How gardening is helping post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Posted by Michael Wale

Combat Stress, the Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society seeks to ‘develop the scope of therapeutic activity being offered to veterans,’ and it was this statement that prompted Anna Baker Cresswell to set up Gardening Leave a charity that uses horticulture to aid ex-servicemen with combat-related mental health problems

Gardening Leave

She first became aware of the all too often bottled up emotions and feelings of ex-servicemen when a friend returned from the Falklands War. She recalls: “He came back a different person, and four years later he took his life”. It was something that has always stayed with her, and when her mother, who lived in Alnwick, Northumberland, contracted Parkinson’s disease Anna sold her London business to look after her.

“When she died I decided to take another direction in my life, and had this idea of treating ex-servicemen’s mental troubles through horticulture. I approached the Scottish Agriculture college near Ayr, because they were next door to Hollybush House, one of three Combat Stress centres where ex-servicemen can spend six weeks a year. The other two are in Surrey and Shropshire."

“I went to see the people at Hollybush with my idea and they said that as I was dealing with the army, I would need a piece of paper, in other words a qualification. I had taken philosophy and history of art at UCL in London years ago, and now I found this course at Coventry university in September 2005. They had a course on Social and Therapeutic Horticulture in conjunction with Thrive. Thrive is the society for social and therapeutic horticulture. They have a garden in Battersea Park and their HQ is near Reading. The course at Coventry was quite testing because the course was for health care professionals who spoke a different language. Half the time I did not understand what they were talking about. I condensed the work into a year and came away with a Professional Development Diploma.”

She returned to Ayrshire, where the Scottish Agricultural College provided her with a walled garden, a ‘must’ in this sort of treatment.

“I feel quite strongly about walled gardens because they are tranquil. And servicemen today need a clear view, and to feel protected. They no longer are fighting another army in uniform as in the past, and this has had quite an effect upon them. They call it a heightened sense of awareness They will tell you they never let it down. In a walled garden they can learn to relax, which is often why they cannot recover from what they are suffering from - post traumatic stress disorder. It isn’t an illness, but they can suffer from panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares.”

The walled garden is on a terracing at the agricultural college. One part of it is Scotland’s national poppy collection, which the ex-servicemen are now restoring, and the other part is a vegetable garden producing the usual collection of leeks, potatoes, greens and beans, which are then taken back and cooked by the chef at Hollybush House. This, of course, gives the ex-servicemen even more satisfaction.

Garden Leave continues its work all the year round. The site in Ayrshire was a two year pilot scheme, which was originally funded only to Spring 2009, however the project's success has see it's work and focus expanded.

“When we came to the end of August Hollybush House presumed we would be shutting up for the winter," Anna continues. "Not so. I think it very important to keep the work going on all the year round, so we have been allowed access to a huge 84 metre long B listed area of glasshouses known as the Stovehouse. It will be repaired by our ex-sevicemen who have many skills which they learnt in the Army. It will be fulfilling for them, and they like working together because they have a common bond.”

Anna Baker Cresswell is already looking to the future and has visited and spoken with the head of the Chelsea Hospital, better known as the home of the Chelsea pensioners, but who do much other work with ex-servicemen besides. They have the spare ground and the obligatory secluded areas that would suit the work of Gardening Leave.

With the determination of Anna I am sure that the London plan will happen. Her work has been backed so far by both the Wates and Pears Foundations. But she always needs help, and you can contact her at

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