Blooms of hope: the gardening groups delivering smiles during lockdown

In the coming weeks, surprise bouquets will be delivered to people around Widnes, Cheshire, who need a pick-me-up. Blooms will go to, among others, care homes, cancer patients and the local hospice, with the aim of spreading the message “there is a light at the end of tunnel, spring is coming, it’s going to change, hang in there”.

The bunches of tulips and daffodils will be arranged and delivered by members of voluntary organisation Wonky Garden, which was set up to harness the therapeutic power of nature. “We can deliver smiles across the community,” says the group’s co-founder Angela Hayler.

Conversations between Hayler and two fellow cancer patients during their treatment led to them setting up the Wonky Garden in 2017. The award-winning community growing project has worked with hundreds of people from the area, including those with dementia and cancer, children and adults with additional needs, those experiencing social isolation, unemployed people and young carers.

But last year’s lockdowns meant much of the project’s work had to be scaled back – while its third of an acre plot flourished. “We had something grown with love for the community by the community,” says Hayler, “and we decided we would really love to gift it.”

So the Wonky Garden volunteers set about picking flowers and creating bouquets, which were delivered to care homes in the area and the local hospice. The volunteers also asked for nominations for people in the area in need of a lift, whether because they were vulnerable, isolating or having a difficult time. Nominations flooded in and hundreds of Wonky Garden bouquets were presented.

“Generally, a bunch of flowers is bought by someone you know for a specific occasion,” says Hayler, “and this was just to say we have all of the joy in the world spending time out in nature, growing these flowers, and we just wanted to say ‘hi’.”

Current restrictions mean people can only visit allotments in their own “bubble”, but Hayler hopes they will be eased by the time all the seedlings in the Wonky Garden potting shed are ready to plant out.

The Wonky Garden is one of almost 4,000 community gardening groups in the UK signed up to the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Britain in Bloom and It’s Your Neighbourhood programmes. Between them, the groups have around a quarter of a million volunteers, around 60,000 of whom regularly give their time to their local scheme.

Staff at the Madeline McKenna Court care home receive Wonky Garden bouquets. Photograph: The Wonky Garden, Cheshire

As gardeners plan and prepare for the year ahead, community gardening groups have been taking stock of their activities in 2020. Kay Clark, community development manager for the RHS, says 650 groups responded to a yet-to-be-published survey – shared with SocietyGuardian today – about what they did during lockdown and 91% of them said they had remained active. Some new groups had set up during lockdown, established groups had an influx of new volunteers, and many groups felt their work had been recognised and cherished.

“We have seen volunteers who have being doing this for years are suddenly massively appreciated in ways they have never been before,” she says. “They are caring for a public space or park, somewhere that people might have walked past a million times but in the past year, they suddenly value that space and realise that somebody is taking care of it, making it special, and they can go and spend time in it.”

The volunteers themselves also acknowledged the benefits they were reaping, says Clark, as gardening provided a sense of purpose, gave a focus to their day and helped people to feel less isolated.

Many groups pivoted their activities to benefit their communities, the survey reveals. A number focused on food, including growing produce for their local food banks. Clark says there was also evidence that areas with gardening groups had proved to be more resilient during last year’s lockdowns as they already had established networks of community groups. This is in addition to the benefits to physical and mental health; a BMJ paper last year concluded that gardens and gardening can improve health and wellbeing for people with a range of health issues, while studies have repeatedly found mental health benefits, including reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The RHS cancelled the finals for last year’s Britain in Bloom competition and has decided not to run the contest this year either, instead planning to launch the RHS community awards, which will reflect groups’ activities over the past year. Award categories will include one for nourishing communities, another will recognise groups that have built connections in their area.

In the village of Holt, near Wrexham in north Wales, the community gardening group was only founded in 2019. Its initial focus was to bring colour to the village and “feed the hearts, minds and souls” of residents and those passing through, says the group’s treasurer, Bob Campbell. But during the first wave of the pandemic, it was also literally feeding villagers.

From July to November, the group provided weekly deliveries of seasonal fruit and vegetables from its allotments for vulnerable older people and those who were shielding in the village. These deliveries also ensured vital social contact for recipients. Villagers were invited to pick their own produce at the allotments and a herb box was placed outside the local shop, with passersby invited to help themselves.

Despite the logistical challenges of differing lockdown rules for England and Wales – with members and suppliers on either side of the border – Campbell says the group achieved more last year than they possibly would have done otherwise.

“We are a very socially caring village,” he says. “That has grown [during the pandemic]. With people are working from home now, awareness and the ability to help your neighbour has certainly increased.”

Campbell and Hayler were already keen gardeners before founding their groups, but Anna McGilvray was a complete novice when she joined Walthamstow Village in Bloom last year.

Although she was interested in joining the group when she first moved to the area of east London three years ago, she had found it hard to make the time. “And then last year, I suddenly found I had a lot more time available and really relished the opportunity to get outside and be around other people, because we have lost a lot of connections.”

Walthamstow Village in Bloom
‘I don’t think I had quite registered until this year came along that just being outside, being in green space, listening to the birds – all of those things are so important to lift you.’ Photograph: Walthamstow Village in Bloom

McGilvray, who lives in a flat with no outdoor space, says being involved in the gardening group was essential to give her a break from screentime and long working days, as well as giving her a purpose and focus.

“I don’t think I had quite registered until this year came along that just being outside, being in green space, listening to the birds – all of those things are so important to lift you,” she says. “Really important for mental health. Everybody needs a break from being inside.”

The group’s activities this month include pruning roses, weeding and tidying planters to show the spring bulbs at their best, tidying a wildlife area, refilling bird feeders and cleaning bird boxes ready for nesting.

The efforts of the gardening group have given a huge amount of enjoyment to people in the area during the pandemic, says McGilvray, although she admits that she was previously often too busy to appreciate the floral displays. She would dash past a patch planted with daffodils on the way to the tube without noticing them, but this year she has spotted shoots and is looking forward to seeing them bloom, and is also excited about signs of the first bulbs she planted last year, a patch of crocuses.

“There’s a lot of horrible things about this past year,” she says. “But the slowing down and the taking time to notice things is something that I don’t want to change. It has been a lovely thing to gain.”

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