The importance of care home gardens
From our work and research evidence, we know that the opportunity to connect with the natural world is paramount to the health and wellbeing of care home residents. Contact with nature reduces stress, and mental fatigue, promotes blood flow, and bolsters mood. It is something that we subconsciously seek out on a daily basis.
A well-designed care home garden delivers these benefits. It encourages residents to be more active, to find renewed purpose in outdoor hobbies, and gain mental uplift from daily contact with the natural world. For residents with limited mobility and few opportunities to venture into their wider community, the garden may offer their sole connection with the outside world.
Care home gardens also bring important benefits to staff and families, providing respite and shared interests and a topic of conversation with residents.
Making care home gardens
Our approach to care home garden design comes from many years of implementing designs for developers and organisations, both new build and renovations. We have learnt a lot from working with care homes and finding out what residents and staff value. Introducing nature-based activities in dementia care homes and other residential settings has also proved a great way of bringing nature into day to day lives.
We have identified the following principles for maximising the potential of a care home garden.
Easy access is essential
The easier the garden is to get around, the more likely it is to be used. Anything that acts as even a small obstacle may deter people from making an effort to go out. Therefore this isn't just about making it technical possible for someone to go out, it is about making it inviting too.
Doorways are an essential detail. Step-free access and sufficient widths ensure that they are usable by wheelchairs, mobility scooters and walking frames. Movable beds should also be considered as we hear more and more about people in palliative care benefiting enormously from access to gardens. Doors that link directly from spaces like communal lounges increase the likelihood that people will feel able to spend time in the garden.
Access within the garden relies on wide, firm, non-slip paths, and a choice of route lengths so that residents can enjoy the landscape as they choose. Routes can be punctuated by features that serve as mini-destinations, in part to motivate people to be active and in part to add to interest and range of activities in the gardens. Plenty of seating, shelter, handrails and handholds throughout will provide important support.
Access also means residents being able to reach things, for example to dip their hands in a water feature, feel a soft grass head, smell the scent of a rose flower, or fill a bird feeder.
Nearby nature and bringing the outdoors in
Opportunities to engage with nature from inside the building benefits everyone, especially residents who find it difficult to venture outdoors. It reminds people of the changing seasons, sparks new conversations and fosters a connection with the wider world.
Views from windows are important, positioning plants and wildlife interest, such a bird tables, where they can be comfortably viewed. This obviously relies on the building design as well as the landscape.
Windowboxes and planters that are accessible from a window, or just outside a door, can be enough to spark an interest in some small-scale gardening.
Creating interest in the areas nearest the building will bring the gardens into the day to day lives of residents who can’t venture far. It can also bring seasonal interest close by during colder times of the year, for example plants with winter flowers or berries or early spring blossom.
The areas just outside the door are likely to be used most often so this is a good place to create attractive garden areas. These will ideally serve different uses, from sitting outside on a sunny day, having coffee or a meal outside, or gardening or taking stroll through the gardens.
Locating winter scent (eg winter honeysuckle) nearby will ensure the scent can be enjoyed by people indoors.
Seats, shelter and shade
Seats and tables are essential, along with shelter and shade. Some residents will only be able to go outdoors at all if there is a seat within close range. Seats along paths provide rest for people with limited stamina. Seats also give residents the chance to relax and spend time outdoors on their own or with others.
Back rests are important to support people when seated, and arm rests to assist the action of getting up and sitting down. Low seats are difficult to get up from, and there should be space adjacent for wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
As residents spend much of their time at home, the priority is to create a garden that is accessible and interesting throughout the whole year. This relies in large part on the planting design, and choosing displays for the different seasons, but interest can also come from art work and seasonal events and activities.
Celebrations can inspire residents to use the garden at different times of the year, and are a good way of linking with the wider community. For example, a Christmas tree can provide a focus for residents, staff, friends and family to decorate each year. Outdoor sockets, lights and decorations, can inspire residents and staff to think of other inventive ways to enliven the landscape.
Activities, events and celebrations
Providing space for gatherings, garden parties, film nights etc. will also encourage wider social use and an outdoor power supply will make it easier to connect lights, projectors etc. A space for an outdoor fire, or outdoor cooking area, will support barbecues and sharing food.
A garden can be used to invite the community in too and even used by them for community events. Residents can engage more with the outside world and feel part of their community, and people in the community can learn more about the care home and get more involved.
Other outdoor activities, such as DIY and craft work, need space and storage. Sheds are useful for both. This makes it easy to use things and put them away again, and this makes it more likely the garden will be used more widely. Sheds are also useful ‘tool’s in themselves; often being of more interest to male residents than more craft-orientated activities they can provide places for fixing things or just tinkering. Craft work can be supported by growing relevant plant material – such as basket willow or flowers for drying – and can be extended to activities indoors.
An outdoor tap is essential if residents are going to garden, or do other activities that need water, even if it’s just to rinse their hands. Carrying heavy water containers from indoors makes it more likely that people won’t bother, or can’t without someone else’s help.
Choosing plants for a care home garden
An ideal planting style evokes the feel of a domestic garden, with lots of detail and seasonal change. Many plants that are sensory-rich are attractive to people and wildlife and will create a rich tapestry of year-round interest.
Plantings also need to be low-cost to maintain. This relies on choosing plants that are easy to grow and long-lived.
Choosing plants is an ideal opportunity to engage residents and staff in design plans. People can highlight ones that are familiar to them from their childhood or their own family garden, or ones that are special to them for other reasons. Textures, aromas, movement, taste and colour are what we grow up with in gardens and should be reflected in residential settings too.
New care home garden design
If you are investing in a new design it is a good idea to get professional help as you can waste money and get disappointing results by making poor choices. It is also an excellent opportunity to get residents involved, inviting them to identify their favourites and help research possibilities. Local garden centres can be a useful source of inspiration and are excellent for seeing what is looking good at different times of year.