Wellbeing secrets from the Chelsea flower show

·7 min read

As one of the biggest and most influential garden shows on the planet, the RHS Chelsea flower show is a barometer of shifting trends within horticulture. It is no surprise, then, that many gardens at next week’s show – the first spring Chelsea since Covid – explores the theme of mental health. The positive effects of gardening on our wellbeing have long been recognised – as early as the sixth century, Benedictine monks viewed horticulture as grounding the mind – but in the past few years, this connection has come into sharper focus.

Across the anxious lockdown months of 2020, it is estimated that three million new gardeners took to the trowel; healthcare-associated gardens like Maggie’s and Horatio’s are multiplying, while the NHS has recognised the restorative power of “green social prescribing” initiatives, connecting patients with hands-on gardening opportunities.

I’ve lost count of gardening memoirs with a healing-through-horticulture narrative, but Sue Stuart-Smith’s 2020 bestseller, The Well Gardened Mind, confirms the science. Examining its miraculous effect on things like endorphin, serotonin and dopamine levels, and drawing on experiences as a psychotherapy clinician, Stuart-Smith explains how gardening helps alleviate depression and anxiety and boosts self-esteem.

This year, some of Chelsea’s most prominent show gardens are engaging with the subject of mental health, including that of multiple “Best in Show” winner Andy Sturgeon. I asked a handful of designers collaborating with mental health charities about their gardens, and what we can do to create sanctuary within our own.

“I was keen to do something meaningful,” says Sturgeon of his bold yet naturalistic show garden, which is intended as a sanctuary to facilitate conversation. “We were in the middle of the second lockdown, and I was acutely aware of the importance of people’s health. It seemed a good opportunity to put [mental health] on a platform in quite a big way at Chelsea.”

When you look at the garden you can see these walls all have relationships, almost as if they’re having a conversation

Andy Sturgeon, designer

Supported by Project Giving Back (PGB), a philanthropic scheme raising UK charity profiles by offering fully funded show gardens at Chelsea, Sturgeon has created the garden for the mental health advice and support charity Mind. The garden’s centrepiece is a series of curved walls made from textured clay render. “They enclose a seating area, crowd together in an almost uncomfortable way in the heart of the garden, then become lower and more open further down,” says Sturgeon. They represent some of the different aspects of mental health issues people experience, he says: “You might [experience] turmoil, or times where things are more calm and controlled.” The walls themselves are invitingly tactile. “‘Together’ is one of Mind’s brand values, and when you look at the garden you can see these walls all have relationships, almost as if they’re having a conversation,” says Sturgeon.

His planting evokes a woodland edge, emerging from a stand of birch. “There’s a special quality of light and atmosphere you get in a birch forest – this is my kind of happy place.” In contrast with this area of dappled light and restful greens, the sunnier foreground exhibits more vibrant planting, where bright California poppy, bishop’s flower (Ammi spp.) and purple verbascums join autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis) in casting shadows against the render. “The idea of different characters of planting puts rhythm into the design; if too much is going on everywhere it’s never restful, because your eye is darting around and your brain is active all the time.”

Sturgeon’s walls also provides refuge. “The idea of enclosure is important,” he says. “You don’t want your neighbours all looking down on you, you want to be enclosed and protected, whether that’s by curved walls or hedges, or just through planting.”

One side is subdued greens and blues, denoting depression and anxiety. The little sparks of red represent anger

Pollyanna Wilkinson, counsellor-turned-designer

As part of the RHS’s collaboration with Project Giving Back, a brand-new category, All About Plants, is being launched within the show’s Great Pavilion this year, highlighting the power of plants. Debuting at Chelsea, counsellor-turned-garden designer Pollyanna Wilkinson has teamed up with charity Mothers for Mothers for her All About Plants garden, which supports women experiencing postnatal depression. Her design is a play on colour and mood, illustrating the transition from despair to hope.

“One side is subdued greens and blues denoting depression and anxiety,” says Wilkinson. “Depression can sometimes be interpreted as anger turned inwards, so I’ve got little sparks of red [the crimson Dicentra formosa ‘Bacchanal’] representing flares of anger, which you can get as a new mum.”

Then as you move through the garden, Wilkinson explains, the colours become more exuberant and joyful, representing the journey from illness to wellness. Here, the palette is “candy shop colours”, including plants like the peach-pink Iris “Big Squeeze” and the salmony Iris “Wondrous”; the apricot rose “The Lark Ascending”, and tall, lime-green angelica. “I haven’t been mentally unwell as a mother, but I had times where I felt extremely isolated. I found solace in the garden: at my darkest points I took myself outside – I couldn’t feel any stronger about the therapeutic benefits.”

Wilkinson suggests thinking beyond colour when creating a garden for the mind, however. “It’s important to consider all the senses. I particularly love catmints and geranium leaves, which give off this gorgeous musty smell. And then bringing in anything with seed heads, which invite pollinators and birds.” Nature grounds you in the “now”, she explains: “Being able to see the solitary work of a little bee brings the mind to the present.”

For his All About Plants contribution, Charlie Hawkes has ventured into the woods. His garden for the Wilderness Foundation – which helps people struggling with social challenges, grief and loss through positive experiences in wild nature – is inspired by forest environments. Visitors will follow a charred timber walkway below dense green planting: leafy disporums, polygonatums, aromatic phlox, pink Thalictrum “Black Stockings” and multi-stemmed Japanese zelkova trees.

“Immersion is key,” says Hawkes. “I can’t recreate the ‘scale’ of wilderness at Chelsea, but I can dial up immersion and try to capture the setting in which the charity does their work.” After the show, Hawkes’s garden will be relocated to Henry Maynard Primary School in east London, where, he hopes, the intention of the garden will live on.

Seeds of serenity: five ways to up the wellbeing ante in your garden

Add colour
Lush greens are known to be calming, but floral colour has an uplifting effect. For Wilkinson, pastel-toned flowers are the most joyful, including peonies, Baptisia “Pink Trussella” and the light orange Verbascum “Clementine”.

Grow your own herbs
Herbs are multifaceted: their ornamental, aromatic, culinary and often “robust” nature appeal to several senses. The aroma of lavender is naturally calming, while according to Sue Stuart-Smith, going out to gather produce – picking mint or chamomile for tea, for example – can stimulate an energising dopamine release.

Plant for wildlife
Pollinator-friendly plants, such as echinacea and rosemary, can be mentally nourishing, says designer Pollyanna Wilkinson. “One of my greatest joys is going out in the morning with a cup of tea and watching the bees – it brings [me] to the present.”

Simplify
Separate areas of distinct character and atmosphere within the garden, for example, certain colour schemes or planting mixes, to avoid a “busyness” that can be distracting and uneasy on the eye.

Just start …
It is the “doing” of gardening that benefits us most: designer Charlie Hawkes suggests planting something – anything – to begin with. “People worry too much about their garden having to look the finished product from the start, but then freeze in the headlights when faced with 10,000 plants to choose from online. Just start; in 10 years you’ll have ended up in a very different place, but that’s all part of it.”

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