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Blog Post

This Week’s guest Blogger is Julie Dunn

A Garden to Sleep in

During the Spring of 2017 I had a prolonged period off work in order to recover from a hysterectomy. The procedure was planned and I was determined to use the ‘spare’ time productively. Planning a design for a show garden seemed like a good idea, it would be therapeutic for me and involve garden design and plants without having to leave the armchair. I had started a garden design business 8 years earlier (a career change from cancer research) but found it hard to juggle a busy job, bringing up daughters aged 6 and 8 and seeing potential garden design clients at weekends. I never expected my show garden design to be accepted let alone win a silver medal at RHS Tatton Park 2018! Fast forward to the garden, which combined my passion for ‘science/wellbeing’ and ‘gardens/design’: the garden (named ‘Sleep Well’) focussed on the importance of sleep and green spaces to a person’s mental health.

It’s big ask to make a garden that will serve as a form of therapy. In effect that’s what my brief was to myself and I thought how great it would be to be commissioned to make therapeutic gardens for anyone. With Lifestyle Medicine being a hot topic, I decided to focus on one the four pillars of Lifestyle Medicine (EAT, SLEEP, MOVE, RELAX)- the show garden would be about sleep. Furthermore, to add theatre for the show, my garden would have an actual double bed in it! I imagined a GP prescribing: “What you need madam is a private garden with a bed with comforting quilt, and space for yoga on some grass”. You might laugh but Lifestyle Medicine is at the forefront of current clinical practice. In 2018 the Royal College of General Practitioners ran a course for GPs to teach them the principles of Lifestyle Medicine and how to deliver it to the NHS.

Sleep Well’ Garden illustration for the application to design a show garden for RHS Tatton Park 2018

To begin, I considered how to make it possible to relax enough to fall asleep in the garden. I would need to feel warm, safe (from the Betterware man/whoever else rings the front doorbell, the PPI person on the phone, the sun, the rain); pleasant smells are also on the list. To unwind requires slowing down, being ‘in the moment’ and mindful of one’s surroundings (which must therefore be calming too). So, I need softness, wafting forms, faint rustling sound and maybe some water. I was getting sleepy already. To add to this, I wanted the sky to be part of the garden to remind me that I am but a small speck in a vast universe and nothing REALLY matters that much. I would feel part of the garden and I would slow to its pace.

The reflective pool and other plants including tumbling Echinacea ‘Milkshake’, soft Santolina, fragrant Salvia purpurescens (purple sage) and Agastache ‘Black Adder’, airy Verbena bonariensis and tall Eupatorium in the background behind the bed

The planting would help create the mood, being comforting, calming, dreamlike and scented. I chose a limited colour palette to reflect the mood, and a variety of leaf/flower shapes, textures and heights. I commissioned a bespoke quilt to dress the bed, designed by textile artist Janet Haigh, the colours of which reflected the planting. Plants were chosen for three main height groups: tall, medium and low. The tall planting should disguise the fencing and over time (in theory of course- this couldn’t happen during show week!) make the bed look like it had grown from the garden with the plants. Medium and low planting would create ‘cushion’ shapes as well as allow for viewing the garden from the boundaries. Plants of one type will be placed in ‘drifts’ or small groups, next to drifts of complementary types. For example, amongst the ‘Santolina cushions’ would be the ‘airy Sanguisorba ’ providing movement; similarly, loose airy grasses would be used in the tall sections to complement Salvia Amistad. Verbena officinalis planted in the gravel will create a delicious lemony aroma, and Santolinas and Sage will complement this. The colour palette is limited by design to be calming but there is a ‘pop’ of colour from Sanguisorba ‘Tanna’ in the low beds, and Sanguisorba officinalis in the medium beds.

Calming planting enclosing the fully dressed inviting bed. The bespoke quilt was designed and made by textile artist Janet Haigh using Kaffe Fassett fabrics chosen to echo the planting including airy Verbena bonariensis, the rustling grasses Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’, and fragrant Salvia ‘Amistad’..

The ‘Sleep Well’ garden turned out to have multiple therapeutic benefits. Firstly, for me and my recuperation, secondly for the visitors to the show garden (especially the ones who tried the bed out!), thirdly for the service users at the autism centre where I donated and rebuilt the garden (Wirral Autism Together, Bromborough Pool garden Centre) www.autismtogether.co.uk, and lastly for anyone who listened to my podcast entitled ‘How sleep and green space can help your mental health’ by Dr Julie Dunn.

www.mentalhealth.org.uk › podcasts-and-videos

“Oh, and you never know, the light-hearted blog I published whilst designing and building the ‘Sleep Well’ garden might also be helping other stressed out show garden creators!


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