The Lambeth GP Food Co-op has established several food growing spaces on or near healthcare sites in South London. These spaces are used by people with long-term health conditions, who can spend time outdoors, enjoy gentle exercise, have the chance to socialise, and learn about growing fruit and vegetables. Tom is one of the beneficiaries of this project; he was involved first as an inpatient following a stroke, and is now a regular garden volunteer at the Jennie Lee Garden at King’s College Hospital. He shared his story with us.

I come to you today, not as a manager, but as a patient and as a service user, a beneficiary of a community garden. I would like to talk to you a little bit about my journey and how I came to become involved. As mentioned, I suffered a stroke in 2019 which affects my mobility and my cognitive functioning, particularly on my right-hand side.

I was referred by my occupational therapist to a garden project as part of my stroke rehabilitation, I’m so glad that I was. The garden I was first referred to was part of the Lambeth GP Food Co-op. I was warmly welcomed by the founder Ed [Rosen] and other volunteers, who helped me to grow vegetables. And we grew many vegetables and herbs along the way, including pumpkin, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, lettuce and, on and on. We just grow lots and lots of different things that our team leader brought for us to grow, thyme and spring onions.

Raised beds in the Lambeth Walk Surgery garden
Raised beds in the Lambeth Walk Surgery garden. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

There I was, going along with my stroke rehabilitation, when the Covid pandemic struck. I, like many others, were told in 2020 that we needed to isolate and shield ourselves, just lock ourselves away. This meant a year of lockdowns and isolation.I was unable to attend the project, meet extended family and friends. My home physiotherapy had stopped; I couldn’t even go to work. The repetition of each day was like the movie Groundhog Day, but far, far worse in terms of my mental health. Dreadful, it was. And when I needed friends most, and people to reach out… The loneliness and idleness is really what got to me really, was feeling that sense of hopelessness, and that time I really needed people to reach out.

Very fortunately, the Lambeth GP Food Growing project had a scheme called a buddy scheme, whereby seeds would be sent out to us in our homes, and we would have regular phone calls from our buddy to see how the plants were growing and also how we were in terms of our own wellbeing. So that really made a huge difference for me, particularly as I found myself falling into a depression, spiralling into a depression, with increasing levels of prescribed medications, and for the first time in my life a mental health crisis intervention. It was it was a really tough time for me.

A volunteer at King's Hospital's Jennie Lee Garden
A volunteer at King’s Hospital’s Jennie Lee Garden. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

But my friends in the group, they helped me to come through. It wasn’t easy. I was in a dark place as I think it’s called, but nonetheless we go forward. So, after a period of what seemed forever, the lockdowns, the shielding was lifted. By this time, I was retired on health grounds after 35 years in supported housing management, and my family, knowing how much I enjoyed the gardening project, suggested that I rejoin. I contacted Ed and the other volunteers, and I was welcomed back, but this time to a wonderful garden called the Jennie Lee Garden. Jennie Lee was the founder of the Open University and wife of Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS, so it’s actually a great honour to be working in such prestigious gardens, which have a lovely heritage. And I’m sure that Nye and his wife, if they look in, they would see that and be happy that their gardens are being put to good use because we really do enjoy the gardens and we go there every day.

As an inpatient and as an outpatient, I can tell you there are many, many therapeutic benefits, to being involved in the gardens and being part of nature. They include just connecting with the ground, and with the soil, and with nature, and knowing the seasons. They keep you grounded, sorry for the pun there, but they keep you grounded, especially during difficult times when your mind is troubled. And also gentle exercise, fresh air, sunshine, but more so I think socialisation, the opportunity to meet like-minded people who also share the same troubles and same thoughts and drive. It was great for me to be able to come out of lockdown and meet with my colleagues back in the gardens and regain my social confidence, which I’m still working on.

There’s a way to go in my rehabilitation, but I can tell you this: my experience now is that I’m in a much better place. I’m happier and I’m looking forward to continuing with the project.

Read more about the Lambeth GP Co-op on the project website, and hear Tom’s full account of his experiences with the co-op in his presentation at the 2021 NHS Forest Conference.

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