The Nurture Project, Kettlestone: improving mental health through horticulture

Founder Carlyn Kilpatrick and volunteer Rebecca Richings of The Nurture Project is a therapeutic yea

Founder Carlyn Kilpatrick and volunteer Rebecca Richings of The Nurture Project is a therapeutic year round garden project, supporting adults living with mild to moderate mental health issues. It aims to provide an impartial and safe space for adults to improve their mental and physical wellbeing in a friendly but structured environment (photo: Steve Adams) - Credit: Archant

The Nurture Project aims to improve health and well-being through gardening – and it is not hard to see how this beautiful, magical place could transform lives

Gardens at Kettlestone House (photo: Steve Adams)

Gardens at Kettlestone House (photo: Steve Adams) - Credit: Archant

You can’t help but feel a very special sense of calm and an inspiring connection with nature when you explore the Nurture Project.

Nestled in the heart of the Norfolk countryside, down hedge lined winding lanes surrounded by vast open fields, the garden is a true horticultural haven.

From the magical, light dappled woodland and the pond surrounded by beautiful wildflowers to the resident pigs – Patsy and Edina – the secluded spots for quiet contemplation and the stunning, tranquil walled garden, it is not hard to see why owner Carlyn Kilpatrick transformed her gardens into a centre for social and therapeutic horticulture.

The Nurture Project offers green health programmes to those suffering from mental health issues, those with dementia or learning disabilities, providing specialist individual programmes to boost wellbeing.

(photo: Steve Adams)

(photo: Steve Adams) - Credit: Archant

“You can really appreciate the cyclical nature of life here,” she says. “You see people really engaging in what’s happening around them and it is really rewarding. Gardening spaces mean something very different to everybody, it could be a walk in the park, it could be growing vegetables in an allotment, it could be just as a small private green space to sit and contemplate. It doesn’t matter your age, class, gender, ethnicity; if you have an interest in gardening it cuts straight through everything.”

Carlyn works with a small team, horticultural expert Alan Barson and volunteer and old school friend Rebecca Richings ,to create tailored programmes for each client which will boost their self-esteem, health and confidence.

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“We ask people what their aims are and consider their needs and their goals to develop something very specific for each individual as their needs can be hugely complex. This can be done in a very subtle way, from the plants you work with and the activities you do to the level of social interaction which is really key. Some of our clients might not talk to anybody day to day, so they are able to come here, a confidential safe space where no one will judge them, and can hopefully gain confidence and trust.”

Carlyn says that every client gets something different out of the project and it isn’t just about learning gardening skills.

(photo: Steve Adams)

(photo: Steve Adams) - Credit: Archant

“One of my clients struggles with reading and writing so we work together writing the plant labels which he finds a huge sense of achievement in. Another struggled to even make eye contact in the office, but as soon as we walked in to the garden was a completely different person and her knowledge of plant names was incredible.

“Gardening requires great patience and one client has been very focused this summer on the pumpkins he is growing. Every time he comes, he has great expectations about their progress. We have had a couple of weeks where the plants haven’t looked that healthy, so we have talked a lot about managing expectations and understanding everything doesn’t always go to plan, which has been incredibly helpful to him. Thankfully they are doing very well now,” she smiles.

She says for those with early dementia it can trigger a recall of skills and knowledge which might have been lost in their memory.

“It’s extraordinary. We sometimes find with those suffering from dementia that they have these incredible skills and knowledge which have been left dormant. When we are in the woods or the garden, it seems to unlock some of this, whether it is knowing about plants or woodworking techniques.”

(photo: Steve Adams)

(photo: Steve Adams) - Credit: Archant

The project also has a woodland walkway and the team uses the natural resources provided by the trees in the garden for a variety of projects, such as coppicing and creating support structures and decorative features.

“I don’t just want clients to be doing the work, I want them to be involved in the planning of the garden if they want to, to take ownership of a particular project, of what to grow. I have also learned a huge amount from my clients – from bees to plant names – and it is very much a two-way thing and enables people to share their knowledge and interests in a very safe environment.”

For Carlyn, her interested in ‘green health’ came from a long and deep-rooted love for gardening and the countryside which began as a young child.

“I have always loved gardening. I had a shared interest with my late father and we would always do a lot of gardening together. Even when we were living in London and the garden was the size of a postage stamp I still enjoyed it,” she says.

(photo: Steve Adams)

(photo: Steve Adams) - Credit: Archant

“When we moved up here 16 years ago, there really was nothing here and the walled garden had been home to chickens for 30 years. So we started from scratch and did it all on a shoestring.”

Now the idyllic, sunny, flint-walled garden is the centre piece of the project’s work. There are tidy boxed hedges around the beds (currently suffering from blight which a client is helping with), vivid flowers, abundant varieties of fruit and vegetables and the most incredible scents. It is warm and sheltered and there is no noise aside from the rustling of the leaves in the wind, the bountiful bird song and the buzzing of the very busy bees.

Caryln had previously trained in psychotherapy and had worked with people with mental health issues, but, she says, she never saw herself in a traditional treatment room setting.

“What I couldn’t get my head round was this white coat syndrome, the idea of always being in a consultancy room. Then I read something about social and therapeutic horticulture and it was like a light bulb going on, a way to combine my counselling skills and my passion for the garden. So I began training in therapeutic horticulture and the idea for the Nurture Garden began.

(photo: Steve Adams)

(photo: Steve Adams) - Credit: Archant

When her father was diagnosed with vascular dementia she says it was the time they spent together which persuaded her of the benefits of green treatments.

“When his dementia was in its early stages he would come over for the day and I would garden with him. I think I learned more about him in those days of side-by-side gardening than in my whole life and I know he loved those days. He knew about my plans to set up the nurture garden and my experience with him, seeing what he and I both got out of gardening together during his illness, really reinforced my belief that I was doing the right thing.”

The project aims to work alongside local mental health teams and GP practices around the north and west Norfolk areas, but she says while community referral schemes and social prescribing by the NHS is growing, there is still a long way to go.

“There is definitely a movement now which is building and there is a lot of research which has already been done and is ongoing as it is essential to provide the evidence to ensure that as an approach it is taken seriously going forward.

“At the moment my clients are self funded but we are looking to get some funding so that we can work more closely with the NHS as I want this to be something available to everyone, not just for those who can afford it,” she says.

“It is very small steps we take here; too often we are expecting quick fixes with mental health issues, but there is not really a quick fix, which I want the project to recognise. Clients are not just here for a six week programme, then it finishes and they go. It is something long term, for as long as people need it. It is something they can focus on and enjoy and follow through the seasons, watching the garden develop and grow.”

The Nurture Project, Kettlestone House, The Street, Kettlestone, NR21 0JA

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