Green Team: It’s not just about plants, it’s about people

Alex Evans, Director of Time & Talents, a local charity which is increasing mental and physical wellbeing in the community, blogs about how gardening and outdoor activities can have a positive impact on our wellbeing.

Come round the corner from the Rotherhithe roundabout, and it’s like being in a different world. Surrounded by housing estates, and some of the most deprived areas in the UK, Time & Talents (T&T) is based in an old mortuary (yes, an old mortuary) built in 1868 – which is much nicer than it sounds. Surrounded by beautiful mature gardens, on the edge of a picture postcard square which looks like it comes out of Downton Abbey, and yet encircled by traditional social housing, our Green Team gardening club meets twice a week.

T&T edible garden

Every session sees up to 15 people coming together, from their 20s to their 80s, a mixture of men and women, with different accents and origins. At first glance they seem to have nothing in common.  That changes when the gardening starts – or, some would say, when the kettle goes on.

Feeding the mind as well as the body

People start arriving on Friday at around 12. The group only starts at 1, but people are impatient to get going. Ted makes the sandwiches this week, he was once a caterer. Meanwhile, the squirrels have kindly left a few leaves for the team to eat, so Jo puts together a surprisingly diverse salad with lots of leaves from the garden. There’s a healthy eating flavour to things, but then, out comes a pie,  because we all recognise that healthy eating feeds the soul as well as the body.

By 1pm, the small wood-panelled room is jammed with people chatting, relaxing, and fortifying themselves before some gardening. Lunch is even more important than the gardening – but the gardening acts as an ‘excuse’ to come together. People often think they are coming for the gardening, come back for the lunch, and stay for the friendships. We often say ‘it’s not just about plants, it’s about people.’ That said, people feel a huge affinity, and a sense of pride, over the garden – as well they should. It’s incredibly beautiful.

After quite a bit of cajoling by Devon, our intrepid Green Team lead, people slowly go out into the garden to do some, well, gardening. Bob moves slowly and uses his stick, and focuses on watering. Berthe is a sprightly 28 year old new to the area and gets involved in selecting more plants. Jill, and Tony, her carer, work together on planting some seedlings. Jack has a long chat with Devon about his housing problems while they’re planting. It doesn’t matter that Devon can’t necessarily help directly – what matters is that he, and everyone else, is listening. Meanwhile, here’s some potatoes to plant.

After a couple of hours and at least four cups of tea per person, the sun is waning and it’s time to go home. It takes a long time for people to go, in slow dribs and drabs, saying their long goodbyes, until three days from now. Gertie is new today and swaps phone numbers with a new friend, and someone helps Jim home. The seedlings planted today seem to already be starting to grow.

All together now

Green Team offers a chance for people to come together and build a sense of belonging and fellowship over planting, harvesting, and eating what we grow. People have come to Green Team for all sorts of reasons – gardening is one of course. But many come most of all because they want to meet other people. Some feel isolated in their community. Some in the group have had issues with mental health. Some have disabilities, or multiple long-term conditions, or suffer from other problems like dementia. But that is not the point, and doesn’t cover everyone by any means. The point is the very positive approach to mental wellbeing that gardening can give – and that is valuable, and the same, for everyone in the group.

Many others are simply there because they want to connect to their community. It also gives them a chance to learn gardening together. Some join because they have skills and no garden, and just want to get involved. People‘s constant learning, researching, and developing of the garden gives them ownership and an empowering feeling of learning, whatever their background.

We’ve had people on career breaks from the City, newcomers to the UK who are struggling to find work and just need to get out and make friends, and volunteers who want to ‘help out’ near to where they work. We’ve had keen botanists who want to share their knowledge, and people who tend to kill anything that looks remotely green. But the sense of shared endeavour, a welcoming environment, and time to reflect and slow down is vital for everyone. The fact that this is a group without boundaries – and is organically (excuse pun) intergenerational, mixed ability, and mixed mental health status is one of its key strengths. While we do much ‘encounter work’ at T&T – bringing together kids and older people for ‘Crafty Beasts’, or our ‘Cycling Without Age’ programme, for example, we think the that is only part of the puzzle. Accidental and organic community connections are vital. It’s better, and we become better, when we spend time with people who are different from us in some way.

What is it for?

For that reason, we’ve never claimed, or presented Green Team as a ‘mental wellbeing group,’ but we know it has been vital to many participants (although by no means all) for those reasons. We also know that sticking a label like ‘mental wellbeing’ – or even worse, ‘mental health’ - on an activity will put many people off. If it draws in anyone, it will usually only attract ‘active patients’ who are already well-catered to by the health system. There is something vital about the space for light touch support – or no support at all, if you don’t want it – that attracts people who would never go near a community centre, or a clinic, or a counsellor. We also make it clear that this is not an ‘intervention’ – lots of people just don’t want to be ‘intervened’ with. The most important thing is that Green Team support and encourages positive mental wellbeing – and doesn’t even make a song and dance about that.

This approach especially attracts older men, who love Green Team, and often also attend our Pub Clubs (for men 50+) and our Rotherhithe Shed. Green Team also appeals to those who are not the most gregarious people, as well as some who are. Some people like to come and quietly garden alongside others, without necessarily needing to be ‘the life and soul of the party’. It allows quiet work alone, but surrounded by others, as well as chance to band together and have a laugh over some lunch if you want it.

Why it matters

The benefits of gardening to mental wellbeing are now fairly well-documented - the value of connecting with nature, and growing, has been recognised across a wide range of literature. Gardening for mental wellbeing is no longer quite so much on the fringes as it once was. At the same time, what we would stress again is that ‘it’s not just about plants, it’s about people’. In common with many of the activities we run at T&T, it’s the deep, supportive social relationships that people build, and a sense of belonging, that makes the biggest difference. Doing that in a place where people can grow organically connected into their community, and build the networks of support around them that our modern society often strips away, is a key part of our work.

There is much talk at the moment about the social model of depression and anxiety – the idea that much affective mental illness is socially, rather than chemically, caused. This certainly rings true for us in many cases, although we deeply respect our colleagues who work with people with serious mental illness, and see the vital distinctions between types and levels of mental health support needs.

But what we would add is that, even in cases where mental health issues have a more clinical causation, the kind of social solutions we pursue at T&T can have a huge effect, alongside whatever clinical interventions may be necessary.

As one person said to us, ‘It’s different here than at the clinic. People here are my friends. Sometimes, I don’t want treatment, I just want to be where it feels like people listen. And where people care.’