Our Blog

Our sensory gardens

By Nick Jones, Grounds Manager

A former sous chef and tree surgeon, grounds manager Nick has worked for Chestnut Tree House and its sister hospice, St Barnabas House, for six years.

Chestnut Tree House is surrounded by beautiful countryside. If it wasn’t for the background hum of the A27, you could be forgiven for thinking you were miles away from anywhere larger than the neighbouring farms.

It is a beautiful place, suffused with the calm that comes from watching grazing animals and being in green spaces. But sometimes the rural setting brings with it problems. In planting the new sensory garden – a sweeping route through block planting chosen for its scent and texture as well as beauty – I also had to make sure the plants weren’t too tempting for the rabbits and deer!

Image of the garden

Putting down roots

Gardens are always developing and changing, and we’ll continue to add colour as time goes on. Initially, we wanted to put in the structure. As we enter the garden, the first plant you see is cotinus, which is also known as smoke bush. It’s a beautiful purple colour, with masses of tiny fluffy flowers. Dogwood, or cornus, will give striking winter colour when the bright red stems are revealed.

The garden has a tiered design, and planting in blocks gives real visual impact. It also means that with the fragrant plants, you will really pick up the smells as you travel around the garden. I have tried to ensure seasonal interest all year round. For example, Sarcococca confusa is very fragrant when it flowers in January and February, while Viburnum tinus is another shrub which has a beautiful scent when it flowers from February to April. We’ve planted more to the existing syringa and prunus, which are wonderful in the spring. What we are looking for is different textures and contrasts, so I have put in a couple of spiky plants, Mahonia japonica, but they obviously need to be well away from the path and out of children’s reach. Bees absolutely love them, and they’re a good value plant because they have dramatic yellow clusters of flowers in winter and early spring followed by purple berries in the autumn.

Flowers at the House

Hands-on fun

At about the halfway point of the sensory garden is a wooden shelter with seating and a huge blackboard. There are portholes dotted around, with coloured Perspex for the children and young people to peep through – when you look through the red one it feels like you’re on Mars! This is an area that I hope will prove to be very tactile and immersive. We’ve planted three raised beds, all at different heights. The first, quite low to the ground, is planted with camomile. This forms a low-growing, beautifully scented cushion which we hope the children will enjoy sitting, rolling or lying on.

We have other planters at different heights, with plenty of room for wheelchairs – some of the chairs are quite big, so we need to give them plenty of room. We’ve chosen plants that are fun to touch and smell – rosemary, lavender, grasses and witch hazel. We worked with the Activities Team to ensure everything was accessible to everyone, including the new water feature. We had difficulty finding one that was low enough, because the most important thing for us was that the children were able to touch the water and play with it, whether they were in a wheelchair or on their feet. This one looks like a globe or a giant bubble, and one of the nice things about it is the soothing sound of the water – like rain falling.

Sound and movement are also important elements of the garden design. There are interactive musical instruments dotted around the garden but the plants themselves make their own music. We have lots of grasses, especially in the prairie planting section, which undulate in the breeze and rustle as the wind moves through them.

As you walk on through the garden, you come to a newly planted avenue of birch trees which, as they get bigger, will create the illusion of walking through a tunnel.

Flowers at the House

Overcoming challenges

There are five of us in the gardening team, working across the two hospice gardens. We also have regular volunteers who have been able to pick up some of the slack as we work on this large project. We have also had help from corporate groups including HSBC, who donated just under £40,000 to the sensory garden project, and Southern Water, who gave £15,000.

It is only now, as we prepare for the garden’s official opening, that I can step back and reflect on how proud I am of the team. There have been numerous challenges, including very wet weather during the excavation stage and a dry period while we were planting. Now, it is looking wonderful and of course it will continue to develop. The main thing, though, is that the children and families enjoy it. That makes everything we do worthwhile.

Find out more

Alongside the sensory garden we also have a woodland walk, accessible paths and meadow garden. Gardener, Ollie, tells us all about the rest of the hospice grounds.

Welcome to our gardens!