Nature Discovery Centre (NDC)

People in Berkshire have been invited to make use of a new community garden designed to boost mental health and help local wildlife.

Anyone can use the raised beds and plots at a community orchard near Newbury to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs or flowers. It is hoped that users will benefit from the therapeutic effects of gardening - but also some of the plants already being grown there.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) has created the garden at its Nature Discovery Centre (NDC) in Thatcham. The initiative is part of the Trust's Engaging With Nature project, which uses the power of nature to help people with mental health problems.

The garden, which aims to be 'for people and wildlife', was established in a corner of the NDC’s community orchard.
           
Carrie Starbuck working on the Engaging with Nature community garden at the Nature Discovery Centre. 
Engaging with Nature Project Officer Carrie Starbuck said:

"Gardening is great: it's gentle and it’s a good way to connect with nature and other people – all of which helps our wellbeing. It's not about what you achieve, it's about the process, and anyone can reap the mental health rewards just by coming along and having a go.

"We also want people to decide what they want to use the garden for: if they want to grow carrots or herbs they can. As the garden evolves it will be really cool to see what people bring to it - we'd like to have a mud kitchen for kids, and a sensory garden as well, for example."

The 10-week program uses a blend of nature therapy, horticultural therapy and expressive arts to help improve mental health. Participants take part in a range of activities from creating hedgehog homes to eco-art therapy and music in nature. There is a wealth of research that shows connecting with nature not only improves mental health but also encourages pro-environmental behaviour. 

In the long-term, BBOWT is hoping that the new garden can be used for 'social prescribing', where doctors or local authorities connect people to community groups and charities that can help their mental health.

The team have already dug a flower bed and planted it with species that are useful to pollinators such as mountain bluet, foxgloves and purple coneflowers, and there are also two raised beds filled with wellbeing herbs and a wooden trug with strawberry plants growing in it.
           
BBOWT volunteer Gill Marshall, left, and Engaging with Nature service user Carol at the community garden at the Nature Discovery Centre.
Gill Marshall, a BBOWT volunteer who has helped establish the garden, said:

"For me it's brilliant being in nature. I've worked nine-to-five for years, I had a breakdown in May due to work and decided now was the time I would do something I wanted for myself, which was volunteering in nature.

"Apart from being with all the other people, it's the fact that I can get outside, the fact that I can push myself and do something, and know that you're actually helping. It's really rewarding, especially when you've done something like this garden - it's fantastic to see the progress that we make."

Carol, a resident at Carramar House who has joined the Engaging with Nature project, said:

"I struggle and I tend to stick to one or two people because it takes me ages to get used to people, so I love it: if I'm feeling low it gets me out of the mood, and I've achieved something at the end of the day."
           

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