No stranger to the beneficial effects gardening and horticultural therapy can have, Sharon Bartle has an extensive background in delivering these benefits to the community. Before starting her current position at Lionmouth Rural Centre, Sharon worked with Gateshead Council on a number of rewarding projects for Thrive. Working with ex-servicemen and women suffering from PTSD, she helped to install the Remembrance Garden at Saltwell Park; helped schoolchildren with learning difficulties gain their Level One in Horticulture; and developed several projects in and around Newcastle that worked with those suffering from dementia.
Although difficult and emotionally draining at times, the work was hugely rewarding, and Sharon continues to help vulnerable members of the community reap the benefits of horticultural therapy in her current role at Lionmouth. ‘We’re a community interest company, and basically we’re a daycare provider service working with adults with learning difficulties, as well as those struggling with, or recovering from, mental health issues,’ explains Sharon. ‘We’re open to the public too, as we produce a lot of plants, fruit and vegetables as a by-product of what we do. They’re all for sale, and we also have some lovely nature walks here on our seven-acre site.’
Although the team at Lionmouth have worked hard to make the nature walks passable, they didn’t chop away too much – meaning the site retains a delightful wildness. ‘We need to remain sympathetic to where we are and maintain that semi-wildness because we want wildlife to thrive here – you can’t create a sterile environment as they won’t be happy with that,’ reasons Sharon. ‘We’ve got areas that we do keep clipped, but then we merge into the wilder areas. We’ve increased the diversity of planting in the grounds, we keep bees and we get so much wildlife here – toads, frogs, kingfishers, heron, egrets, deer, and even otters!’
Of course, it takes quite a bit of effort to maintain such a large site, not to mention the tearoom and nursery, but all of it is managed in-house by the staff, volunteers and those who use Lionmouth’s services. ‘We’ve got between 15 and 20 daily users, and I’d say we’re outside for 10 months of the year,’ says Sharon. ‘We’ve got a rolling list of jobs to do, so we’re always on the go, but in the winter months we keep active by doing a bit of woodwork.
‘Usually we use things that the river or wind brings us – we’re like the Wombles! We tend to get flooding quite often around this area, so we get a lot of debris. Anything the river gives us, we reuse and recycle, so everything has a purpose. If a tree comes down we get the chainsaw out and repurpose it – we make reindeer at Christmas, chopping boards, platters, bug boxes. We also do a lot of maintenance work over the winter months; we recently refurbished our nursery with benches handmade from recycled wood.’
But as spring edges closer, the folk at Lionmouth will be back outside. ‘The flavour of the next month or so will be a bit of seed-sowing, setting up our cut flower area, dividing and repotting the perennials for our nursery, and preparing the tunnels for the growing year where we currently grow over 150 tomato plants,’ Sharon explains.
But what effect does all of this activity and interaction with nature have on the adults who use Lionmouth’s services? ‘Horticultural therapy is such an adaptable form of therapy and that’s being recognised more and more now,’ says Sharon. ‘There’s ample research, with scientific evidence on the restorative power of interacting with nature and the mood-enhancing effects of just being outside in the daylight.
‘Just being outside with the colour green all around is known to have a calming effect, and the mental engagement and concentration of doing this kind of work helps takes your mind away from stress you may be experiencing. And of course, physical activity in itself releases serotonin, which is a mood-enhancer, whilst being out in the garden is scientifically proven to lower blood pressure and improve self-esteem.’
The work they do at Lionmouth allows the people who use it to feel empowered in a safe, non-threatening environment. ‘Social care can be quite a sterile and restrictive environment,’ explains Sharon. ‘That can’t be helped sometimes, but it doesn’t always have to be like that. When some of our members first started here they couldn’t believe they were allowed to wander around on their own or do a task by themselves, but that’s what we encourage to build their confidence.’
The benefits of working outside manifest very quickly. Every morning while taking a register, Sharon and the team take the opportunity to assess the mood of their members and suggest activities they think will be beneficial to them on that day. ‘But they will always be offered a choice, and that in itself is a great gift,’ she says. ‘I can guarantee, nine and a half times out of 10, even if they come in feeling not themselves in the morning, they’ll always go home with a smile on their face.’
And the positive effects of physical work in the garden, or even just being outside, is not restricted by age. ‘Our youngest guy is 15, and he’s got day release from school with us once a week,’ explains Sharon. ‘Then our oldest is nearly 70. Normally people retire at a set age, but within the care system you’re encouraged to keep going while you still can, because what else would you be doing?’
Some of the techniques used within horticultural therapy are things you might have experienced yourself without even realising it. ‘One term we use is “fascination”,’ says Sharon. ‘That’s where there’s almost a time warp in your mind because you’ve been lost in thought or something’s caught your eye. For instance, the guys might be working in the garden and there’ll be a couple of blackbirds or robins just turning over some leaves and it holds your gaze for a moment. For that moment, you’re lost in it and it’s taken you away from everything, including what might be worrying you.
‘Another technique is called grounding and that’s used to alleviate the symptoms of disassociation. It works by focusing the mind outwards on the external world, rather than inward on yourself – so you’re working outside and are concentrating on being in the here and now, which takes your mind off stresses and anxieties.’
The power of being outside and connecting with nature is undeniable, and the staff and volunteers see the restorative effects of it on a daily basis. ‘Horticultural therapy can be had by all – whether you have to take the opportunities to them, like I did with dementia sufferers through Thrive, or whether it’s a case of them coming somewhere like Lionmouth, where we have around seven acres for activities and opportunities for them to enjoy the benefits of the outdoors.’