harvesting chard

Photograph: Charles Francis

June 2008: A storm is on the way, and a fierce wind is whipping across the fields, carrying with it the first few hints of rain — but the three volunteer gardeners are determined to brave the weather and finish the job. They are spreading a thick blanket of hops over newly-planted seeds destined to grow into giant gourds which will form part of the Eden Project’s spectacular harvest display later this year.

The volunteers are part of People and Gardens, an innovative project which offers people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities the chance to acquire horticultural skills in a real working nursery. Gaining these skills can give them the self-confidence they need to return to education or work, or simply help them feel happier with their lives.

As the People and Gardens motto puts it: “It’s not about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain.” And although none of today’s volunteers are planning to put on their dancing shoes just yet, there is no doubting their enthusiasm for their work.

“This is a day care centre for people who don’t fit into day care centres — people who don’t want to sit around, but want to get up and do some physical work,” says project manager Ken Radford.

People and Gardens developed from Ken’s work as a garden instructor at a day centre in St Austell. It began with two members of staff, accompanied by six volunteers, knocking at the gates of the Lost Gardens of Heligan and offering to clear brambles.

The project was initially based at Heligan, but has now moved to larger premises at nearby Watering Lane Nursery, which was purpose-built as a feeder facility for the Eden Project. The volunteers’ main job is to help prepare plants for display at the main site. As well as plenty of outdoor growing space, the nursery has giant glasshouses where hundreds of Eden’s exotic plants first see the light of day before they are moved to their permanent biome home.

“There is more scope for us here, and it has given the guys the opportunity to develop their skills,” says Ken. “They can sow seeds, pot on, plant and harvest — the complete cycle. It’s a very inspiring place to be. The gourds they grow are used all over the site at Eden in the autumn, and they also plant a lot of the bulbs in the spring display.”

There is a long tradition of gardening being used to promote wellbeing for those in most need of it. As Ken says, centuries ago, monastic gardens were worked by the poor and the sick to enable them to work for their keep, and not be perceived as a burden on their communities.

Gardening also fits in with the modern ethos of adult social care, set out in a Government White Paper of the early 1990s, which states that people with disabilities have five human rights: social presence, participation, choice, respect and competence.

Mental health

Ken, who has suffered from periods of depression, knows from bitter experience the stigma attached to mental health problems in the workplace.

His solution was to set up his own landscape gardening business. It was involvement with a landscaping project at Kernow Special School at Redruth, which led to his interest in working with people with special needs.

Volunteers are referred to People and Gardens by Cornwall County Council’s adult social care department, charities and residential homes. Thirty-five people now attend gardening sessions, ranging in age from 16 to 70, and with disabilities ranging from Down’s Syndrome to autism. Some come for one day a week, and others enjoy themselves so much that they are there for four.

One of People and Gardens’ latest tasks is to grow camelina, or false flax, an olive oil substitute with 40 per cent Omega 3 which will be pressed for use in the kitchens at Eden. One day, when the list of jobs was put up, along with the location where each was going to be carried out, the volunteers were somewhat puzzled by the words “Camelina shed”, and asked: “Why is there a camel in a shed?”

But why shouldn’t there be a camel in a shed, when there’s currently a jellyfish in one of the glasshouses?  It’s actually a jellyfish tree, otherwise known as Medusagyneae oppositifolia, which grows only in the Seychelles. “There are only about 50 left on the planet. It’s been brought here to be revived,“ explains Ken.

The project already supplies Eden with a wide range of vegetables. “The aim is to make the kitchens at Eden self-sustaining. We have a plant of action this year to send an awful lot of stuff up there. The weekly order might include half a sack of salad potatoes, 30kg of courgettes 30 bunches of salad onions, and 24 iceberg lettuces. Other edible crops grown at Watering Lane include beetroot and butternut squash, sweetcorn and chervil, basil and baby leaf spinach.

People and Gardens is also helping Eden staff with special projects, such as testing new methods of watering plants – last year, tomatoes were placed in special beds with an irrigation system which recycles the water supply — and planting thousands of different seeds for organic growing trials. The most successful of these are sold as young vegetable plants at the Eden shop, and are proving extremely popular.

“There’s a lot more to the work here than just sweeping paths,” says Ken. “Everything the volunteers do is valuable, and it certainly is valued — Eden supports us wholeheartedly.” Other organisations have also offered their backing. The hops being used as mulch for the gourds were the latest contribution from St Austell Brewery, which has delivered 300 sacks to Watering Lane in the last four years.

People and Gardens has also been invited to grow test potatoes for manufacturers of crisps. “The guys have to prepare the beds, mark them out, weigh the potatoes, plant then, dig them up and weigh them again,” says Ken. “One manufacturer sent us some crisps with our name on the packet, which was nice.

Individual plan

“Part of my role is to make sure we are meeting the needs both of our volunteers and the businesses we are working with, and marry them together. Every volunteer has an individual plan which is reviewed every six months, to see if they have moved on, or if their needs have changed.

“All of them should be proud of what they have achieved. They are determined that their disability won’t influence them in the negative. They are striving to take control of their lives.” One volunteer has already been taken on as a paid employee to work with Eden Project staff, and another has gone on to take a zoology degree.

Sean Harrison, who is 27 and has learning difficulties, has been involved with People and Gardens for seven years. “I come here four days a week, and I enjoy it a lot,” he says. “I like harvesting the herbs and vegetables, and scattering the fertiliser on the fields and making the plants grow. But my best job is clearing out the big ditch when it gets overgrown. I am planting rhubarb seeds today. It’s a very fiddly job.”

Ken calls over some advice, as Sean starts spreading vermiculite on the seeds: “Imagine you’re stroking a cat!” He adds: “At the day centre, Sean wasn’t being given anything constructive to do. He’s been brilliant here. I would desperately like to give him a paid job.” “That would be good, that would,” says Sean.

Some of the volunteers have complex needs, but if they feel upset, overwhelmed or under stress, they can go and have some quiet time in a small polytunnel where People and Gardens grows sweet peas and aquilegias for local fetes.

Watering Lane can also be a demanding environment for staff, who have to provide support and care for volunteers, liaise with social workers, and ensure that all tasks are carried out to the high standard expected by the businesses working with People and Gardens

“If a member of staff needs 15 minutes to recharge their batteries, they can do it,” says Ken. “And what better place to do it than here? It’s very therapeutic. We all have our problems, but when you look at how these guys deal with their problems, it really puts your problems into perspective.”

The five members of staff include Norman Warrender, an ex-motor vehicle tutor who has always been a keen amateur gardener. “This is the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. “We’ve planted 60,000 bulbs this year, and you should see the expression on the guys’ faces when they see the bulbs coming up.  That’s what it’s all about.”

Steve Phillips, a member of the Eden team who supervises outdoor planting and propagation at Watering Lane, agrees. “When I first came here, it was they who showed me what to do. They were so welcoming. I play football with them sometimes at lunchtimes. Some of them don’t get much exercise apart from that, and it’s good for me too. These guys are an integral part of what we do at Eden. They are brilliant.”

Last year, to celebrate the project’s 10th birthday, Ken and his staff arranged a holiday for the volunteers at Butlins at Minehead. For some, it was the first time they had ever been away from home. It was such a success that a return trip is planned for September. Everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that the sun will shine on Somerset that week – but if it rains, there’ll be no shortage of volunteers for dancing lessons.