Find out about the Compassionate Gardeners scheme at St Columba's Hospice Care, which brings tender loving care to patients’ gardens.

This page takes around 10 minutes to read.

Project and outcomes


Project overview

St Columba’s Hospice Care in Edinburgh began their Compassionate Neighbours programme in the Spring of 2020.

As the COVID-19 pandemic eased, the programme helped bring people together and enabled those living with a life limiting condition to build friendships. After a while, the Compassionate Neighbours team noticed a common theme in feedback from volunteers. Many patients in the local community were unable to maintain and spend time in their gardens. This had a negative effect on their overall wellbeing. The idea for Compassionate Gardeners was born from this knowledge.

The team ran a pilot project in the summer of 2022. Following this, the Compassionate Gardeners programme now runs annually from February to November.

The programme involves a small team of volunteer gardeners. They visit the gardens of people who use the hospice's services and give their gardens a little well-deserved care. Access to the scheme comes through the Clinical and Community teams at the hospice, who nominate those they think could benefit most.

Once a person and their garden are nominated, a member of the Compassionate Neighbours team visits the garden for an initial consultation. They also carry out a risk assessment with the garden owner. Following this, the Compassionate Neighbours team member works with a Compassionate Gardener and the garden owner. Together, they set out a plan of action for what they hope to achieve over the course of the year.

The Compassionate Gardener visits the garden every week to begin with. Once the early work is done, they continue to visit every fortnight or month to keep on top of things. Over the course of several months, the garden gets a new lease of life, allowing its owner to enjoy the space once more. 


The hospice began with one Compassionate Gardener in 2022, growing to six in 2023. This bigger team allowed them to work on 14 gardens over nine months in 2023.

The programme was a big success in 2023. Following this, the Hospice will be further expanding the Compassionate Gardener team in 2024.

Compassionate Gardeners has received wonderful feedback from both volunteers and garden owners. The immediate impact of one or two days’ work brings a sense of joy and wellbeing to everyone involved.

As a result of the programme, many of the garden owners have started to gently resume gardening alongside their volunteer. Those who are unable to join in can share tea, coffee, cake and words of encouragement.

A shared love of gardening between volunteers and garden owners helped them to connect. Before long, supportive friendships grew amongst the flowerbeds. 

Facilitators, challenges and advice


Key facilitators

Compassionate Gardeners grew from the success of Compassionate Neighbours at St Columba’s Hospice Care. In the early days, Maggie Young, the hospice’s Compassionate Neighbours Lead, received vital support and guidance from hospices all over the country.

Julie Golding, the Volunteer Services Manager at St Columba's, was key in getting the scheme off the ground. She previously worked for Scottish Gardens. This meant she could give invaluable insight and advice.

Similarly, two members of the hospice’s Facilities team, Stuart Walker and Billy Brown, offered helpful support and expertise from the start.

Since before the scheme started up, St Columba’s has had a team of volunteer gardeners. They keep the hospice grounds looking beautiful. In 2022, the hospice asked if any of these volunteers would like to take part in the pilot for the Compassionate Gardeners scheme. This resulted in David Waughman from the team becoming the hospice’s first ever Compassionate Gardener. Since then, he has played an integral role in the programme. 


There were initial concerns around lone working, use of garden tools. supervision and support for volunteers. In response, the Compassionate Gardeners team has implemented robust safety measures. They have invested significant time in writing risk assessments and planning. They arrange regular team meetings, one-to-ones and frequent garden visits.

The team initially underestimated the amount of training needed by their Compassionate Gardeners. At first, the only training the group received was practical, such as safe use of tools and equipment. But, as the volunteers developed bonds with garden owners, it became clear that additional training may be helpful. Topics of this training include boundaries, self-care and talking about death and dying.

An unexpected challenge was Compassionate Gardeners falling in love with a garden. In one case, a gardener wanted to keep going, even after the garden owner had died. Setting realistic expectations of the work  from the start is key. As is establishing clear boundaries. Revisiting this over the season helps greatly too.

Keeping to the garden plan is also important so that volunteers don’t stray into doing more than is asked of them. Regular one-to-ones and garden visits from the Compassionate Neighbours team help maintain boundaries. This helps volunteers enjoy their garden work and not become overburdened. 

Tips and advice


Be brave. Start small and seek advice.

Collaborate. The key to success is working together with the garden owner, having conversations and sharing the joy.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Reach out to hospices who have carried out similar community work. People are often willing to share their learning so you can take it forward for your own project.

Think outside the box. While it is very helpful to look at what has worked for other organisations, don't feel beholden to existing ideas. St Columba's Hospice Care would never have come up with Compassionate Gardeners if they hadn't thought creatively!

Ask the experts – they are often delighted to help. Speak to gardening organisations to get a feel for what is needed for a voluntary gardening operation. 

Future development


Starting from Spring 2024, the Compassionate Gardeners team plans to assemble a small gardening ‘task force’. This group will visit particularly unruly gardens and ‘break the back’ of them in one hit. Tackling challenging gardens takes a great deal more time. The team is hoping that this 'task force' will streamline things. 

The Compassionate Gardeners volunteers all work remotely. They suggested that a series of in-person events could help them connect. As a result, the hospice team hopes to start hosting quarterly in-person ‘garden interest’ events for the group soon. Each will focus on a different gardening-related topic. This will build team camaraderie, improve volunteers' experience and encourage them to share their stories. 

The team hopes to engage with a national gardening centre chain to investigate potential partnership working.