Urban Growth: garden therapy in the heart of Camden

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In a guest article for Locavore, Nichola Daunton writes about Urban Growth, who provide garden therapy in the heart of Camden, London.

If you’ve ever lived in a major city (or even just visited one) you’ll know they can be overwhelming places. While noise, buzz and millions of people make cities exciting, they also create an environment that can be hard to switch off from. Which is why it’s so important that cities have green spaces too, places where you can relax and gather your thoughts away from the grey concrete and bustle of everyday life. Urban Growth, a garden therapy project in the heart of London’s Camden Town, was set up to provide just such a space.

If the term garden therapy is new to you (it’s also sometimes called horticultural therapy or ecotherapy) it simply means using gardening to help individuals develop, grow and recover, both physically and mentally. At Urban Growth we grow organic fruit and vegetables with people with severe and enduring mental health conditions. With more and more research proving that gardening is good for our mental as well as our physical health, and GP’s throughout Britain catching on to the idea of social prescribing, outdoor therapies are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve.

Our particular project was set up by the charity Jobs in Mind in 2010, and took a piece of disused council land on the Elm Village Estate in Camden and turned it into a thriving organic garden: complete with greenhouse, orchard and over 40 raised beds. At Urban Growth, we work with people who are often the furthest from the job market, many of whom struggle to leave the house. By giving our members structure, we encourage them to connect with nature in an environment that is safe and peaceful. Twice a week they come to the Urban Growth garden to learn about organic fruit and vegetable production, from sowing seeds to harvesting vegetables correctly.

We take our members through the season step-by-step, teaching them how to nurture and care for the plants they have grown, and how to care for and feed the soil they are grown in. The delight and magic of seeing a seed that you planted months ago turn into a thriving plant that produces delicious crops never leaves you, no matter how long you’ve been a gardener. At Urban Growth we’re teaching people skills that will last a lifetime.

I personally got involved with Urban Growth in January 2017 after experiencing some problems of my own. I’d been working as a freelance writer for the past few years and was thoroughly exhausted by it. Sitting indoors or in public libraries working on projects that I had no emotional involvement in left me feeling low and deflated. I’m naturally a very energetic person, and without the chance to burn off my energy I was feeling very dissatisfied, frustrated and anxious.

I was in desperate need of a change of direction, so after gaining some gardening experience working for a private garden maintenance company – and gaining muscles I didn’t even know existed! – I saw the opportunity to volunteer with Urban Growth advertised online and jumped at the chance. After a funding crisis in which the Project Coordinator had to be let go, I took over the project (on a reduced basis) in June 2017 and have been working hard to increase its prospects ever since.

Finding long-term funding for a project like ours is tough, but we’re currently expanding our reach, taking on new members and connecting with the local community in order to demonstrate how much our project means to people, and how much it helps them. In today’s age of austerity, with so many mental health services folding due to lack of funding, it is very easy for people to fall through the cracks and suffer in silence. At Urban Growth we bring people out into the sunshine (and often the rain) and give them the space and the time to grow in an environment that isn’t always easy to find in the city.

So despite the setbacks, we’ve got big plans for our future. We’ve recently acquired a new metal storage container (thanks Camden Council!), which we’re in the process of converting into a kitchen space. We then plan to launch a cooking programme so that we can take our fresh ingredients from plot to plate and teach our members and the local community about healthy eating and the wide-range of recipes that you can make with fruits and vegetables.

This year we’ll be growing five different types of tomato (including a heritage seed library variety), experimenting with the three sisters growing technique to grow sweetcorn, beans and squashes in one bed, and growing okra, tomatillos and a selection of chillies – from mild to very spicy! – in our greenhouse.

While most of our produce is currently taken home by our members or sold to a local vegbox scheme, we’re hoping to branch out this year and start selling our produce to pubs and restaurants in the local area (if you’re interested, get in touch!). Not only will this help us to become more sustainable, it’ll also help to spread the word about garden therapy and give our members the recognition that they deserve.

Twitter: @UrbanGrowthNW1

Website: www.jobsinmind.org/services/Urban-Growth/

Photography: Veerle Evens –  veerleevens.com