How Green Is Your Thumb? Bringing Nature into the Library

A little bit of nature can have a substantial impact on patient recovery and staff well-being at hospitals.

Hospital libraries add more green spaces to support patient and staff well-being.

It might not feel like it, as the US, Ireland, the UK, and Europe have been buffeted by rain, wind, general storms, and even unseasonably heavy snow in January, but spring is on the way — if I look really carefully, I’m sure I can see a few brave early snowdrops peeping out through the soil.

I can’t say I’m especially green-fingered. During the pandemic, I had some success in our tiny home garden with berries, tomatoes, and (tiny but tasty) potatoes, good success with herbs, and reasonable success with cucumbers (at least until the slugs found them).

Not bad, all in all, for someone whose very first attempts at growing plants resulted in an air plant giving up in despair. My next choice was an aloe vera, which proved very tough indeed until its third or fourth repotting. I’ve been a fan of succulents ever since.

I have, however, always enjoyed being surrounded by greenery. Over the years, I’ve worked at several hospital sites in the UK, and everyone agrees: Green spaces are a good idea.

Most hospitals have at least a small garden or courtyard hidden somewhere on the grounds, and where I currently work in Bolton, work is underway to improve the environment. This includes staff members volunteering to work on various small courtyard gardens, and later this year, there will be tree planting around the grounds. I’ve already staked my claim to “my” tree, which is due to be planted in February.


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It isn’t just our imagination either. Plenty of evidence shows that the more green space you have around you, the better your mental health, resilience, and even recovery from illness. The research has been out there in the UK since at least 2016, when a report called Gardens and health: Implications for policy and practice was published, including plenty of practical suggestions.

If you enjoy reading recent statistics that prove just how good community gardens can be for you, you may be interested in learning more about how Wood, Barton, and Wicks analysed their research.

In another positive move, doctors, especially family doctors, are also coming around to the concept of social prescribing. Sometimes, what we need to improve our health isn’t another set of medications; it’s connecting with nature. There are examples of innovation all around the UK, including co-ops where doctors and patients work together to learn how to produce edible plants, as at Lambeth GP Food Co-op.

Moving towards a more sustainable future isn’t only important to health libraries in the UK but to public libraries as well. CILIP, our umbrella professional membership body, has been working with organizations in this area since 2022 to form the Green Libraries Partnership (GLP). Read about some of their inspiring work that’s been going on in relatively rural Hampshire, urban Oldham, bucolic Suffolk (I have to confess to a love for the word bucolic, which means almost more rural than rural), and the small city of Šibenik in Croatia. (International partnerships and learning from each other are especially important since we only have one Earth.)


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There’s also Culture Nature, with Natural England and Libraries Connected working together. This partnership aims to turn selected local libraries in several counties of England into dynamic nature hubs. Call in one day, and you might find a display of books on how to plant and nurture fruit trees. Pop in a week later, and you might find a birdwatching seminar or an event in the community garden.

At the moment, this partnership is working within libraries in (deep breath) Bradford, Bristol, Doncaster, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, and Sutton. There’s a mix of rural, urban, and suburban, with all teaching skills and passing on knowledge essential to the future of our communities.

I’ve spent a lot of my career in NHS libraries in the West Country, the far South West of England, known for its mild climate, making it very popular with retirees. Again, I worked at a mix of rural, urban, and suburban sites.

At one of the rural hospitals, we had a new family of ducklings each spring who very much enjoyed the small pond near the staff canteen (it was a tradition that, as they got older, you stopped your car and waited patiently for the ducklings to cross the zebra crossing, as we call a marked crosswalk). When they vanished each year, we were always reassured by photos that they hadn’t passed away; they’d just gotten big enough and brave enough to move to their new home on the nearby small river.

At another hospital Trust, there was a rose garden that had been specially planted with varieties that bloomed almost all year round in remembrance of those who’d died from cancer.


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On the main hospital site at my current employer, Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, as at so many other healthcare Trusts in the UK, there is a mix of a small number of groundskeepers employed by the organization and groups of volunteers who help with the upkeep and maintenance.

The plants and trees in this North West corner of England are considerably tougher than in the West Country, with woodier stems, but there are still hidden corners of unexpected green, trees, and flowers that offer respite and a reaffirmation of life. These areas are gradually being revealed and revived as many of the building works start to come to an end. There are plenty of seasonal flowers if you know where to look, including blackberries, hydrangeas, and roses.

I’m looking forward to learning more about planting “my” tree, which will be just outside the Education Centre. In twenty to thirty years’ time, the tree I’ve chosen should be around ten meters high, although apparently, this particular tree grows fairly fast, around twenty to forty centimeters each year. It also grows well in damp locations, and given that the North West of England gets a LOT of rain, I’m hoping it will flourish.

Planting a tree isn’t something I ever thought I’d get to do in the course of my career as a health librarian, but I’ve learned over the years to be alert for unexpected opportunities, especially where, hopefully, it can contribute to making the surroundings just a little bit better for those who use them.



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