Teenagers are helping to create the therapeutic features of a garden in Berkshire. Jonathan Croall visits Trunkwell Park to report on the digging cure. Six years ago this small corner of an 180-acre estate was bare and empty. Today it's not just a colourful and variegated garden, but also the largest demonstration centre in the UK for horticultural therapy.
Trunkwell Park, in the village of Beech Hill in Berkshire, is a place where people of all ages and abilities with a variety of special needs come and get their hands dirty in order to experience the therapeutic effect of gardening.
Some have long-term mental health problems, other may have physical disabilities or learning difficulties. But the garden also caters for people, whether individuals or groups, who may need advice about gardening because they are frail or elderly.
"People are able to do things for themselves here, often things they thought they couldn't do," says project manager Chris Martin. "We try to be as flexible as possible, and make the whole place accessible."
That accessibility is immediately obvious. Set around an old stable-block, a cottage and a group of outbuildings, the garden has an abundance of raised flower beds, small individual vegetable plots, narrow strips of fruit bushes, and much else - all with plenty of space around them and intersected by tar-macked pathways, for easy use by those in wheelchairs.
The place has a relaxed, sprawling, informal air about it, as befits a working garden in which many elements are still being developed, and in which people with different levels of skill can work both for their own fulfilment and to help create a place that is both functional and beautiful.
Trunkwell owes its existence to a leading paediatrician at Bart's Hospital, Geoffrey Udall, who bequeathed the estate, his family home, to Horticultural Therapy in 1989. Thanks to his generosity, the groups that come here can get involved in potting, planting, digging, weeding, and many other gardening activities that can help to improve the quality of their lives.
Horticultural therapy is a relatively new idea in Britain, but one that is growing in popularity. In the early 1970s it was already being used within psychiatric hospitals and other institutions, but with the advent of community care the practice soon spread beyond institutional walls.
The charity HT, which runs Trunkwell Park and four other demonstration gardens - in Battersea Park, Syon Park in Brentford, Islington, and Ryton near Coventry - was set up in 1978 by Chris Underhill, a young horticulturist who was inspired by working with mentally handicapped people and by his experiences of voluntary service work in Africa.
It now offers training, carries out research, and runs a comprehensive information service. It also gives advice on tools, equipment and techniques for easier ways to garden to anyone who requires it, but especially people with disabilities or those who have become ill or infirm.
"Social workers find that horticultural therapy is so much more beneficial to their clients than just sitting in a day centre," says Val George, editor of HT's magazine Growth Point. "People aren't isolated, it's a way of being normal and relaxed, and because it's not boring it's good for rehabilitation."
Children from special schools are among the groups that visit HT's various demonstration gardens. Today a dozen or so pupils with mild learning difficulties from Brookfields Special School in Reading are spending time at Trunkwell.
Regular visitors to the garden, the teenagers have been involved in the creation of a nature trail which runs, through a profusion of long grasses, poppies and other wild flowers, round the garden's perimeter. On one side of the path the children have built a wooden "tapping rail", for the benefit of visually impaired people.
The trail is one of several elements designed to create a meditative atmosphere. Others include a small butterfly garden, packed with buddleia and other scented flowers; and a pond covered in water lilies and edged by weeping willows. A bird-watching hide on one side was also built with the help of Brookfield and other pupils.
"They're mostly town children, so they're seeing many things they don't see normally," says their teacher Andy Hulce. "It helps them to work together as a team, and they very much like creating something that other people will enjoy." Their visits also help with class-based work on food production, nature conservation and communication.
Trunkwell, like other HT centres, relies on volunteers to work in the garden, and with visiting groups. The garden is changing all the time, so teachers thinking of bringing a school group are encouraged to make a preliminary visit, to talk to the staff, and check on the classroom and other facilities.
Trunkwell Park, Beech Hill, Reading, Berkshire RG7 2AT. Tel 01734 884844 The next National Gardens Scheme open day is Sunday, September 1, 2-6pm. Plants for sale. Teas. Admission Pounds 1. Children free. Proceeds to National Gardens Scheme and Horticultural Therapy. Horticultural Therapy is based at Goulds Ground, Vallis Way, Frome, Somerset BA11 3DW Tel. 01373 464782.
Gardens of England and Wales Open for Charity Pounds 3.50 and Scotland's Gardens Scheme Pounds 2.50 available from bookshops