A look at the work of Kent’s community gardens in helping a range of people improve their physical and mental health – all through the growing and nurturing of plants

Is the rise of community gardens across the country due to greater awareness of the physical and mental health benefits of being in nature and gardening, or is it that more people are in need in these challenging times? These are the thoughts I have while looking into the range of community gardens on offer here in Kent. Studies have shown that heart rate and blood pressure drops after only three or four minutes in a garden, and that ‘green exercise’ from gardening benefits physical and mental health. Community gardens are for everyone, whether they're used as therapeutic spaces in which people can talk or as settings for hands-on involvement. Wellbeing, the relief from loneliness, and connecting with nature became top priorities during lockdown and there was a real surge of interest from home gardeners in cultivating their patch, no matter its size. Today, factor in the current economic situation and issues around food poverty and sustainability and the chance to get into a garden - especially if you don’t have one at home - becomes even more valuable. Community gardens make gardening accessible, bringing people together from different walks of life with a shared interest in growing and nurturing, creating an enriching experience. For many, community gardening equates to growing food, for others it’s the chance to learn new skills, meet new people, green a local area or conserve wildlife habitats. You are sharing the process and benefits of caring for the environment, while helping others, and there is often the ripple effect to the surrounding area, attracting more wildlife, helping people eat more healthily, and even creating a safer place to live (cleaner, greener streets have been linked to lower crime rates and reduced anti-social behaviour).

Great British Life: Panels in the Healing Garden at Blackthorn Trust (c) Blackthorn TrustPanels in the Healing Garden at Blackthorn Trust (c) Blackthorn Trust

A prime example of the wonderful work our community gardens do in Kent is The Blackthorn Trust Garden in Maidstone, founded by local GP, Dr David McGavin, and art therapist Hazel Adams, both of whom recognised the importance of community and environment for healing and recovery. Based on the Rudolf Steiner principles of nurture, healing and growth, the charity provides specialist therapies and workshops for people with mental-health challenges and chronic pain. The site, previously the kitchen garden of Oakwood Psychiatric hospital which closed in 1994, includes a vegetarian café, charity shop, craft studio and therapy rooms. These are set within an atmospheric biodynamic and healing garden designed by award-winning Kent landscape architect, Marian Boswall. Within the healing garden, designed by Marian to be a ‘big hug’, the wildlife-friendly plants were selected for their therapeutic values, textures, scents and shapes to form a peaceful environment. ‘The Blackthorn Trust radiates kindness and hope, and our design focused on this,’ says Marian. ‘Working with the staff and co-workers to create the physic garden gave as much to me, and my team, if not more, than we gave them. Each time I visit I am reminded that places like this are not just for others. We are all community and in giving we get back much, much more.’

Blackthorn Trust is a physical representation of the change in the modern treatment of mental illness, away from hospitals to community-based care, with many doctors prescribing green, social activities for patients to get out into nature. Says Emma Halpin, the Trust’s Chief Executive: ‘People often tell us that they feel more relaxed and their mood improves as soon as they enter the garden here. It’s very rewarding, especially as we get this type of feedback from members of the public visiting the garden as well as those participating in our therapeutic workshops.” ‘As well as using Blackthorn Trust’s therapeutic services, people in and around Maidstone benefit from this community garden by visiting its healing environment, volunteering around the site and attending community event.

Great British Life:  Mandy Doran at Hope Farm Image: Ann Chown Mandy Doran at Hope Farm Image: Ann Chown

Also with the needs of their community at the fore, The Hands of Hope Charity has regenerated a neglected walled garden in Hawkhurst, creating the Hope Farm Community Garden, supporting communities throughout Rother, Hastings and West Kent. ‘We undertook extensive consultations within 10 miles to discover gaps in services, and the main activities mentioned by respondents included improving social inclusion for older people, countering loneliness in men, improving wellbeing via organic, sustainable growing and gardening, access to green spaces for improved physical wellbeing with focus on limitations for those living with mobility issues and developing organic food growing networks,’ explains co-founder and trustee Mandy Doran. ‘Improving community cohesion and tackling a perceived lack of support and learning facilities within rural communities, especially for younger people were other issues.’

Using growing, cooking and nature-based activities projects at Hope Farm help tackle a range of these wellbeing needs. Programmes and activities include a lunch club for older people, encouraging groups to grow their own food, beekeeping courses, spinning and weaving, woodworking, horticulture as therapy and an organic box scheme. Says Mandy: ‘We have aligned our activities to the government’s environmental strategy “A Greener Future”, which promotes resourcing Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) such as ours, to guarantee their long-term protection and enhancement. This is so natural environments can be used as a resource for preventative and therapeutic purposes, using nature-based interventions to improve physical and mental health. We also support the NHS 5 key recommendations: to connect, to be active, to take notice (be mindful), to learn and to give back.’

To know

• The Blackthorn Trust Garden, Maidstone, ME16 9AN

Open to the public Mon – Fri (9.30-3.30)

See website for details on the workshops and how you can get involved through volunteering, fund-raising or becoming a Friend of Blackthorn


• Hands of Hope Charity

Hope Farm Community Garden, Hawkhurst, TN18 4QB

Organic farm shop and café open Fridays



Did you know?

• Rudolf Steiner, founder of the biodynamic approach as featured at Blackthorne, was one of the first to warn about the use of chemicals degrading the health of soil, plant and animal health, and devitalising our food

• He was an Austrian scientist and philosopher (1861-1925)

• His spiritual-scientific ideas led to holistic innovations in various fields, including education, medicine and agriculture

• His comprehensive approach to soil, plant, animal and human health used principles we are fully aware of today, such as the importance of biodiversity, integration and community-supported agriculture, with a focus on the health of the soil in producing organic products of the highest flavour and quality

• If you fancy creating a community garden or project, it could be that you just need the landowners permission and a group of willing volunteers to transform a derelict patch

• The RHS can support new groups with resources and training through their Communities team: rhs.org.uk

• Garden volunteers are bound to very welcome at your local community garden, so if you’re interested do get in touch and find out how you can help.

Three further community gardens to get involved with

Great British Life: The Windmill Community Garden, Margate (c) Leigh ClappThe Windmill Community Garden, Margate (c) Leigh Clapp

• Windmill Community Gardens, Margate, CT9 2SH

Open Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri, Sat

Workshops, activities, veg box scheme


Great British Life: Stream Walk Community Garden, Whitstable (c) Leigh ClappStream Walk Community Garden, Whitstable (c) Leigh Clapp

• Stream Walk Community Garden, Whitstable, CT5 1RH

Open for volunteer gardening, it features productive beds and wildlife habitats, plant nursery and activity areas


Great British Life: At Abbey Physic Garden and many others there are workshops for men to get involved (c) Leigh ClappAt Abbey Physic Garden and many others there are workshops for men to get involved (c) Leigh Clapp

• Abbey Physic Community Garden, Faversham, ME13 7BG

‘Gardening for the Mind’ course, wellness workshops, talking groups and drop-in sessions

Community café and kitchen

Open to the public Friday (10-3), Saturday and Sunday (11-2)