area with a seat.” “One person didn’t want to do any gardening. She was happy with her crosswords. So we made the bench comfy for her, so that we were still keeping her company while the others potted seeds at an outside table.”
Easy access to toilets
We spoke to many older people about getting out and about. Some of them mentioned worries about knowing where the nearest toilet was. It is good to be able to reassure people that there is a toilet available. Some gardens have very clean, easy to use composting toilets. If no toilet is available, there may be a café or shop which would let people use their toilet.
Finding a landmark
One lady loved the garden but was always confused when she first went outside. Then she spotted a maple tree she loved and that became her familiar landmark to help her remember where she was. Every week she rediscovered the beautiful delicate red leaves.
Some gardening tools are awkward to grip and use. One group showed us some easy to hold tools they had bought. You can also make a simple kneeling pad out of an old hot water bottle filled with scraps of cloth!
Sometimes it is easy to forget what you have planted where, whether this is in beds or in pots. We used labels with a permanent marker, and clear writing with plant name, date planted and the person who planted it. People enjoy keeping track of their own planting!
“In the Secret Garden we’ve got slates with lines of poems ‘planted’ in the beds.. such as ‘to create a garden is to search for a better world’ they are a good way of starting conversations.”
People we spoke to told us how they love herbs. A walk round a herb border was always a delight for them, not just the smells but the sensation of brushing their hands against delicate herbs. If they are not able to walk you can bring pots of herbs over to them, or even indoors. Some people enjoyed admiring the colours and the contrast of different shapes and colours against the sky or the grass. There are sounds to enjoy too – rustling of leaves or popping of seed heads.
“I love pretty plants like rainbow chard and golden beetroot.”
Seeing and smelling certain flowers and herbs can help people remember happy times, songs and old recipes. Our younger folk were very interested to hear stories of ‘Digging for Victory’ and this inspired them to get some potatoes planted. One group enjoyed sharing songs, and stories, sparked by the flowers and plants in the garden. This led to a fun musical session (with percussion instruments) shared with younger folk and staff.
Avoid large dark areas
Dark paths or shady areas of planting can be difficult to see for some, and may seem uninviting and gloomy. Some basic ‘coppicing’ or trimming could be done by those who are more able.
Talk about old crafts and jobs – coppicing was linked to charcoal burning, and leather tanning…many people with memory issues can remember further back to jobs they did when they were younger. One person we spoke to had fascinating stories of being a lithographer. This can be a great way for them to connect with young people, too.
Avoid poisonous/thorny plants
If you do want plants such as roses or foxgloves, try keeping them at the back of the bed so that they are not easily reached, to avoid anyone being injured or poisoned. Some people enjoyed ‘risk taking’ – one man wanted to touch a nettle without getting stung! It’s good to encourage people to assess risk for themselves, within reason.
Gardening for all
If you have mixed ages and abilities in the garden, let everyone work to their strengths. Younger folk can manage digging or lifting jobs, while older or less able people might prefer to sit at a table and plant seeds in pots. Older people will probably have valuable gardening knowledge they can share with the younger ones. Everyone can still get together for a cup of tea and a chat.
Because older people are often slower, they get cold quicker – a sheltered place with sturdy chairs, where hot drinks can be taken, is a must.
“After we have worked we sit in the shelter with a cup of tea and a biscuit and a good natter.”
This can also be a great way of helping lose some of the stigma around taking ‘free food’ from community fridges etc. Combining the harvest with a social cooking and eating event completes the circle and really helps bring everyone together.
Think about planting things which will not need a lot of maintenance. This could mean having bark chips round plants to suppress weeds, or keeping pots outdoors where the rain will water them. If plants will need to be watered, think about ease of access to a tap.
Access to the garden from an indoor setting
Think about how people will get to the garden. Is it easy to access from the car park or indoor setting? What would make access easier? It could be arrows, a ramp or a door propped open. Remember weeds between slabs or dark areas of planting can be disconcerting for people with reduced – or intensified – sensory perception. Try to get rid of such areas, especially around entrances to the garden.
People of all ages love to get creative or taste the fruits of their labours! Some of our older people showed the younger ones how to make lavender bags from scraps of fabric. One day we all picked berries and made some delicious smoothies which everyone enjoyed. On a rainy day, we looked at gardening magazines, and tried some simple art using natural resources. You could also make insect ‘hotels’ or bird boxes or do a birdwatch or butterfly count.
Let’s face it, even the hardiest of us can be fair-weather gardeners…if the weather has got your group beaten, you can still have a ‘Plan B’ involving garden crafts or simple garden produce preparation…which can take place indoors. “Sometimes we just sit in the sheltered area and have a cup of tea and a natter…if it’s raining or sometimes if it’s too hot and sunny.”
Garden design for the different seasons
Having some interest and colour in the garden all year round can be a great pick-me-up. This way, people can enjoy time in the garden even on a winter’s day. If there is a shortage of natural plants, why not add some solar fairy lights, a bird table, wooden ‘flowers’ or other focal points to cheer up a bare garden?
Some ideas for indoor activities
• Gather natural resources in the garden or on a walk and make collages or clay figures.
• ‘Forage’ for herbs/fruit and make teas or infusions to taste. (Be sure to check for allergies/interactions with medication.)
• Look at photos of gardens and plants, or read poems about them.
• Tree ID – collect different leaves and match up to pictures.
• Make a ‘rainbow of colour’ – using a card stuck with double-sided tape, see if people can stick on different leaves and flowers to make a ‘rainbow’.
• Watch the birds eating food/do a birdwatch or butterfly count.
• Make lavender bags (no-sew is easiest – just scrunch fabric square into a pocket and tie with string or ribbon).
• Make smoothies, soup packs (to take away) or other simple recipes.
• Indoor seed planting or flower arranging.
What people said: “The shared activity is hugely beneficial to mental health, and it’s really important that gardening experience is recognised and put into practice. Mixing with people of all ages is really helpful.” (C, retired doctor and gardener)
“The school pupils worked hard to make areas of the garden accessible and more dementiafriendly. They were rewarded with tea breaks when they socialised with the older people, playing card games and other fun activities. In nicer weather the older folk joined in with seated planting, easy weeding and general gaffering!”
“Everyone benefits from this project. The older people enjoy having some fun and banter with the young ones, and getting out in the garden. The young folk enjoy time away from the pressures of school, learning from older people and they also gained some useful volunteering awards for their CVs. The community garden benefited as it became a place which could welcome people of all ages and abilities. They will soon be putting in raised beds and a composting toilet, making it even more accessible.”
“Many care homes and day centres have an outside growing space, often neglected. If you do what Garden Buddies did and speak to different people in the community, you are bound to find a way of making a garden everyone can enjoy.”