Catherine StewartHow to make a garden with very little budget but lots of healing spirit

GardenDrum regular readers will be familiar with Steven Wells, the aptly named nurse turned horticultural therapist and healing garden expert who has transformed 3 separate campuses for Austin Health in Melbourne. What he does on a tiny budget is both sobering and amazing.

Healing and Sensory Garden at the Royal Talbot Hospital
This hospital treats many patients with acquired brain injury, resulting in various levels of paralysis, as well as cognitive impairment and personality changes. It is a time of profound grief and change during which patients and also their family and friends must come to terms with a long healing journey and perhaps a radically different future.

Royal Talbot - before

Royal Talbot – before

Royal Talbot - after

Royal Talbot – after

Royal Talbot - before

Royal Talbot – before

The garden started small (which is how Steven is able to achieve great things), transforming an area of covered concrete paths and featureless grass sandwiched between unprepossessing 1960s buildings. Gradually winning over management to his plans, Steven has progressively expanded the garden, adding more secluded nooks while still keeping patient safety paramount. Several generous and grateful benefactors among ex patients and their families have funded extensions to the garden.

Royal Talbot - after

Royal Talbot – after

Royal Talbot - after

Royal Talbot – after

The garden is open and easy to navigate, with wide, smooth paths softened by foliage plants spilling in from adjacent garden beds such as Lomandra ‘Little Con’. Many plants are used for their strong textural and foliage colour contrasts and richly coloured walls provide backdrops for more lush green plants. Some of the preferred plants such as Aeonium and other thornless succulents are both cheap and quick to multiply for the garden, and also useful for horticultural therapy as the thick stems make them easy to manage and propagate for those with reduced fine motor skills.

I love the way that the succulents float over the top of the dwarf lomandra, which hides their stubby, thick stems.

Royal Talbot - after

Royal Talbot – after

The garden also incorporates many sensory experiences of touch and fragrance, as patients may have lost any one of their senses from brain injury. Aromatic herbs, felty leaves, soft or shiny smooth foliage and touchable sculptures are used throughout the garden. It also encourages all garden visitors to not just look at the garden but really interact with it.

Sensory plants are too often overlooked in general garden design but are a delight whether you are brain injured or lucky to be well and whole. I couldn’t resist running the asparagus fern through my fingers or feeling the smooth glass fish sculpture embedded in the top of one wall. Touching plants is mindfulness therapy of the highest order and adds to our understanding of natural beauty – it’s not always in the eye.

Soft and tactile asparagus fern

Soft and tactile asparagus fern

Royal Talbot - after

Royal Talbot – after

The healing garden at Royal Talbot

The healing garden at Royal Talbot

Propagation area at the Royal Talbot

Propagation area at the Royal Talbot

Clever design such as these angled and staggered gabion walls make a solid screen when viewed from one of the garden seating areas.

Gabion wall screens give the garden privacy

Gabion wall screens give the garden privacy

But disappear when viewed from the central part of the garden, allowing views in and also a comfortable breezeway.

Angled gabion walls allow views in and breezeway

Angled gabion walls allow views in and breezeway

The garden is very low in both maintenance and water use and everywhere there are signs of Steven’s make-do and recycle credo, showing that you can make a wonderful garden with very little budget but lots of healing spirit.

Full credit also to the management of Austin Health for having the enlightened attitude to support Steven’s horticultural therapy techniques and garden making, both at the Royal Talbot and the other two Austin Health hospitals.

A recycled scrounged fence of old tea tree sticks destined for firewood

A recycled scrounged fence of old tea tree sticks destined for firewood

I noticed some small parts of the garden that need repair – so if anyone can help out with some new bamboo/reed covering for the pergola, Steven would love to hear from you.

Reed-covered pergola in need of repair

Reed-covered pergola in need of repair

Steven will be presenting his ideas and experiences next week at the American Horticultural Therapy Association National Conference in Portland, Oregon. He has also been awarded a well-deserved Churchill Fellowship for overseas travel through which he can extend his understanding of healing gardens during 2016.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

13 thoughts on “How to make a garden with very little budget but lots of healing spirit

  1. diane on said:

    that is just a fantastic job steven. The enjoyment you have created is amazing. Maybe you should consider doing this more. Well done

  2. Bernie on said:

    Wow – feel so emotional reading this article. What a wonderful gift that keeps on giving.

    • You feel it when you’re in the garden too Bernie. Seeing the unobtrusive plaques here and there in the garden acknowledging gifts from several former patients and their families is very moving.

  3. Mandy McCosker on said:

    This is astonishing. After sending quite a bit of time in a hospital where there was only bricks & concrete, I understand how important these beautiful spaces are. I used to sneak out to the park over the road for respite which really annoyed my nurses and in hindsight was pretty dangerous. Now recovering at home my own garden has become pivotal to my psychological & physical rehabilitation. Every hospital needs a well designed green space. All power to Steven…keep it up!

    • I’ve read recently of several hospitals getting green spaces – which is good – but unfortunately not many of them look like gardens. One of the things I should have brought out more in my story is how this garden feels like a home garden, not a ‘designer space’ created on some landscape architect’s drawing board. The scale, the planting choices, the small sculptures dotted around the garden and furniture that a mere mortal could afford all say ‘home’ for patients for whom it often takes months before they see their own home again.

  4. At a time in history when ornamental gardening is often dismissed as indulgent, superficial and wasteful of precious resources, Steven humbly and quietly demonstrates that gardens can be places of deep connectedness and healing, and capable of resonating across the spectrum of our emotions, from tears at one end to laughter at the other.

    I know Steve won GA’s gardener-of-the-year a few years back, but we’ve gotta think up more prizes for him – lets make them up if we have to!

    Steven Wells, you’re a hero in so many ways…

  5. A Melbourne gardening friend took me there and I agree it’s inspiring – thanks for this profile Catherine – we need more Stevens and Austin Healths: imagine if every hospital, clinic, home for the elderly, child care centre had similar goals and ideas, let alone people willing to stump up and chip in. Move over, Topher Delaney! Great to be able to point to a few good examples locally. This one even has good garden and plant ideas to take home too. Bravo to all.

  6. I’m somewhat behind with my reading, but I’m so glad I didn’t miss this one. Doesn’t this warm the heart? My favourite gardens are almost always the ones made on a budget. Made with love rather than money. What an amazing contribution Steven is making to society.

  7. Brent Reid on said:

    A great garden by a champion guy!
    So glad to see some acknowledgment rolling in for all the hard yards Steven has done over the years.

  8. Zoé on said:

    What a joy to read this, and enjoy vicariously the healing balm of Steven’s Royal Talbot garden. Steven you need cloning all over the world!! Just imagine how transformative hospital healing would become! Love the article – how did you go in Portland?

    • steven on said:

      Thanks Zoe, I really appreciate your comments and encouragement. The conference in Portland went really well. I had the chance to share about the work I do and also to hear of the work others are doing in this field too. It was a valuable opportunity and it was great to see and hear of other hospitals that are incorporating therapeutic and healing gardens. It’s always good to be amongst others who share the same passion …. and to learn from them too.

  9. Having now spent time at the Labyrinth at the Repat and also enjoyed the beautiful garden outside the Wellness Centre at The Austin, it’s interesting to also see the work Steven is doing at The Royal Talbot.
    It must have been very reassuring to meet like-minded people at the conference in Oregon, and being able to visit other hospitals whilst traveling next year as a recipient of the Churchill Fellowship is a suitable acknowledgment of Steven’s efforts.
    Congratulations to The Austin for having the initiative to employ someone like Steven.

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