The ‘Creative Gardening Project’ for older people at The Geffrye, Museum and Home

Are you looking for an inspiring project to engage with the elderly from your local community?

The Geffrye Museum is close to completing their two year Creative Gardening Project which has been funded by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in parallel with the BGCI’s Communities in Nature project. As part of the Creative Gardening Project older residents from Hackney and Tower Hamlets, London participated in weekly activities themed around the museum gardens over a period of 12 months. The activities included a combination of planting, growing fruit and vegetables, cooking the fresh produce but also arts and crafts. During the development period of the project an Older People’s Advisory Panel had been convened to advise on all aspects of delivery, access to the gardens has been improved and a training programme for staff covered topics from first aid to the use of social and therapeutic horticulture to support older people.

The museum is set in elegant 18th century almshouses which include an award-winning walled herb garden and a series of period gardens all situated in the heart of the vibrant London Borough of Hackney.

The museum is set in elegant 18th century almshouses which include a walled herb garden and a series of period gardens all situated in the heart of the vibrant London Borough of Hackney. Image credit: Heather Cowper

Julia and Asimina from BGCI Education, and Louisa from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation went to visit the Geffrye Museum to experience one of the last sessions with the participants and learn from the staff how they manage to get the continuous commitment and enthusiasm of the older community members who attended ‘religiously’ the 36 sessions in a year’s time. Here are some of Asimina’s recollections from the session:

‘When we arrived at the museum around 10.30 we found all the participants with their carers gathered around their meeting room table having a cup of tea and biscuits and chatting with each other. Mathew, the project officer started the session by asking the participants what they would like to do next time which would be the last session of the project. Mathew wrote down the list of the suggested activities. Drinking gin and whisky was the first suggestion which brought a smile to everybody’s face! Gradually a few ideas populated Mathew’s list: Finish off craft activities from previous sessions, share food, watch a slide show with images from the project’s activities, and sing Christmas carols accompanied with music played by some of the carers. Mathew went on to present parts of the museum, which illustrate how homes have been decorated for Christmas from the Tudor period till nowadays highlighting the use of plants, mainly evergreen which made the spaces look more festive. Participants then created their own decoration to take back home: a table arrangement using evergreens and flowers. The museum gardeners talked through how to create the decoration. The meeting room was buzzing with all the participants who despite their physical difficulties, the effect of aging, were very enthusiastic in creating their Christmas decorations, talking about their lives and helping each other. That was an excellent activity. It works really well running activities which give people to take something back home that will remind them their experience. Most importantly the activity suited the mixed abilities group. Some of the arrangements looked like they were the work of a skillful florist and all the participants gave it a go to create their own style decoration. All the crafts were carefully put in bags and the participants prepared to leave when the buses arrived. Everybody greeted each other with the promise to meet at the museum next week.’

Authentic festive decorations at the Geffrye museum’s period rooms, giving visitors an evocative and captivating insight into how Christmas has been celebrated in English middle-class homes over the past 400 years.

That was only a taste of the Creative Gardening Project; Mathew Larkinson, the project officer and Alison Lightbown, Head of Learning and Education shared with BGCI their successes and challenges of running a community project with the elderly. Here are some of the interesting aspects of the project which brought in mind many of the issues that the Communities in Nature Partners had to address in their social inclusion work:

Recruitment of the project participants

Mathew organized outreach sessions over a period of three months before the beginning of the project activity. He run in total 13 sessions in the community to present the idea of the project and showcase some of the activities the participants will join in. Around 200 people expressed their interest and through a process of one-to-one communication 25 people agreed to be part of the project. Additional freelance staff joined the project to offer care support for the people who had severe physical difficulties. Alison explained that they decided not to exclude older people who would need intensive support from carers as that would contradict the project’s objectives.

Communication with the participants

Comparing with the Communities in Nature projects where the gardens worked in Partnership with one organization who was in communication with the participants, the Geffrey museum adopted a different approach; they established direct communication with each participant individually rather than having a mediator organization. That approach seemed to be very effective but it also meant that communication with each participant had to be ongoing and stable. Every week the project officer would call each participant to see how they were, whether they were able to attend the weekly session and ensure that transport was organized with them.


Transport was another big issue to consider. Different transport companies were hired to pick up each participant from their own home or the care home and bring them to the museum. Ensuring that everybody would arrive on time at the museum to begin the session was a task in itself. It is of critical importance to arrange and subsidize the participants’ transport to your site rather than rely on community group leaders and Partner organisations. This will require staff time but it will guarantee the smooth running of the project and it will save you lots of stress and unnecessary worry.


During the first sessions at the museum it became apparent that the available part of the gardens for the activities was not a suitable site due to the difficult access for people in wheelchairs. The project meeting room was a level down from the garden area and getting the older people from one space to the other safely took too much of the session time. The staff were quick to respond. Raised beds were put in the area outside the meeting room which was soon full of edible growing plants. Raised beds are excellent resources for gardening activities for people with physical difficulties.

Creative Gardening Project - Raised beds for growing edible plants

Creative Gardening Project – Raised beds for growing edible plants

A raised bed can make an attractive garden feature

A raised bed can make an attractive garden feature

Plant labels

Beautifully decorated labels for the raised beds

Participants’ input in the project activities

The Communities in Nature project has shown that it is difficult to get feedback from the elderly on activities they would prefer doing in a project. The usual response would be: ‘anything you organize will be fine my dear’. Mathew explained that when he first run sessions in the community to recruit participants he presented many pictures with ideas of activities and asked from people to express their preference. It is a good way to ask people’s opinion if you present them either with images or with a simple written list of how the sessions may look like. This will act as a stepping stone for the people to start commenting and adding their ideas.


One of the project’s most obvious success has been engaging with the same participants (25 people in total) on a weekly basis in a year’s time. The participation was voluntary and people’s commitment to show up every week is an indication of how much they valued the project. Different kinds of positive impact has been reported; Tom, age 89 when he first started coming to the sessions didn’t say much. For the last 10 years he had rarely been out of the care home he is living in. For Tom the social aspect of the project was very important. He gradually began to open up and today he likes to instigate discussions himself and is very eager to communicate. According to his fellow participants he is an opera buff. Moreover many participants have improved their motor skills by doing the hands on activities, which are tailored according to different level of skills and abilities. Some of the activities have brought forward the talents of some of the elderly people. John, member of the community group suggested leading partly one of the sessions and presenting his watering system for hanging baskets. That again was also an example of how people’s confidence increased during the project. These were only few of the many benefits of the Creative Gardening Project for the elderly. An evaluation is on the way to collect comprehensive evidence of the project’s impact.

Last word…

According to a recent major study published by the UN the growing numbers of the elderly present significant challenges to welfare, pension and health care systems. Museums, botanic gardens and other sites are presented with a great opportunity to offer activities such as the Creative Gardening project, which can contribute to the elderly wellbeing. One of the future plans of the project include training staff from care homes to develop their capacity to run gardening activities at the care homes which will benefit long term their residents many of whom currently are spend most of their time confined indoors.

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