Matt Keightley: the man bringing Feel Good Gardens to life

With health and wellbeing now so high profile, there has never been a better time to focus on the role gardens have to play in promoting it

Matt KeightleyThe mental and physical benefits of gardening have been widely acknowledged by health professionals. To demonstrate just how powerful and healing green spaces can be, we're working with Matt Keightley to design two ground-breaking gardens.

The Feel Good Garden at Chelsea Flower Show took months of effort and received lots of praise but Matt's work isn't over, as he's also creating a Health and Wellbeing Garden at RHS Garden Wisley: no mean feat.

Matt, twice-winner of the BBC / RHS People's Choice Award, is well aware of the importance of both of these projects and he, himself seeks out the peace and calm of his garden when life gets frantic.

Greening the NHS

39 out of 54 NHS Mental Health Trusts from across the country applied to rehome Matt’s Feel Good Garden once Chelsea Flower Show was complete. The lucky winner, Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust (C&I), will provide a new home to the garden at Highgate Mental Health Centre, one of its two inpatient psychiatric sites.

Help for Heroes: the beginning

Matt’s passion and drive to create gardens that help people is compelling. His first show garden, The Help for Heroes garden, in 2014, inspired by his brother’s service as a sniper in the British Armed Forces, was his own concept. Destined to be relocated to a Help for Heroes Recovery Centre to help the soldiers returning from tour recover from physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the garden is still working wonders more than four years later with beneficiaries prescribed time to experience the garden.
From the very beginning, Matt knew he wasn’t simply creating a garden – but a relaxing oasis for all. “Having something to care for, such as a plant, gives you a sense of purpose, a feeling that’s so important for those struggling with mental health issues.”

Feel good at Wisley

Since the Help for Heroes garden in 2014 Matt has returned to Chelsea three times, including a collaboration with Radio Two DJ Jeremy Vine in 2017, for the Jeremy Vine Texture Garden. The importance of texture in this garden is something Matt incorporated into his Feel Good Garden at Chelsea and also the Health and Wellbeing Garden at RHS Garden Wisley.

Wrapping around the new National Centre for Horticultural Science & Learning the Health and Wellbeing Garden is expected in 2020 and will be “made up of a series of garden rooms designed with the idea of people being enveloped by planting. There’s a sense of enclosure and security that puts people at ease, but we won’t block views, we want people to have safe and sound environmental surroundings.”

“Gardens are the best place for escape”

Growing up as one of five boys, Matt spent a lot of time outdoors. He ventured into the professional horticulture world by first redesigning his parent’s garden when he was 17. “I always enjoyed being outdoors", he reflects.
“My grandad bought me my first cantilever toolkit as a child,” and Christmases and birthdays afterwards were adorned with the arrival of new tools. Maybe, he suggests, if his family hadn’t been so supportive, he might never have followed his interest in horticulture, and could have joined the Armed Forces instead.

“I live and breathe horticulture everyday”

Balancing spending time with his family, while striving to be successful is one of Matt’s most difficult challenges. “I feel completely relieved the second I finish work and am back home with the girls. Every weekend we go for a walk or we are out in the garden. This weekend we have plans to build a bug hotel."

“It’s crucial to have plants in your life”

When challenged to pick one ‘feature’ for all his future designs, a mixture of plants was his answer. And if he could only pick one plant – surprisingly perhaps for some – Matt chose rosemary. It’s the first plant Poppy, his eldest of two daughters, related to aroma and fragrance but it also has uses in cooking and is “one of those plants that calls for you to rub your fingers through the leaves and smell your hands to enjoy the oils.”
“We care for plants like they’re children and that gives us purpose, meaning and something to focus on outside of everyday life, which, in very simple terms, is a great way to alleviate day-to-day stress.”

“With a little bit of thought and careful consideration, we can all transform outdoor spaces into retreats”

Create your own Feel Good Garden with Matt’s top tips

1. Use cool-toned colours in your planting

Whites, pinks, blues and purples have been found to have a calming and relaxing effect on people’s state of mind, so incorporate those colours into your garden planting.


2. Don't just grow ornamentals

Herbs are remarkable: “There’s a huge value from aromatic plants and everyday herbs and I think if they’re used appropriately throughout it can look and smell very beautiful.” Why not use Matt’s favourite plant – rosemary – a plant that demands you caress it as you walk past.


3. Maximise texture

Grow a variety of different plants. Evergreen structural planting, grasses and perennials are all great choices as they offer colour and a variety of textures throughout the year. Grasses especially, offer lovely movement and help attract wildlife. Think about texture in your hard landscaping too.


4. Encourage wildlife

Birds, bees and other garden wildlife will put a smile on your face as soon as you see them. Encourage them into your garden with plants for pollinators and a water supply for them to bathe in and drink.


5. Create an interesting route

Layout a meandering path through your garden. Use different materials to encourage you to stop focusing on the mind and pay attention to where you’re going. Add points along the way that encourage you to linger.


6. Draw the eye deep into the garden

Build something so beautiful that it breaks a thought process. Rather than thinking about the everyday stresses or what anxiety you have, by creating something beautiful to look at, you'll be encouraged to forget about your problems and focus on the garden.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.