With a passion for plants and a long career in nursing, it made sense for Steven Wells to combine both as a nurse, horticultural therapist and ‘gardens & grounds project officer’ at Austin Health.
Mr Wells’ gardens, designed for healing and rehabilitation, have soothed and delighted patients, staff and visitors alike, and in 2012 led to him winning the prestigious Gardening Australia’s Gardener of the Year Award.
Horticultural therapy might at first seem a radical idea but is actually an old concept, harking back to the Victorian era and beyond, when the healing influence of nature was more commonly recognised through the creation of hospital gardens. The idea has been rekindled in Mr Wells’ role as gardens and grounds project officer, which is focused on creating and developing gardens to improve the therapeutic hospital environment of Austin Health. The project was established in 2010 and has developed 18 garden projects to date, funded from donations, bequests and non-operational funds.
At Austin Health’s Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre, Mr Wells’ horticultural therapy involves working with patients with acquired brain injuries, using gardening activities like potting and propagation to help patients with their rehabilitation goals. Patients might need to practise using fine motor skills, for example, or work on communication or planning. Horticultural therapy is one of a suite of creative therapies offered at Austin Health, along with music and arts therapy.
The Friends’ Sensory Garden at the Royal Talbot, funded by the Friends of Austin Health, draws upon the texture and scents of plants to evoke conversations, trigger memories and soothe patients in recovery from traumatic accidents. Plants here include scented pelargoniums, curry herb, peppermint and oregano, and Lamb’s Ear with its soft leaves. One patient, Mr Wells said, was confined to the hospital ward, so kept a leaf of Lamb’s Ear on his pillow because stroking it reminded him of patting his dog.
The sensory garden was created in 2005, designed around a golden ash tree which used to be the only living thing on a bare patch of dirt.
Patients, staff and visitors can gather on the seats under the golden ash boughs and in a corner, there for children to discover, Mr Wells has placed a huge nest with large ‘eggs’ inside.
Within a hospital environment, the gardens also provide a welcoming space for children to run around and play without their parents worrying too much about their impact on others.
One patient chose to get married under the golden ash tree in the Friends’ Sensory Garden; another held a recommitment ceremony there.
‘There was an older lady whose friend brought in a lace tablecloth and afternoon tea with tea and scones and a fine teapot and I thought “That’s fantastic because that’s something you might do at home.”
In another corner of the sensory garden is a partially enclosed space with a moptop robinia plant providing shade and dappled light through its canopy, designed for private or reflective time-out.
‘Patients have often said to me that for them it’s their sanity to come into the gardens and relax, where birds are singing, there’s the normal smells and sights of a garden and it’s just been an opportunity for them to take a break, stop, relax and gather their thoughts,’ Mr Wells said.
The plants in Mr Wells’ gardens at Austin Health sites have been specifically chosen for suitability to the environment, to minimise ongoing maintenance.
Creating gardens at healthcare facilities is highly achievable, Mr Wells said, with well-documented benefits for health and wellbeing. The therapeutic gardens Mr Wells has created at the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre are maintained by him and Alan Armitage, an ex-patient who has volunteered regularly since his slow recovery from a serious head injury caused by a fall.
‘Alan came to us for rehab and at that stage wasn’t aware of his surroundings because he had post-traumatic amnesia,’ Mr Wells said.
‘At the time, the gardens weren’t that significant for him but for his wife and adult children it was great to have this space in a time of uncertainty and stress, not knowing what was going to happen and how he was going to recover. It was their bit of sanctuary for them.’