A day in the life of a Head Gardener at Horatio’s Garden

One of our chosen charities for 2021 is the fantastic Horatio’s Garden. Horatio’s Garden is a national charity creating and nurturing beautiful gardens in NHS spinal injury centres to support the mental health, wellbeing and rehabilitation of those affected by spinal injury.

Earlier this month we caught up with Sallie Sillars, Head gardener and horticultural therapist at Horatio’s Garden, Scotland to find out about her job and her gardening inspiration.

Sallie Sillars

How long have you been Head Gardener at Horatio’s Garden and what did you do before?

My role as Head Gardener for Horatio’s Garden in Scotland began back in March 2016 when the garden was in the process of being built, which means that I have had the honour of being an integral part of its evolution from its creation to the amazing garden it is today. Looking back at the early garden photographs I never realised that such a dramatic and positive change was going to happen in such a brief period. The clever design skills of garden designer James Alexander Sinclair whose vision of creating a beautiful accessible space began as soon as the garden was opened as its magic immediately began to entice the spinal patients, their visitors, and the staff outside to explore and continue to do so today.

As the Head Gardener I use all my experience gleaned from being a textile designer, running a community café, community garden, a small time spent as a maintenance and nursery gardener to horticultural therapist and fundraiser for a veteran’s charity. Every single one of these jobs has been perfect to set me up in this varied job where no two days are ever the same. But it was the childhood experience of gardening from an early age with grandparents and parents that inspired me to eventually seek out something within horticulture as a career. My lightbulb moment came as I began to witness the innate connection of people to gardens and plants whilst actively gardening to improve their health and wellbeing, whether they realised it at the time or not. I witnessed first-hand the power gardening has to promote physical and mental wellbeing and horticultural therapy became my focus and eventually my career.

What is your average day like?

My average day at Horatio’s Garden, if there is one, begins with checking, stocking, and setting up the day for volunteers to support the garden and set up the activities for patients. These activities are planned around a seasonal calendar that reconnects patients to ‘life’ in general, build a skill or develop a hobby and allow them to develop rehabilitation skills alongside NHS therapies. We instil a can-do attitude with patience and gentle subtle prompting as moods and physical ability develop or not, as in some cases. Flexibility of task and adapting to the need is paramount but no more so than creating room for happiness and laughter to create a positive experience and outcome.

Sallie with Hozelock donation
Scotland garden

Where does your gardening inspiration come from?

My inspiration comes from creative gardeners, those that push the boundaries to create beautiful, interesting, and skilful gardens with sustainability and environmental awareness. These gardens often inspire new activity ideas or planting themes for my ever growing ‘wish list.’ Ideas come from visiting an Open Garden to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, but sometimes it is the long-experienced gardener that often has time honed wisdom and tips to share who you can meet in your own neighbourhood that inspire me the most. No two gardeners are the same we are a diverse lot which adds to the appeal but also shows that there is no right way, just many routes to the same point. There is nothing better than sharing a like-minded chat about how your tomatoes are coming on or why something just is not doing quite what it should!

What's your favourite part of the job?

The favourite part of my job, apart from sowing and growing, taking cutting and I suppose anything horticultural is nurturing people using garden related activities and creating better environments for them to enjoy, be that through a single plant or a whole garden. Horatio’s Garden truly is an amazing place, patients never cease to amaze me with their inner strength and capacity to heal, a lesson for everyone overcoming challenges however big they seem at the time. Gardening really is as easy as starting with one pot, a houseplant or seeds and taking it from there. If you have a little outdoor space then you can begin an adventure, but I recommend you start with what you like first, and then develop your skill from there. Seek out experts, from local garden clubs to neighbours and there will be no looking back but, beware, once bitten by the gardening bug, its ridiculously hard to stop! When you begin asking for trowels and spades as gifts, you know you have reached the point of no return. All I can say is welcome to the club!

Woodland in Autumn

About the Author

Horatio’s Garden is a national charity creating and nurturing beautiful gardens in NHS spinal injury centres to support the mental health, wellbeing and rehabilitation of those affected by spinal injury. Leading landscape designers create the gardens and each one is cared for by dedicated volunteers, led by a Head Gardener. The charity aims to bring a Horatio’s Garden to all 11 spinal injury centres in the UK. We hope you enjoyed reading through our gardening tips.