Tea and chat amid the veggie patch

Sarah Manton-Roseblade (centre) with GreenCare allotmenteers at London Road, Ipswich, allotments.

Sarah Manton-Roseblade (centre) with GreenCare allotmenteers at London Road, Ipswich, allotments. - Credit: Suffolk Mind

At an allotment in Ipswich, Suffolk Mind's GreenCare project is sowing the seeds of confidence and optimism for people struggling with their mental health

Allotments are peaceful places. At the London Road allotments in Ipswich, spring has sprung and the sun is shining. A group of allotmenteers sits down to a cup of tea and a chat about what's going on in their lives.

This is the Ipswich GreenCare group, one of three organised by local mental health charity Suffolk Mind to help improve members' physical and mental wellbeing. They're busy preparing for summer. After a winter hiatus, discussions are well underway about what vegetables to grow this season - they’ve already planted garlic, and are excited to try growing pumpkins and squash.

In one corner of the patch, Dan learns how to plant onions with his new friend, Alex. This is Dan’s first time at the allotment, while Alex is already passing on tips despite having only visited once before. The pair have picked up their new-found green-fingered skills quickly, as they share a laugh about keeping their row of vegetables in a straight line. Both smile throughout the morning’s session, eager to explore what they can do next time they meet up. 

Two men chatting

For some people, it's easier to express themselves outside the four walls of a consulting room. - Credit: Suffolk Mind

Man gardening

Everyone picks up new green-fingered skills... - Credit: Suffolk Mind

Another regular arrives, Sudbury-born Sharon, who has been attending GreenCare sessions since 2019. Sharon doesn’t shy away from sharing her experiences of anxiety and depression. “I have a history of anxiety and depression,” she explains. “Things had gotten so bad that I wasn’t able to go into the shops to pick up more than one thing at a time. I felt like a prisoner in my own home and was scared to leave my front door." Now, leaving the house to visit the allotment is the highlight of her week and has helped her to rebuild her life.

“The project has really helped me. It’s made me a lot more confident and seen me do things I never thought I’d be able to do." Sharon has big plans for the allotment this year and is eagerly awaiting the summer sun. “It really has given me a new lease of life,” she says. “It’s inspired me to do new things. Now I want to travel and live my life again. I am so thankful – it's just so incredible how much this can benefit you. I want everyone to know how brilliant this place and these people are. I’d love to bring Chris Packham here. It would be great for him to see all the work we are doing.”

Sarah Manton-Roseblade works at the Suffolk Mind plots in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill. 

Sarah Manton-Roseblade, an experienced horticulturist with a passion for helping others, works at the Suffolk Mind plots in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill. - Credit: Suffolk Mind

The group is overseen by Sarah Manton-Roseblade, an experienced horticulturist with a passion for helping others. She works two days a week, supporting service users at the Suffolk Mind plots in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill. Sarah’s role is funded entirely by Suffolk Mind, who in turn operate thanks to the generosity of local people – although the charity is in need of more financial support. GreenCare is one of many services the charity provides. Others include support for new mothers, counselling for people with eating disorders and a Night Owl emotional support line.

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“Somebody described this as not just a place to come and take care of a patch of land,” says Sarah. “This is a place to take care of ourselves, and each other. That’s absolutely true, and it’s really important. Sitting inside a room and talking around a coffee table doesn’t work for everyone. Some people feel trapped inside four walls and feel like they can’t express themselves or talk openly about how they feel, it can stop them from relaxing. The GreenCare project is a perfect medium for people to come and get together.”

Man painting a fence

John shows off his work painting the rear fence, bringing yet more colour to allotment. - Credit: Suffolk Mind

Having worked in ecotherapy for a number of years, Sarah has seen first-hand how big a difference it can have on people’s lives. To her, an allotment is so much more than a rented space to grow vegetables for a few months every year. “With GreenCare, it is so nice to be outside and really get a chance to get to know one another, build meaningful relationships and enjoy nature,” she says. “We have a real sense of community here, people don’t need to come to every session, but we have a core group of regulars who really look forward to coming along.”

An area Suffolk Mind is keen to work on is emotional needs, a set of 12 physical and emotional requirements that help people to stay well and GreenCare covers several of them. “We all have our own emotional needs,” Sarah explains. “And community is one of them. But GreenCare offers so much more, including the sense of achievement in learning something new and seeing the results of the things you grow. An important lesson too is that if things go wrong, you can try again. And that’s true in life.”

Demand for the project increases in spring, as the clearing of winter clouds brings a new sense of optimism. This month marks the return of RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where the national Mind charity is displaying a garden to promote the benefits of gardening for mental health. “We’re applying for tickets,” says Sarah. The hope is that some GreenCare participants will work on the national Mind garden. 

Sarah describes her job as "amazing". "I really do enjoy it. I get paid to be in my favourite place in the world – an allotment. I’ve always liked working with people, and those who feel like they might not have a voice or are looked down on. It's all about giving something back. Seeing how people’s lives have improved as a result of what we do is an incredible feeling.”

For more information on the GreenCare project visit suffolkmind.org.uk/services/greencare
To support Suffolk Mind’s work and help fund roles like Sarah’s visit giving.suffolkmind.org.uk/donate 

'We all learn together'
A volunteer's story

Suffolk Mind services like the GreenCare project would not be possible without kind-hearted volunteers like Claire Stone. Claire joined the team three years ago and has never looked back. She's made new friends and learned new skills.

“I saw something on Gardeners’ World (BBC) about the benefits of gardening on mental health, and I thought to myself ‘what a great idea’. I did some research and found the Suffolk Mind website, with information about the GreenCare project – it just jumped out at me and I really wanted to get involved.”

People working on an allotment

Working together provides opportunities for talking and sharing experiences. - Credit: Suffolk Mind

Claire admitted joining the team has presented some challenges, although she's relished them. “I’ve always grown flowers and shrubs at home, but learning about vegetables was a bit of a learning curve. That’s what’s great about coming here, we all learn together. Personally, I love spending time in nature and helping people. It helps clear your mind, and in the case of helping other people, makes you feel good too.

“Seeing people come back with a growing sense of confidence in themselves, hearing about their stories and how the GreenCare project has benefitted them is so lovely. It is so rewarding. I would love to see more volunteers get involved.”

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Suffolk Mind is on the lookout for volunteers to help at its three allotments, supporting group participants and hands-on with planting, watering and harvesting. Anyone interested can contact the charity on 0300 111 6000, or via bury.admin@suffolkmind.org.uk.