Anyone who enjoys gardening knows it involves a lot of initial work and a considerable amount of patience – but lasting enjoyment when nature eventually delivers.

At Burnside Court retirement housing scheme in Carlisle, we’ve just officially opened our new sensory garden, and it’s been a delight to watch our tenants’ happiness grow just as our roses have bloomed.

We’ve come a long way – from the germ of an idea last year, through considerable garden works during the winter and spring, to a completely transformed garden the tenants – and staff love.

When I came to Burnside Court as scheme manager in May 2013, we’d already been successful in being named one of five retirement properties in Cumbria (another is our Monkwray Court scheme in Whitehaven) to win a share of £227,400 Department of Health funding to create a sensory garden.

We are an extra care scheme and were awarded £34,800 to spend on transforming our garden. At that time the garden here was mostly grass, a nice space but lacking points of interest and character. As in many gardens, a narrow path ran down the centre of the lawn, not actually going anywhere, and when tenants used the outside space, they didn’t really venture far from the main building.

The first step on this journey of transformation was for me to attend monthly research group meetings held at the different housing schemes around the county. At these meetings we talked about how we were all progressing, shared ideas and experiences and worked together to produce a series of evaluation questionnaires to collate colleague, customers’ and families’ views. The protocol for Extra Care Housing was also discussed in great depth to ensure that the works carried out would meet appropriate standards.

Unique sensory garden for Anchor’s Carlisle retirement property

Information and evidence was collated around how to minimise the risks of slips, trips and falls, along with photographs of the garden and customer case studies to show how the new garden would make a difference to people’s wellbeing. I had never done anything like this before, so it was very exciting and new to me.

The work in the garden really began in November 2013. Our garden architect Bruce Walker visited the scheme to discuss ideas and plans were drawn. Tenants were invited to idea-sharing afternoons, which involved lots of cake and tea, and brought back an array of fond memories about tending to gardens at their previous homes.

Sensory garden updates were displayed regularly on the tenant noticeboard ensuring everyone know how the garden was coming along and what was next to come. This seemed to create quite a buzz. Tenants had chosen plants that reminded them happy memories and it was very important to me that these were incorporated in the garden design.

I was certainly apprehensive about having the garden work over the winter, but we were lucky and had a dry run (unusual for Cumbria!) to do the drainage work and put the new turf down, with the plants the last to go in.

There has been the odd challenge. My husband agreed to help me select two doves – a male and a female – to come and live permanently at Burnside Court. Visiting the dove breeder had to be done just as the sun was going down and the birds were returning home to roost. For six weeks, known as their ‘homing period’, we really looked after those doves, feeding them, watering them, mucking them out and bonding with them. When the day came to release them we were all really excited. They spent a little time wandering around the garden, before flying off never to return!

The tenants are still keen to have resident doves, so we will try again soon, but perhaps with younger birds next time! For now, we have a resident woodpecker who comes and goes, and an array of other birds who love to be fed by the tenants…on time…every morning!

Now complete, I’m very proud to say that our sensory garden really does appeal to all the senses, which particularly benefits people living with dementia. Gone is the plain lawn. We now have a special water feature which lights up at night and can be touched. We also have three walkways, one of which goes through a pergola of aromatic plants and another that has been created as a woodland walk with a different texture underfoot. Scattered through the garden are wind chimes as well as wooden posts with local artefacts that can be touched and aim to remind people of local industries. We have an orchard area of plum, pear and apple trees as well as herb garden growing rosemary, marjoram, mint, lavender and thyme. One tenant recalled enjoying delicious beef Sunday dinners when smelling the fresh rosemary for the first time! All of these areas provide our tenants with something different and are inspiring their green-fingers so much that a raised vegetable patch is now in the planning.

Last week we had our official unveiling with the Deputy Mayor and Mayoress of Carlisle, tenants, along with their families and friends attended and the scheme was opened to people from the community.

For me, personally, being involved in all of the meetings, working with external companies and the Department of Health has really boosted my confidence. It was hard work at times, but looking around our garden now I know it was all worth it. I often come into work early now so I can sit outside, have my breakfast, and take it all in. It is so great to see so many of our tenants sitting on the new benches and walking around the new outside spaces, including some who previously did not venture out much at all. The garden has really brought the people living here at Burnside Court together and added to the feeling of being a real community. It is a really happy place – that’s flower power!

Carla Bately is the Scheme Manager at Burnside Court.

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