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Designing the Thrive Secret Garden (near Reading) by Mark Rendell





The story of the garden goes back more than two and a half years to October 2004. I had been recommended to Nicola Carruthers, Chief Executive at Thrive, via the Hampshire Gardens Trust for whom I had done design work on therapeutic and community gardens for a number of years.

I was invited to a meeting at Thrive in November 2004 to discuss ways of supporting the design and construction of a therapeutic garden next to the main building.  A further meeting on site on a bitterly cold day in January 2005 with all the therapists present resulted in a clear design brief.

The Design Brief

The brief focused on supporting the needs of two contrasting garden user groups: older people with memory loss problems and young people with attention deficit disorders. I had studied garden design for Alzheimer homes in the US during the 1990s and was able to bring this experience to part of the brief. Nicola also recommended some studies and general therapeutic garden design principles produced by a range of organisations including the University of Stirling.

Responding to the space

My initial response to the site is shown in the Concept Diagram (0388/1). As you can see, I felt that there was a natural boundary around the space which formed a box shape of approximately 14 square metres and linked strongly with the training room area and kitchen of the main building. This divided the whole site into two distinct areas: an enclosed area, roughly square in shape linking with the main building, and a more open and less formal area near the old oak tree.

There’s a process called ‘gridding out’ in garden design practice which involves extending lines from key points within the space (usually from the access points or building). This resulted in several axes extending from the building and also across the garden area. Where these lines crossed each other a simple square formed. This new space provided the beginnings of an enclosed space, which was part of the brief, and so I worked on the boundaries of this space to define the new garden more clearly.  

To this end, I screened out the views beyond the ‘box’ with trellis screening and brick walls. This also increased the sense of security within the garden and defined entry/exit points near the main building really strongly.

A counterpoint to the main building is the large summerhouse opposite the main building. Throughout the development of the design, this feature has remained anchored in its original space and means that the garden is a space that exists between the main building and the summerhouse – it bounces attention back into the garden quite powerfully.

Naturally enough, I paid attention to the way the square space could be further divided. Originally, I proposed four different quarters that aimed to provide different gardening experiences. I also proposed a number of raised beds that would allow garden users to garden more easily. Over time, the garden plan evolved and settled into a basically octagonal pattern.

A strong central water feature became a room in itself, flanked by two semi-octagonal raised beds and book-ended by two seating areas under pergola structures across the garden. This space was further defined by altering the angle of the paving pattern around the feature to echo the change in angle of the building. Two types of paving were used: square pale slabs denoted paths, traffic routes and larger areas that could be adapted for seating or working; red paviors denoted areas for sitting, watching, slowing down or to define path edges more clearly.

The shoulders of the garden (upper left and upper right) developed into simple allotment style beds with compost bins and the lower beds became a wildlife –friendly border and a jungly border respectively.  Beyond the left hand ‘shoulder’ I nestled a ramp for disabled access to the lower area beyond the garden.

The garden’s underlying symmetry is intended to create a calm and unfussy space which will also help garden users to remain orientated within the garden.

After the various areas were defined into themes, I turned my attention to bringing out the therapeutic value in each area of the garden. A ‘Living Wall’ was developed so that garden users could more easily watch insect populations at work, the ‘Forest of Faces’ will be a grouping of clay moulded faces on garden poles with various expressions.  A ‘Rainbow Border’ is intended to display a range of colours; a ‘Tactile Border’ will be planted up with plants that stimulate the sense of touch; A ‘Four Seasons Border’ will be planted up to show the movement of the year through the different stages of development of plants.

Beyond the square garden boundaries, I proposed that the covered area be developed into a potting table area, maximising the shelter provided by the existing structure. Three new beds also provided potting on spaces and nursery beds for horticultural work on the benches. A path from this area links back into the main garden.


The Secret Garden is a spacious yet clearly defined area that will aid the development of therapeutic interventions for two contrasting client groups. It is also  flexible enough to allow therapists and clients to develop the space according to new and emerging needs.

(This article was prepared for Thrive publicity department in August 2007)