Horticultural therapy; healing the scars of war

by Lucy Purdy

Horticultural therapist Zisky working with veterans on raised beds header

“Being depressed is a bit like holding your hands in front of your face and not seeing the world properly. Asking someone to plant autumn bulbs to come up in the spring is the equivalent of moving their hands a little further away. With a small, humble bulb, you’re asking them to think about the future.”

Gesturing to the thriving beds and pots of the Royal Hospital Chelsea garden in central London, Heather Budge-Reid, chief executive of horticultural therapy charity Gardening Leave, jokes that she needs the highest maintenance gardens possible. Unlike for most growers, the more jobs to be done the better. Whether it’s sowing, digging or pruning, each task is an opportunity to help a veteran heal the mental scars of war.

Gardening Leave helps the estimated 20 per cent of veterans who carry a mental wound – damage which needs healing as urgently as any physical injury. They help veterans of all ages, but usually between 37 and 42, who have returned from conflicts in places such as Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia and Iraq. With symptoms ranging from flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares and hypervigilance to insomnia, depression and social isolation, gardening may seem an unlikely therapy. But since 2007, Gardening Leave has been using the rhythms, rewards and connectedness in growing to help veterans’ transition to civilian life.

Their gardens take a unique form of horticultural therapy as a design brief. They feature high raised beds which back on to each other – well-suited to those with back or knee problems – but also so veterans can become used to having someone behind them in a safe context. A poorly-placed bush or shed can present a huge challenge to a soldier who has seen enemy snipers emerging from behind buildings and even the clattering of tin dustbin lids can trigger paralysing memories of combat.

Above all, the gardens are designed for production. “This is growing with meaning,” confirms Budge-Reid. The gardens grow vegetables for homeless charities or local food banks, and so their urban locations are crucial in emphasising a sense of social connectedness.


Veterans with their wheelbarrow gardens at Gardening Leave Chelsea

“People join the army for all sorts of reasons, but included in these is the idea that they’re serving society,” she explains. “When they come out of the army they lose their uniform and status, sometimes their partners, friends and even homes too. Everything changes, and so to rekindle that sense of giving is hugely important.”

Budge-Reid and her team of skilled horticultural therapists, assisted by volunteer members of the public, operate five sites, two in London, (one at the Royal Hospital Chelsea and an outreach project in the shadow of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs in East Acton), and three in Scotland. When veterans first come to the charity, they can be almost entirely isolated socially. Even setting foot outside of their flat or house is a huge step.

“These are people who have essentially become withdrawn from society,” Budge-Reid tells me.

“They stay indoors with the blinds drawn, they rarely go out. They shop at night. They often tell me that if Tesco wasn’t open 24 hours, they’d starve. Gardening gradually draws them back into society.”

Key to Gardening Leave’s success is that each veteran is helped to find his or her way; plans are individually tailored and goal-orientated, and this isn’t necessarily about producing expert horticulturalists. Tasks as small as crafting a bird box – topped with a sedum roof and placed on a garden wall – painting a fence or clearing leaves from a bed can trigger a breakthrough.

Says Budge-Reid, “For someone to take on the responsibility of watering a bed is a stake in the future, a symbol of hope. It indicates that they’re on the road to recovery.”

And as well as the therapy itself, veterans often find solace in socialising with other veterans, gleaning support from those with similar experiences. Simply being in a green and calm space is its own therapy too. Getting outside and breathing in fresh air can improve sleep for veterans who are struggling with insomnia, and the meditative nature of gardening can simply provide a much-needed respite from dark and difficult thoughts and memories.

“Some of the rhythmic tasks: pricking out, potting up, pruning, where your world focuses down and basically you forget everything, are particularly useful,” says Budge-Reid.

“For somebody who’s getting permanent flashbacks, triggered by the likes of screaming children or cars zooming by, to gain a moment where they haven’t got to face that is huge. I’ve had guys look up and say: ‘Wow, I didn’t think about the Falklands for how long? Two minutes – that was amazing.’ These processes relieve them of that weight of thought. Next, we’ll try three or four minutes. They sound like tiny steps but they’re huge for that man’s life.”

Tom, a veteran of the British Army, who has worked with Gardening Leave and veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, said, “An awful lot of credit must go to the band of brothers that is the other veterans. The support we give each other in our darkest moments is phenomenal.”

Tom’s experience with Gardening Leave proved pivotal – changing the direction of his life.

“Over the last few years, I went from being a very insular man, who had enclosed himself in a one-bedroom flat, who had alienated his family and friends and who had been married and divorced twice and was quite anti-social. Going to both Combat Stress and Gardening Leave changed all that. Gradually, I learnt to live with my illness and the associated problems that go with it, to the extent that I have now applied and won a place on a residential horticulture course.”

Some plants have a particular symbolism for Gardening Leave. Honesty, with its bright flowers and translucent seed heads, links to the charity’s Honesty Pledge in which members of the public pledge to be honest about the mental health challenges veterans face. The Victoria Cross poppy is iconic to many servicemen and women. Gardening Leave sells these seeds to help fund their work, and the gentle shaking of seeds from the poppy heads is another activity which the veterans take on as part of their therapy.

And then there is tea – the tea plant represents comradeship and sanctuary. For many ex-servicemen and women, time ‘for a brew’ is synonymous with a moment of being safe amid the stress and chaos of conflict.

“Sometimes, their hands shake so much that they can’t drink in public,” says Budge-Reid. Gesturing to the sun-dappled pond at the end of the Royal Chelsea project, she adds, “We have guys who will start with us and take their cup down the far end of the garden on their own. As the weeks and months go by, they’ll slowly move up and eventually, they’ll be outside the shed with the others, sharing and joking. The most rewarding thing about my job is exactly that – the sound of laughter reverberating around the garden.”

Veterans’ Stories

Craig – British Army

Craig served in the army for 20 years. When he first came to Gardening Leave, Craig was drinking to excess, withdrawn to the point of being reclusive and often remained at home for days with the curtains closed. He had reached such a low ebb that he was avoiding much of life and was completely isolated from his family.

After working with Gardening Leave, Craig decided to use his new knowledge at home. He was living in an old cottage on a farm, which had a huge garden of mostly grass. Through hard work and determination, Craig completely transformed the patch into a beautifully laid out garden. He created two potato and vegetable beds, a rhubarb patch, raised beds, two large polytunnels, a decked area, a pond filled with plants, three living willow features and fruit trees. Craig is almost self-sufficient in vegetables, pickles his own produce and makes chutneys and jams. He also grows Victoria Poppies and saves the seeds, sending them back to Gardening Leave to help raise money for the charity.

Two years ago, the farmer from whom Craig rents his cottage approached him with a proposition. He was so impressed by what Craig had achieved that he wanted him to work alongside his son on the farm, growing produce to be sold in the farm shop. In return, Craig’s rent would be paid from the work done. He now works two days a week helping to look after three large poly-tunnels and an acre of land. Craig is responsible for deciding what to grow and still gets ideas and seeds from Gardening Leave.

Mark – Royal Marines

Mark served in the Royal Marines, a veteran of Gulf 1 and various other deployments, but now lived in temporary accommodation. When he first came to Gardening Leave he was prone to feeling angry and found it difficult to engage with civilians. He felt that nobody understood him. A man who feels happiest in the outdoors, he felt very frustrated being ‘cooped up’ in a city and frequently self-medicated with alcohol to the point of being aggressive and unreasonable to those around him. He found himself simply unable to move his life forwards.

At Gardening Leave, Mark found himself among like-minded people with military experience. He began to feel understood, which helped him relax. He now engages well with Gardening Leave volunteers who show him patience, understanding and are on hand to lend a friendly ear. Mark is planning to travel to the Midlands to see his father – his first visit for 14 years. He says that Gardening Leave has given him self-confidence, self-respect and “a kick up the backside” to get on with his life.

Sam – Royal Armoured Corps

Sam is a 37-year-old veteran who served with the Royal Armoured Corps. Fresh out of training, he was deployed in the Falklands then served subsequent tours in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan. After experiencing such prolonged periods of high stress, Sam suffered post traumatic stress disorder to a significant degree.

During his first year with Gardening Leave, Sam showed commitment, reliability and skill. Despite the turmoil in his private life, he threw himself into a wide range of gardening and construction tasks.

Not only has Sam enthused other veterans to give Gardening Leave a go, he says the service has held the key to his sanity, proving a sanctuary and a lifeline. He takes home produce he has grown in the garden, supplementing an otherwise limited diet with fresh healthy fruit and vegetables. Recently, he asked his horticultural therapist if he could choose some plants to take home with him to nurture on his window sill. He had been thinking of asking for a couple of months, but only recently felt ready and able to do so. In this way, Sam is now taking a little bit of Gardening Leave home with him.

Some names have been changed to protect the veterans’ anonymity 

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