War zones & walled gardens

This feature appears in the October issue of Kitchen Garden magazine

Today marks ten years since the UK sent troops to Afghanistan in response to 9-11, and thousands of servicemen and women have been dispatched into war zones since.  Psychological damage is an unsurprising consequence of military action, but it’s perhaps an uncomfortable one.  It isn’t easy to admit you have a problem, especially of the mental health kind, if you’ve made a career out of being tough.

“I think we should recognise that people are having normal reactions to abnormal situations.  People have combat stress reactions and military experiences change people, that’s a fact” says Anna Baker Cresswell, founder of Gardening Leave – a charity that is using horticultural therapy to help veterans.

“My background is in horse racing, nothing to do with gardening.  But my mother was a great gardener and a Nightingale nurse.  I had a close friend who came back from Falklands and wasn’t the same the person.  That gnawed away at me.  When my mother died I thought it was time to do something.”

And do something she did.  Anna started studying Social and Therapeutic Horticulture and founded Gardening Leave two years later.  The project’s first garden opened at the Scottish Agricultural College in Ayrshire in 2007.  Fittingly, the college is home to the Scottish National Poppy Collection, which Gardening Leave veterans are restoring.  A second garden was set up in Erskine, and a third opened at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea this spring.

Gardening therapy isn’t a new idea, but it was new to the UK military.  “It got its big break in America after Vietnam” explains Anna.  “A lot of servicemen were coming back highly claustrophobic and some bright spark said they should treat them outside.  Horticultural therapy is used widely over there but Gardening Leave is the first project of its kind in the UK.”

“The military were very suspicious of me at first.  They couldn’t see how something so simple would work.  Because it’s non-clinical some people think it’s touchy-feely nonsense.  Actions speak louder than words and I just went for it.  People come round in the end.  One of our crusty SAS colonel trustees recently confessed it works.  If he gets it, then it means it’s working!” says Anna.

The newly acquired garden in Chelsea is a peaceful plot, tucked away behind high walls at the bottom of a gentle slope.  Crops include rhubarb, peas and courgettes.  A particularly cosy shed has a free flowing supply of tea and biscuits.

Proud of the project’s Scottish roots, Anna is pleased to have a presence in London, especially in grounds as salubrious as these.  The Royal Hospital is home to the Chelsea Pensioners and hosts the RHS Chelsea Flower Show every year.  It’s the perfect location for a military gardening project.

The walls are integral to the success of Gardening Leave and the safe atmosphere they endeavour to create.  Anna explains why.  “A lot of the guys that come to Gardening Leave suffer from ‘hyper-vigilance’, which means constantly looking over your shoulder and looking for snipers.”

“It’s a heightened state of awareness basically, where you’re living on your nerves.  To have an area with no hidden corners, where you can see the lay of the land, is very important.  Because, until the veterans start to relax, they won’t get any therapeutic benefit at all.”

“Gardening Leave is quite benign, it’s softer than other treatments.  It doesn’t require a veteran to say ‘I think I have a mental health problem’.  Veterans often lose contact with their military mates, they think everyone else is fine and that they should be fine too.  We help people realise they aren’t alone.”

“Some of the stuff they’ve seen is pretty grim, and they do lose their faith in humankind.  Gardening is a common language, you don’t have to worry about what people think or what to say – on that level it helps people to be themselves.  It can be quite subtle, but if we can give people some hope about the future then it’s been worthwhile.  It’s like we’re plugging people back into the cycle of life.”

“There’s a veteran who comes to Chelsea who had never grown anything before.  He’s recently sewn some sweet-peas and watched them grow.  It’s really extraordinary the effect it has had, it’s been quite profound.  It’s a change in his attitude most of all.  He was sceptical and detached when he first came.   He really gets it now and it’s almost disarmed him in a way.  He just likes being here – it doesn’t have to be any more than that.”

A typical day in the garden will always begin with a cuppa.  This is an important part of the session as it’s when the horticultural therapist has time to assess how a person is.  They could seem very tired, or anxious, or withdrawn.  Perhaps they’ve had a flashback and don’t want to be around people.  This assessment helps shape the rest of the day.

“It’s a real skill” says Anna.  “The therapist is very flexible.  They have tasks that need to get done but the veterans are more important than the work.  We’re not output driven in any way.  If we only prick out half a dozen lettuces in a day it doesn’t bother us at all.”

Does Anna have an opinion on the current wars that British troops are involved with?  “I’m political in the sense that I know I can push for change to make health provision better.  It’s not about me having an opinion about war.  Governments send military personnel to do the government’s work, it’s not up to me to question whether they should go or not.  It’s up to me to try and make a difference to what happens to them when they get back.”

What next for Gardening Leave?  “22,000 people leave the forces each year and some have transition difficulties.  I’m interested to see if we can help people at the beginning of their journey rather than when things have unravelled, and to help families understand somebody’s behaviour.  Since Achilles people have been having combat stress reactions, it’s not a disease.”

Find out more at www.gardeningleave.org

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