Nestled in the heart of the city of Plymouth is a very special site – CROP gardens, a green space providing horticultural therapy to adults with the aim of improving their mental wellbeing.
CROP forms part of the offer from STEPS, a community therapies service provided by Livewell which helps people recovering from a range of mental health difficulties to work on their recovery together in a social and supportive environment. People can choose from a range of groups – It’s A Goal, which tackles mental and physical health through football; anxiety management; art in the natural environment; assertiveness; mindful approaches to stress and depression; healthy living, and more – which all teach the theory of how the mind works as well as more practical knowledge.
Managed by Ewa Ford, the small CROP team of occupational therapists, horticulturalists and support workers believe that interacting with nature in a meaningful and active way through structured, professionally led gardening sessions can help to rebuild confidence, increase fitness and self-esteem and nurture a renewed sense of wellbeing.
Occupational therapist Patrick Mouat explained: “Meaningful activity is at the core of occupational therapy, finding something that someone enjoys that is relevant to them. It not only makes a person more likely to want to do it, but to get a sense of achievement from it.
“At a site like CROP there are a huge variety of activities that need to take place, and we try to tailor them to someone’s physical needs and level of starting knowledge. Sometimes the simplest thing to start with is weeding, which there’s never any shortage of, and planting seeds. At the moment our tomato seedlings are starting to come up so we’ve started the process of transferring them from their seed trays to bigger pots to develop their roots before we start training them up their growing frames in our polytunnel.
Service Manager Ewa Ford said: “We’ve produced lots of different crops including marrows, courgettes, melons, and aubergines, and we have quite a lot of fruit trees on site including apples, pears and figs. We’ve also developed a soft fruit cage, and we grow a lot of herbs and salad crops which are quite quick to produce and replenish.
Patrick continued: “There are also levels of horticultural knowledge that we’re looking to introduce – plants names and being able to tell the difference between plants and weeds, companion planting or knowing which plants grow well together, and we also use things like succulent plants to demonstrate the principles of propagation alongside other horticultural techniques.
Ewa said: “We work in collaboration with Cornwall College who provide us with a tutor for the two accredited and certificated horticultural courses we facilitate for people who may have been with us a little while and are ready for the next step and a bit more of a challenge, while our team continue to provide practical and mental health support.
“Our approach is very holistic and environments have impact – it’s not just the doing, it’s where you are – and the CROP environment is very conducive to being mindful of what calms and what energises people and incorporates things like sound, touch, smell and taste. As well as the process of gardening itself being therapeutic, as an allotment site we’re obliged to produce a range of foods which our clients have access to, so we’ve started providing seasonal recipes people can take home to use with the fresh produce for a healthier diet. Some people also like creating art, with plants being used to make natural dyes.
Ewa continued: “When some people first come to us, they are their diagnosis. It’s their identity and all that they relate to. But with a site like CROP there are all sorts of things that need doing all of the time. There’s managing the compost heap, doing repairs to the sheds, some fence painting or building a raised bed, all sorts of things that require prior skills. A lot of people forget that they have this toolbox of skills, and we’ll look for and try to draw those things out and work with people’s strengths.
“CROP also fosters community spirit amongst the people attending which provides scope for forming friendships and gaining peer support. As with all groups there can be tensions, but our staff support personal development through exploring ways of dealing with these in a more assertive, confident and productive way rather than letting unhelpful patterns of interaction keep repeating themselves. The underlying value upheld is always, first and foremost, ‘Be Kind’.
Patrick agrees: “We’re able to see people grow in the same way that we see the plants that we look after grow, and the art is very similar actually because we’re not trying to direct people. Each plant has its natural shape that it needs to find and it’s the same with people as well. We very much want to put people in charge of their own recovery and in charge of making their own choices, so we’re trying to give them the right environment and the right kind of positive attention to help them to achieve their own potential.
“We try not to discharge people as such but instead try and support them to progress to other things themselves, although we want them to be able to feel they can pop in for a cup of tea at any point even if they’ve moved on. We’ve set up a group called ‘Friends of CROP’ for people who have been with us for an extended period of time and have stabilised their mental health but still value coming and using the site. They are able to ‘Adopt A Plot’ where they are given a bit of ground for themselves in return for helping out with some of our everyday activities like watering. It also means that they’re still part of our group so they have the opportunity to have a conversation with a member of staff here if they’re struggling with something.”
Feedback received from clients shows how much the group is valued. Regular attendees said:
- “It has given me the freedom to be myself and let go of my stress.”
- “I have regained my confidence by doing something meaningful and I get a real sense of community coming to CROP.”
- “When I have been busy at CROP I feel as happy as a seagull with a chip!”
To find out more about our STEPS community group activities, click here.