Sunday, 1 September 2013

A Sanctuary for Soldiers

Gardening Leave is a very special sort of garden, one of several run by this charity. Located in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, it’s a very different, tranquil and quiet space from the hustle and bustle of the well-known Chelsea Flower Show. Founded in Ayrshire six years ago, the charity specialises in horticultural therapy for ex-military personnel with mental health problems.

On arrival it can be a bit tricky finding your way to the garden, faced with the railings and gates which surround the Royal Hospital; but, if you look out for the brightly coloured elephant, you’ll know that your destination is close by.

Look out for the brightly coloured elephant.
 Two years ago this garden started life and it’s still being developed and improved. They hope to have new raised beds installed in the autumn so that soldiers in wheelchairs can benefit even more from the experience they offer. The clients at present are survivors from the wars in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia and the first Iraq war. It can take a decade or more for the signs of post-war mental illness to manifest themselves and support for the garden in terms of facilities and staff training needs to be continued so it is in a position to provide a haven in the future for survivors of the Afghanistan and recent Iraq conflicts. Miracle-Gro supply compost and funding for the project.

A tiny shed provides a snug and cosy space for the garden’s HQ, and it looks out onto beds of mainly vegetables and fruit. There is a gardening club for Chelsea Pensioners and the charity wants to actively encourage the Chelsea community to come in and see the garden. Salad veg are grown for the café attached to the new Margaret Thatcher Infirmary and cut flowers for the Chapel and State Apartments.

Quirky and imaginative touches are found at every turn. On the ground there are crushed seashells instead of gravel, one of the windows in the greenhouse is made of stained glass, gutters are used for planting – every bit of this small plot goes to good use.

Gutters are used for planting.
The list of produce is long – apricots, apples, sweetcorn, broad beans, kale, squash, strawberries, blackberries, leeks, onions, garlic, peas, lettuce and radishes. Fundraising is a constant issue and the Birds Country Club have made twee and appealing bird boxes for sale, which might even make it to Chelsea next year. Terracotta flowerpots containing seeds, straw and compost were lined up for sale when I visited – visitors and clients can paint the flowerpots before they are bought. There are also plants and delicious biscuits for sale when the garden opens for Open Garden Squares weekend.
The Birds Country Club have made twee and appealing bird boxes for sale.
As well as the busy growing space, there is a nearby private garden for veterans, serving and ex-service personnel to use, where Ceanothus and Choisya ternata bloom merrily away. It also provides a space for quiet contemplation. Many of the veterans who come to Gardening Leave suffer from hyper-vigilance and the work of the charity and the skill of the horticultural therapists help to alleviate their ailments. Here, whilst flowers and veg are grown beautifully, the emphasis is on the therapy. There are plans, as well as for new flower beds, to develop their services to include dementia gardening.

This project ranks high amongst worthy causes to support and opens your eyes to the post-traumatic stress and its effects suffered by soldiers and service personnel. The horticulture therapists are an inspiration to be seriously admired.