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Edna's Retreat at Benenden Hospital

PUBLISHED: 11:14 22 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013



All gardens are a feast for the senses, but for those with a disability, they can be even more special. We visit Edna's Retreat at Benenden Hospital...

Sensory gardening, where planting is designed to accentuate sight, smell and sound and to be accessible to the less mobile, has really taken off in the world of horticulture, with one scooping a gold medal at last year's Chelsea Flower Show as well as being voted best in show and the people's choice.
Sensory gardens can be created in a quiet corner at home, but there is increasing interest from the healthcare sector in creating this style of garden to help patients relax and recuperate.
A fine example of this has recently been completed in at Benenden Hospital, near Cranbrook. In a sheltered spot overlooking a rolling landscape dotted with grazing sheep and Wealden farmhouses, the garden was designed by the hospital's head gardener, Carol Head, who spent last winter researching the best plants for it and working on the design.
Called Edna's Retreat, the garden became a reality thanks to the generosity of former patient Edna Winter, who raised the money to create the garden by selling her home-made jams and chutneys.
A great supporter of the hospital and its work, she wanted a garden where less mobile and visually
impaired patients and visitors could relax in stimulating and safe surroundings. This summer, Edna
saw the results of her hard work when she formally opened the garden with BBC's Andy Garland.
In order to create a successful sensory garden, careful thought has to be given to its layout as well as to the plants chosen. "Sensory gardens are usually reasonably compact, so great care has to be taken in the design of the hard landscaping as well as the planting," says Carol.
"One of the most important things is to create a space where there are no steep gradients, the paths are
wide enough for a wheelchair and the seating is arranged so that the person in a wheelchair can sit alongside their able-bodied friends.
"Surfaces should be level and non-slip, and paths meander to create a journey. The location is important, too, preferably in a quiet area when visitors can hear bird song, not thundering traffic."
The site at Benenden Hospital is stunning, close to the main hospital buildings but with far-reaching views across the Kentish landscape. The garden is in a sheltered spot, backed by mature trees and a beech hedge.
Brick pathways skirt a series of raised flower beds and generous seating areas lead through an archway of lilac and white wisteria to further seating, sheltered by an established beech hedge.
The sensory garden borders a wide area of lawn adjacent to a wildflower area on one side and a wisteria-covered pergola with a paved terrace, planted containers and, on the other, a grand Lutyens seat. It also features a knot garden planted in green and golden box in the form of the Cross of Lorraine, the hospital's emblem.
The meticulous attention to planting is what makes this garden stand out, ensuring it bursts with scents, sounds, textures and colours throughout the seasons.
"I planned the garden to provide year-round interest, with plants to appeal to the five senses - touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing," says Carol.
"Visually impaired people need vibrant, zingy colours, so to create an impact I included lime green Nicotiana, companion planted with bright red Dahlias together with vivid orange Erysimum (wallflowers) which are companion planted with large headed purple Alliums 'Giganteum'.
"Texture is important, too, so there are soft leaves, such as Stachys (known as Lambs' Ears), light, feathery fennel, smooth leaves, spongy mosses, trees with interesting bark and textured pots. But when you come to select your plants, please remember that they will be investigated by inquisitive hands, so don't include delicate specimens that don't like too much touching!"
There are so many scented plants to choose from, some producing heady aromas in the full sun, others delicate perfume as evening falls and others that are a delight all day long. In the sensory garden at Benenden Carol's careful planting means that there are scented plants all year round. There are viburnums and rhododendrons in spring, heady lavenders, tobacco plants, roses and herbs in summer, buddleias and Elaeagnus 'Limelight' in autumn and Sarcococca (Christmas box) and Lonicera 'Fragrantisima' (winter honeysuckle) in the winter.
At the centre of the garden is a group of five mature birch trees whose leaves rustle gently in the breeze. In the winter, their silver-white peeling bark adds interest and texture. Other sounds come from whispering ornamental grasses, rustling beech leaves and, in the autumn, a mass of rattling seedpods. Carol is planning to add a bubble pool in the garden to provide the soothing sound of water.
A sunny spot in the raised garden is given over to herbs - mint, thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, coriander, parsley and dill - and Carol doesn't mind visitors picking the odd sprig or two. After all, as she says, picking just makes the plants stronger and more productive. And they taste good too.
Since its opening earlier this summer the sensory garden at Benenden Hospital has become an oasis not just for patients and visitors, but for the staff, too. "After a hard day on the wards, many of the staff like to come down to the garden to sit and relax either during their breaks or just before going home," said Carol.
"Edna has given the hospital the most marvellous garden which is giving pleasure to many, many people, and we are so grateful to her.;

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