Blossoms at Larne Lough is a purpose built Social and Therapeutic garden, which runs an 8-week horticultural and nature-based therapy course, designed and developed in partnership with the Public Health Agency. Blossoms also delivers grow your own short courses.
Mid and East Antrim
When did the project start and why?
We started building project in February 2013 and by May we were up and running: it also involved probably about a year of planning before then
I suppose it really all started when I was working in community gardens in the city centre and started to realise the therapeutic effects of gardening. My parents have a wholesale garden centre, so I had some knowledge from that side of things. I did some research and found that STH can be a service in itself. It really started to happen when I did the Diploma in Coventry; you had to design a garden, and design a serve around it. I had a massive document that I had spent months on, so I felt I had a good plan and I thought I could do it. I was lucky that I had the land on the site of my parent’s business, so I could just go ahead if I could find the funding.
Who benefits from the project?
Adults dealing with situational stress, PTSD, anxiety and depression. We run sessions with young adults and older people, but our focus is on adults dealing with mental health difficulties. We want to focus on nature based preventative measures in mental health and building resilience.
What kind of community consultation and engagement has taken place?
Not any, really. We don’t do a lot of local engagement, as we are trying to make this more referral based. I would like to do more local stuff but we seem to get approached by the more proactive areas and we work with them.
Who has been involved (partnerships and collaborations?
The Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health were involved at the very beginning, they were very supportive early on, also local community networks, for e.g. North Antrim Community Network and some local community organisations. Also the Public Heath Agency is a major partner. I’ve partnered with some women’s groups, like the Windsor Women’s Centre, and I’ve worked with Bridgeen Rea, the mindfulness teacher from the very beginning. Now I’m doing more offsite work, for example with Libraries NI for their Health in Mind project -we run horticultural therapy sessions in Library. I also do work for some of the councils. I’m starting to do stuff with a nutritional therapist Jane McClelland from Vital Nutrition. I feel that as HT is growing I can see massive change in that I can see people bringing more diverse people into one session, for example me and Jane and a yoga teacher, all blended together, I think this is great and really important.
Approximately how much funding have you got and where does it come from?
The vast majority comes from the PHA at minute because we have a pilot project running with them. In addition the British Legion funded us £10,000 to run mindfulness days for veterans. Things have changed more recently in that we don’t go looking for funding any more: at the start we were looking at Awards for All, Santander and other small pots, but since late 2013 we have been fortunate that people come to us already with money available, which is great: we can focus on delivering the horticultural therapy rather than looking for funding.
Who runs/manages the project?
I run and manage project but I had huge amount help – it takes a village to start a project like this. I’m lucky it started in a family business setting, and that I had this support structure around me. My brother has green roof business on site and every few weeks he can give me a day. I can ask my mum too as she is on site: it usually starts that I ask for 5 mins even if I know I will really take 25 minutes… So I have been really fortunate having this structure around me. It is a massive help, physically and mentally.
What happens at the project - activities etc?
Our main service is an 8 week course that we run with the PHA. In addition we have monthly mindfulness retreat and seasonal mindfulness days and some young adult wellbeing programmes and some off site work as well.
Can you tell us more about your PHA pilot project?
It is a 2 year pilot project focussing on how affective Social and Therapeutic Horticulture is as a therapeutic service. We are about half way through; it ends in August next year. So far we have seen some results and hope to have a full external evaluation done showing the evidence base for STH. Our main aim is looking at how to reach males who are suffering from anxiety and depression. We run the service as 8 week courses, running through year from February to November. As part of the project we are also receiving G.P. referrals and we are evaluating that.
How did the pilot start?
I wrote to PHA when our garden was only about 60% completed. We met a few times, and I showed them my feasibility study. We talked though the potential of what the project could offer. Then they came on a site visit and looked round, and I gave a presentation on the evidence supporting STH. Eventually they got in touch and said they would consider a pilot scheme looking at depression. I have found them really open: proactive and positive and forward thinking. If you are not sure about approaching them, I can say I have had a positive experience of working with them.
What's been the best thing about setting up and running the project?
I’d say probably for me personally it is seeing every single day the success and the individuals benefitting. When you set a project up and see it coming to fruition it is a great feeling, especially knowing all the work that went into it. Also it’s quite nice here –it’s nice to work in nice surroundings.
Have you encountered any difficulties or problems?
I actually feel like biggest thing was getting the work balance right: figuring out what to take on if I’m going to do things really well, and what that looks like on week-to-week basis. At the beginning there was definitely a quiet period and I spent a few months wondering if it would move forward, and if it would be used by the people I intended it for. But I’ve been lucky, and it is.
From the lessons you have learned, what advice you would most like to give to someone else thinking of setting up a Therapy Garden?
I would say don’t undervalue yourself or your service and try your best to really specialise in an area –don’t be jack of all trades. Because I came from a commercial background and my parents have always been self-employed, that really helps. I can see how it could be hard for someone coming from the community and voluntary sector to take that stance. At beginning I did so much for free, as you can’t charge while you are learning, and I got lots of great experience from that, but it is a process and getting the balance right depends on how much you know and how confident you can be of achieving good results.
Long-term sustainability of the project - what will happen in the future?
This is a really good question, and it is always an ongoing, underlying thought. We will always relying on funding for this project: it will not become a social enterprise as it doesn’t suit our client group. Sustainability is certainly a concern for the future. I’m hoping there will be more funding opportunities in this area in future so I just live in hope…the only way to combat the strain of this is to try to always to look 18 to 24 month ahead –I’m always planning and looking at potential partnerships and projects.