Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and GP turned hospital doctor

What gets you flowing? I’m talking wellbeing, not urology. Flow, according to my positive psychology friends, is a type of happiness, a state of absorption even, where you’re fully immersed in a pleasing activity, such that you may lose track of time. Flow is about being totally engaged with what you’re doing—in the moment or in the zone—and it’s generally after rather than during the experience that you appreciate the pleasure it brings. Active recreation is known to be more satisfying and rewarding than passive leisure, and the active recreation that puts most people in the flow is gardening.

I’ve often thought that gardening should be on prescription. It gets you away from the four-walled prisons of home and work, and puts you in touch with nature, the four seasons, and the rhythm of life; it gets your hands dirty, and gives you an enormous sense of achievement and joy in nurturing something and watching it grow. It can provide cheap and sustainable food in a recession. It connects you with other enthusiasts. It’s great for your mental health and it’s surprisingly good exercise.

All this has doubtless occurred to the founders of the Lambeth GP Food Co-op, an idea so brilliant and simple that it has already won the award for ‘Best Sustainable Food Initiative’ at this year’s NHS Sustainability Day Awards. It’s the brainchild of Ed Rosen, from the Institute for Leadership and Service Improvement at London’s South Bank University, who worked there alongside the wonderful patient engagement guru, Bob Sang.

The co-op’s business case is that it will make money by growing and producing food for sale to local NHS hospitals. How? By growing it in existing spaces and gardens of GP surgeries across the Borough of Lambeth. It joins up Lambeth residents in creating gardens in partnership with GPs and their staff, so everyone works collaboratively, learning new skills, producing food, and contributing to community wellbeing.

Ed has got the support of his CCG, NHS Lambeth, and Lambeth Council (the new keepers of public health). The project offers free training and support and is open to everyone, so anyone in Lambeth can learn to grow food. No previous gardening experience is necessary and you don’t need to have a garden at home to join in.

And, of course, growing and selling food locally is great for the environment and makes a small contribution to the NHS carbon-emission reduction targets that will be very punitive for hospitals if not met. Why source fruit and vegetables from across the UK, or even abroad, when GPs and their patients are growing them for you?

I’ve been a fan of social prescribing for a while, where people are introduced to art, or a new hobby—company and support to get them through their lives, rather than medicalisation. Moving, talking, doing, and reflecting bind a community together, and group gardening ticks all the boxes. But I like the gardening initative most because, in an age of competitive tendering in the NHS, which very few GPs want to do or believe will work, it shows the power of co-operation and collaboration; the kindness and shared purpose that is at the heart of the NHS. It’s open to anyone in Lambeth; for those with long-term physical and mental health problems, or just the isolated, lonely, or bored, the benefits could be huge. It could also put some well-needed creative buzz into brow-beaten GP surgeries. Offer the CQC inspector a home-grown carrot for his troubles.

You can never escape our innate competitiveness (will the individual practices share or protect their prize marrow-growing tips?) but my guess is that when word gets out that waiting- rooms are emptying as folk disappear to the practice garden, this initiative will spread across the NHS like wild organic tomatoes. Well done Ed. G