Volunteering for mental health

As Head Gardener of St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, I have been really pleased with the numbers of volunteers who have joined me recently. Tuesday to Friday, 1-4pm, we quite often have 7-8 people. Volunteers are always welcome. However, it has also become apparent that the sessions are having a therapeutic effect on the mental health of volunteers too. The article below explores, with permission, some of their stories. 

Wendy is a thirty-something with the most piercing blue eyes you have ever seen. I had to ask whether they were contact lenses. When her father, then mother, died two years ago, she spiralled into an extreme form of grief which triggered anorexia, hospitalisation and suicidal thoughts. She was put on anti-depressants. 

It is a familiar story. 

When her partner started volunteering in St Mary’s churchyards four months ago, Wendy was apprehensive. The graves, the dead bodies played on her mind. Yet, as she saw him starting to enjoy the experience she became more intrigued. After three, two hour sessions clearing Ivy and leaves she has changed her attitude. “I thought that the graveyard would be a barrier, but it has actually helped me to accept what happened. The graves are a positive.” Death has been normalised for her in a way that she perhaps wasn’t ready for until now. “I have never seen the point of gardening before, but I am loving it.”

The mental health crisis in this country is widely acknowledged as is the need to address it in more subtle ways than chemical numbness. Keats, the romantic poet with some experience in this area, starts his Ode on Melancholy, “No, no, go not to Lethe” rejecting the oblivion of drink, drugs or suicide in favour of “rose…salt sand wave…peonies”: an appreciation of nature. This is not a trite substitute for drugs, he argues, but rather part of a process of accepting that melancholy and delight are intertwined. I have been surprised how powerfully volunteer gardening can act on all sorts of people in helping them appreciate the mental weather they experience. I am also humbled to have been a facilitator of the experience for them. 

David is a fifty something whose face is expressive , but also shows the marks of a difficult life. “This is my Prozac,” he says of the volunteering he does three times a week now. “It should be compulsory”. Working outside in November and December takes him back to a time in his life where the woods were his playground. Reconnecting him to the squirrels of childhood, brings back a Proustian moment when he was happy. He believes that the modern world has stripped us of our genetic heritage and disconnected us from nature. He too has experience of prescription medicine which, he believes, is less effective than getting his hands dirty. 

Sarah is a fifty-something woman of striking looks. She has volunteered for more than a year, steadily taking on more and more graves, beds and monuments to cultivate. There is a clear relish to her time in the churchyards. She loves thinking about how to combine plants and their capabilities. She also has a long-term chronic health condition. “Being part of something bigger than yourself, learning and sharing knowledge are all good things for the human brain,” she says, echoing the experience of other volunteers. For her, it can be a mood changer. Laughter, friendship and a sense of achievement are also important elements of why she keeps coming back. 

If you have been struck by these stories and want to volunteer, at St Mary’s or near to where you live, feel free to get in touch. You might also look at the Forest Flora website which promotes horticultural volunteering within Waltham Forest: https://forestflora.co.uk

The Return of Six on Saturday

How time flies, eh? It has been seven months since I last blogged, which is rather shameful. What can I tell you? I’ve been busy. Anyway, here it is with a few familiar favourites for you. IMG_4909IMG_4896IMG_4913IMG_4904

  1. Crocus. I am much more attracted to Crocus than Snowdrops. I love their brightness and cheering qualities. I think they are the more beautiful too. Don’t get me wrong, I like Snowdrops and find their generosity very useful, but you won’t get me freaking out over tiny differences and spending silly money on rare examples. I will do that for records, but not for Snowdrops. Anyway, here are some that have multiplied beautifully in the graveyard (pale Tommasinianus?) with an early visitor, Tricolour in a crevice added last year and a patch of Tommasinianus that local residents planted all along my road.


2. Hellebore, Anna’s Red. I went to a talk at The Chelsea Physic Garden last Sunday (recommended) by Edward Flint. He loves Hellebores and spoke a lot about the various strains and their purity. He made me rather ashamed of my muddy seedlings, enough to fork out for this one.


3. Behind a gravestone on the South Bed the Paeony is rising. This looks a bit like a police line-up shot. I love foliage before anything is awake enough to nibble it.


4. Inspired by a recent Gardens Illustrated article, I have been tying up any roses I can get hold of. This one is Rambling Rector in my yard. The idea is you tie stems very tightly together. I have done that. Let’s see what the storm does to it tomorrow!


5. So, I planted some Coronilla valentina in this planter last year and it has been flowering away really nicely all Winter. I think the council noticed and went to look for a salt container in the same shade to place next to it. Then someone tagged it. And left a coffee cup. Nice.

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6. Cyclamen coum. Self seeding plants are so useful. These have been in rough grass on a bank for years and have seeded around really nicely. I am going to dig some up and move them around in April. If I remember.


Scorchio, Six on Saturday, 29.6.19

The one where Summer colour rules


  1. I love the colour, the crinkled petals and the ephemeral nature of Cistus incanus in flower. And they love the 30 degree plus heat we are currently experiencing. These are lovely out of leaf too. No trouble on a sunny, gravel slope. Why wouldn’t you?


2. Veronica Ink. Nice spike, nice blue, about knee high to a short man. The thing I learned this week is the horticultural application of the word “fascination”. It is when a plant puts out unusual or distorted growth and has a range of causes, apparently. Well these are prone to it, which is why I looked it up. There is a Veronicastrum called Fascination, which I assumed was a slightly hyperbolic and romantic name for the plant, but may be related to this phenomenon.


3. A little scene involving Santolina Primrose Gem, Origanum Aureum Crispum and Crambe maritima. Quite happy with this. Some say that the Crambe’s new shoots are tasty and I might find out soon, when the client’s backs are turned.


4. Another very happy sunbather is Ricinus communis. I bought three for £1.50 each from a car boot in Suffolk a few weeks ago. There was a lovely old boy who had some interesting self-grown plants. They have been steadily rising, but I expect them to shoot up this week.


5. I planted these pots for the vicar about six weeks ago and they are just coming in to their own. Salvia and Achillea is a classic Summer combination, but the Festuca brings something to the party too.


6. The wooden planters on Church Hill, planted in March are just coming into their prime too. Perhaps a bit too crowded, they need some editing, but there is lots to interest the eye and attract litter here!

If you like this kind of thing, then check out the fountainhead of all things six, The Propagator: https://thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com



The Return of Six on a Saturday 8.6.19


  1. Look at it. Nice flower, eh? But that is only a small part of the story. Pelargonium Ardens is a temperamental, flouncy, spoilt and capricious little so and so. I have waited years (5) to get to this stage. Repotting, moving, watering, feeding, protecting. I was on the point of giving up. Then, on Wednesday, this single flower. It is not worth the effort. Yet. But it is the hope that kills you, right?


2. Another underwhelming flower. Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor. Hundreds of them growing in the churchyard meadow that we sowed in January. I was a bit sceptical about their chances, but fair play to them, they are doing their job of sucking the life out of some of the lush grass we have there. I will be collecting seed and spreading it around for next year.


3. Candelabra primula, grown from HPS seed last year. Now happily ensconced in a small bog garden in Epping. That is the thing about the HPS seed scheme, you can give all sorts of things a go and then try to find somewhere to put them. You also feel different about plants raised from seed versus ones you bought. This is too garish for my tastes, but the clients seem to like them!

4. Papavar somniferum, the opium poppy. Such a great plant. I have learnt to be strict with them though. There are two forms grown in the churchyard, Alba and Lauren’s Grape. Luckily, the white one opens first and is pollinated before the plum so cross fertilisation is avoided . This means it is easy to rogue out the few that come through as a muddy purple. I do weed quite a lot out and once I have collected seed will pull out the rest. It is nice to have standing seedheads, but I have got too many other plants jostling to go in the spaces.

5. Chelsea Fringe walk. We had a great Chelsea Fringe event two weekends ago. There were over 50 on the two walks including the main man of the Fringe, Tim Richardson (pictured listening to Stavros hold court). The newly fenced wildlife pond was a big hit and is starting to fill out a bit. We made enough money from plant sales to buy a new wheelbarrow for the churchyards too. Worth the effort.

6. Salvia Caradonna. It is everywhere this week. These are two gardens I planted over the last two years and I noticed just how versatile and companionable this plant is. Complimentary, contrasting, whatever you need, it has got it. All you want is a hot, free draining, sunny spot and it is happy to get on with it, coming  back reliably.

Promotion on a Saturday 27.4.19


I have been a bit obsessed in recent weeks by my long term love, Leyton Orient F C’s promotion from the National League to League Two. Confirmed today with a glorious 0-0 draw, at home, to Braintree. What can we conclude from this? I must learn to take more flattering selfies. Never to drink and blog again. Still, here goes.


  1. Foliage is the best. It lasts. So when it goes well, it is better than flower combinations in my view. Here are Artemisia Valerie Finnis and Veronica Ink rubbing shoulders together in my front garden in a very matey kind of way. Contrasting colour, but complimentary leaf shape. What else do you want?


2. Matthiola incana Alba. Grown from seed last year, it has been a long wait to get to this stage. The leaf is a grey rosette which is pleasant enough. The flowers are pretty. But it is the scent which knocks you down. Like frangipani and concentrated vanilla essence. When someone has a B.O. problem and pours half a bottle of aftershave over themselves.


3. The humble Osteospermum. An unknown white cultivar originally from my mum. Forms a well behaved rounded mound for a start. This is a good thing next to a path. Then it flowers, and flowers, and flowers til about October. I might actually stop it in July for its own good. Give it a severe trim, take cuttings,  and wait for a better Autumn show. Good plant for sun and good drainage.


4. The humble Saxifragia x urbium, London Pride. So unfashionable, it’s a joke. Think Sixties suburban rock gardens. But it is a great plant. Glossy rosettes of fresh green foliage, slender pinky/buff stalks with starry white flowers. This is the best thing in my alpine grave trough right now.



5. Tulip in the grass. I was given some Tulips from the London Parks and Garden Trust late in the day last year (December). They were hastily found a home in the funeral urns along a strip of the churchyard. Now, nearly subsumed by grass, they look like giant drops of blood in the meadow. If that was ever a poetic image…


6. So, Erysimum Ruston royal was a bit rubbish last year. Not as floriferous, not as long lasting as the ubiquitous Bowles Mauve. This year, week three of flowering, it is better and has playmates in Miscanthus sinensis Morning Light, Tulip Beauty of Holland and Opium poppy foliage. A nice little scene.





Six on Saturday 23.3.19

I have been too busy to blog recently, which has been a shame, but today all I have to do is nurse my hangover and take my daughter ice skating this afternoon. Not the ideal combination, but it could be worse. Any old how, there are lots of things to get excited about, so let’s get on with it.


  1. I love an Agave. They are big and spiky though. In my naivety three year’s ago, I bought three big ones which have outgrown their space in a client’s garden, with painful consequences. They are being rehoused and replaced by this, Agave victoria reginae, a much slower growing, beautifully striated one. Rubbish photo, sorry.


2. Muscari are everywhere and very nice they are too, but they leave a mess of foliage behind them which is a bit of an eyesore. Muscari latifolium (broad leaved) doesn’t. I have loved having this in a pot near my front door.


3. So many Narcissus, but what is your favourite? For me, it has to be the dive bombing squadron of cyclamineus. I just love their neatness.


4. One of the things I have been busy with is Ready, Steady, Grow!  the mission to get 500 Walthamstow residents growing annuals from seed. I have been into schools, sheltered accommodation (pictured) markets, street corners and will be going to a madrassa next weekend. Accosting people in the street and asking them whether they want my seed has had its moments, but when properly explained, the response has been very positive! We are holding an event on 13-14th July in a community garden where everyone who has grown will display their plants.


5. Street planters. These featured a little while back and are now starting to fill up with plants. I am hoping that two of them will be big and architectural (Miscanthus, Cynara, Eleagnus Quicksilver, Perovskia) while the other one will be woodland edge (Fuchsia riccartonii, Corylus purpurea, Salix Nancy Saunders, Aquiliga). So far, so good in terms of  litter, plants going missing, damage.

6. Pond. With the help of The Wildlife Trust, the RHS and the Walthamstow Village Residents’ Association, we have nearly finished the pond and bog garden in St Mary’s. It is massive! Well bigger than I thought it was going to be. A toad has already moved in. We were lucky that recent rains have filled it nearly to the brim with rainwater (channelled via our water butts). I love staring at the reflections.

The things I learnt are: think hard about hiding the liner (we didn’t), work on levels and drainage before you start digging, be prepared to deal with a lot of spoil. I am sure that the pond will have phases of murk and goo before it finds a balance. There will be weed. There will be rampant plant growth. I am gong to need to put waders on my birthday list.

Six on a Saturday 2.3.19

Seeds, seeds and more seeds. I am a bit fed up of them and I haven’t even started sowing in earnest yet. Gardens Illustrated came today with some free Cleome seeds. I refuse to show you any pictures of seeds this week.


  1. Crocus. Very lovely and there are swathes of them around, but the hot weather here has done for them. This is the last Crocus I will be showing you this year. Now I have to restrain myself from mowing quite a few areas where they have seeded and will seed if left to their own devices. I think this big Dutch one is probably sterile though. It is the species which are most likely to multiply from seed.


2. If you have read my blog over the last year, you know I love Euphorbia characias Wulfenii. Today, it is at its peak for the year. Give it three weeks of flowering or so, then I will cut out every flowered stem to the ground. All the attention it needs over a year of pleasure.

3. Blossom. The month of blossom has started. First out, Prunus cerasifera with its beautiful pink tinges. Then the pure white, almond smelling Plum at my allotment. Constellations of beauty.

4. The unmistakable mess of uncared-for Cortederia selloana, Pampas grass. Notorious as a suburban signal to swingers in the 1970s, many are left in a shabby state through neglect or an unwillingness to tangle with their serrated foliage. They need saws and trimmers and loppers and chainsaws to get them under manners.There are videos of Texans burning them or dragging them out of the ground with trucks.  I am not really sure they are worth the effort, but we will see how this responds.


5. Not very exciting green stuff. Or is it? This is the second year from seed for Smyrnium perfoliatum. It takes three to flower. I was very chuffed to see it come back in a shady spot under my apple tree. There are three little clumps. Next year in early Summer there will be pictures of acid green umbellifers to show off. Get in!


6. Bog garden making. Last Saturday morning’s exercise was the digging of a big hole in the churchyard. Ten keen beans made a right royal mess. It looks like it will be more of a pond with bog attached, but don’t tell the vicar. The RHS is sponsoring it and are coming with sand, butyl and plants next week. I am moist with anticipation of all the marginals I can now grow.

Six on a Saturday 16.2.19


I have missed a few weeks, due to other commitments, but all hail The Propagator and his merry band once again. I look forward to reading your posts.

  1. After several years of abject failure, I have finally cracked the early Spring pot display. Get those low-growing things like Iris reticulata (here, Pixie), Snowdrop and species tulip into little pots or pans and keep them close to the house. That way, you can monitor their watering and appreciate them up close. So simple, I don’t know why it has taken so long to figure out.


2. Hellibore. I have been appreciating these for the last two or three weeks. Again, there are rules for maximising their appeal. Site them high up, if possible, so you don’t put your back out tying to see their flowers. A bank which gets sun at some stage in the day is ideal. Also, cut off last year’s foliage, ideally before Christmas. There is a blackspot which affects the leaf and even the flower, if not tackled.


3. Leafmould. This is eighteen month old leaf mould. We have loads of it from St Mary’s. It is so useful as a mulch, soil conditioner or potting mix. I have been using it to add to the mix in some community planters locally. The good stuff. Now is the time to break into your old stores, if you have them.


4. Frosty edging to gravestone. Cold mornings, warm afternoons at the moment. We are all a bit wary after last year’s shennanegins, but I have a hunch that full-on Spring is just around the corner!


5. I started a new garden last week. It is in a very warm, London microclimate. So it is going to be a foray into tropical and Eastern planting (the client is Thai). However, before I get going, my first job was to appreciate what was there. This Arbutus was a thicket which needed crown lifting and behind it the Euonymus japonicus microphyllus just needed a bit of shaping. I like this corner already.

6. Crocus. You just can’t ignore them at the moment. A purple haze in the cold, frosty, mornings, opening into beautiful pale lilac swathes by the afternoon. I love their generosity and have tuned up to several gardens ready to mow, only to pack up the mower for a month as Crocus have spilled out onto the lawns beautifully. Bees are getting an early nectar hit too. They feature in little pots on a shelf next to my front door too. I think I love them more than Snowdrop, more than Iris.

Six on Saturday, 26.1.19


1. The joy of seed. HPS seed is dropping through letterboxes up and down the country and what a lovely thing that is. I spent a morning getting to grips with my order, but also preparing for one of my “projects” this year. Another gardener friend and I have formed Ready, Steady, Grow! an attempt to get Walthamstow growing from seed.

It is a simple idea. We give a packet of 3-5 seeds, a recycled pot , growing medium and instructions to as many people as possible ( we have 500 packets!) and get them growing. We will support them via social media. Then,in July, we get everyone’s efforts together in a central location and have a two day celebration/ display/ party. There is a very wide group of annuals and half-hardies which will grow from seed to flower in 12-14 weeks. What are your favourites and growing tips?

2. Shed. Who doesn’t love their shed? I tend to take mine for granted a bit, but a lack of much else to do caused me to give it a good sort out in the week. There was a lot to chuck out and reorder. It was the most productive hour and a half this week.



3. Polycarbonate or glass? I am making ( still!) two coldframes. I had some glass and some polycarbonate sheet for the first one. I need some glazing material for the second. Glass is £51, polycarbonate is £31. Seems a no brainer. Poly is lighter, cheaper, easier to cut, has similar thermal properties. But it’s more plastic, isn’t it? I worry about these kinds of things.




4. Trees. I love Winter for the backlighting    of trees in the morning and evening. When I was 11, I did an ink and watercolour wash painting of a scene like this. It probably wasn’t very good, but I have always remembered it. The word that comes to me is Mesopotamia. Something about river tributaries?


5. Hazel catkins are popping out all over Walthamstow. Such a beautiful and useful plant. I love them coppiced as a hedge or in a mixed border.

534e39fa-86cc-4d5e-8d72-529c3c25647d6. Cyclamen coum. This is a favourite patch in the churchyard, under some trees along the railings. It is in rough grass, with various bulbs. I am aiming to spread the many seedlings and bulbs along this area each year. It is just that when this is best done, in April or May, I am overwhelmed by other jobs!