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.
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.
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.
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.
Clever design such as these angled and staggered gabion walls make a solid screen when viewed from one of the garden seating areas.
But disappear when viewed from the central part of the garden, allowing views in and also a comfortable 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.
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.
Steven will be presenting his ideas and experiences 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.