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Grow your front garden to combat loneliness, says RHS

Helena Horton
A sketch of the design of the Friendship Garden

Your front garden is more important than your back garden, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has said, as it argues it can combat loneliness.

The theme of this year's Chelsea Flower Show is loneliness and mental health, and the society has commissioned Zoe Ball to design their Friendship Garden along with horticulturalist Jo Thompson.

This garden, which will be a focal point of the show, demonstrates how front gardens can be used. Ms Thompson argues that gardening at the front of your house rather than the back forces you into conversations with neighbours and creates a friendlier community.

She said: "Being in the front of your garden gives you an excuse to meet people, we need to celebrate the front space.

"This space can be a social hub and help you to connect with your neighbours."

The Friendship Garden will also demonstrate colourful hanging baskets, she said, so everyone can feel included, adding: "If we haven't got a garden, we have space for window boxes and plant pots."

Her concept is inspired by the apartments of the cities of Southern Europe, where homes have colourful balconies filled with flowers.

The gardener explained that in these narrow alleyways, "you hear conversations from window to window shouted across the street."

Gardener Jo Thompson and Zoe Ball discussing plans for the Friendship Garden

This will be demonstrated in her Chelsea exhibition, which is modeled on an urban street, which has a "courtyard area" which is a welcoming space where people can get to know their neighbours and have community events.

It will have a riot of colour; as well as roses, poppies and communal herbs and vegetables, there will be attractive honey-hued trees.

Zoe Ball, the BBC presenter, will be getting her hands dirty planting some of the flowers. She said: “It’s a total honour and treat to be involved with RHS Chelsea on such a special project. I love the idea of a community creating green spaces. The perfect plot for meeting other folk whilst sharing plants and tips. I’m also thrilled to be working with the NHS to understand how gardening and growing is a positive step for our mental health. After meeting with the ace Jo Thompson, I can’t wait to visit the nurseries to help choose the plants and then, get digging!”

Professor Tim Kendall, the National Clinical Director for Mental Health at the NHS, welcomed the RHS scheme to combat loneliness.

He said: "A garden is one of those things that can give people purpose and hope.

"Loneliness is a reality for all too many people. Some people can go days, weeks and months without talking to friends and family. People suffer alone, and this can lead to drug misuse, alcoholism, eating disorders, heart disease, strokes and vascular dementia.

"It can cause as much excess mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day."

Guy Barker, the Chief Horticulturalist at the RHS, agreed that gardening can help mental health and end loneliness.

He explained: "It's a chance to meet new people, but nurturing plants can also make you less lonely and release you from your troubles for a little while.

"People can also join their local gardening club or allotment, as well as sharing plants and seeds with neighbours."

A friendlier way to get green-fingered? Credit: Emma Swann / Alamy Stock Photo

It comes as Chelsea this year aims to be the most environmentally-friendly ever, with gardens judged on criteria such as how many pollinator-friendly species they include for the first time. The floral design competition will be judged on how the beauty of the natural world is showcased, whether their work is zero-waste and showing the environmental benefits of British blooms.

The RHS is also beginning to ban single-use plastics at its shows, with a complete ban coming into place in 2021, and gardens will examine how to adapt to a changing climate, with features including carbon capture, harnessing rainwater and providing food and shelter for wildlife.

Sue Biggs, the Director General of the RHS, said at the Greening Great Britain Conference on Monday: "If anyone thought this was just about pretty flowers, the door is there.

"I cannot remember a time when planet health was so important."