The Social Garden

Social and Therapeutic Horticulture in Practice

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Bee Keeping at Cambridge Cyrenians Allotment

At the Cambridge Cyrenians Allotment Project we have always tried to encourage wildlife habitats, especially for pollinating insects like solitary bees.

So, last year I completed the full training with Cambridge Bee Keeping Association with the plan to set up a bee keeping project on the allotment site.

We were lucky that the extremely overgrown plot next to our existing wildlife area became free at the beginning of the year. So we took it on, began clearing it and planted a willow screen ready to develop it into a bee friendly area.

The group members have varying interest in the thought of caring for some honey bees at the project. Some are really keen to get involved and look forward to the benefits to their physical, emotional and mental health that can come from the rewarding pastime.

However, by caring for a hive of bees there can also be benefits for the wider community and even humanity as a whole.

The majority of flowering plants need animals to pollinate them. But it’s not just pretty flowers that we need to thank the honeybees for. Approximately, one third of the average diet (far more if you have a plant based diet) has been pollinated by them. Nuts, carrots, soya beans, broccoli, apples, strawberries, avocados, even Alfalfa the clover-like plant grown widely for cattle feed are dependent on the honeybee, as is the cotton for the tee-shirt you’re wearing.

But honeybees across the world are dying at an alarming rate. In America, one in three hives was left lifeless at the beginning of 2008 and this death rate has been rising rapidly over the last decade. If or when the world loses the honeybee for good, agriculture will collapse and our civilization as we know it will be in real danger.

What is to blame for this catastrophe? Viruses, parasites, pesticides and climate change have all played a part in the decline of the honeybee as they have weakened populations. But the main culprits are the industrial beekeepers themselves who have worked their bees to death by shipping their hives thousands of miles every year to different monoculture sites, all in the name of agribusiness profits.

So, what can YOU do about this problem?

There are so many ways that you can help the honeybee at home, in the garden, on an allotment or at a horticulture therapy project. If you plant ornamental plants, choose single, open flowers for easy pollination (bees can’t get inside double flowers.) Grow a combination of different edible crops and consider a wildflower bed, a pond and a native hedge. DON’T use pesticides and other chemicals – these have been proven to affect the populations of many pollinating animals including honeybees. If you shop at supermarkets, try to choose organic produce or buy your fruit and vegetables (that you don’t grow yourself) at a local farmer’s market. By not buying into the huge monoculture agribusinesses you will be protecting our honeybees across the world.

And of course, you could consider keeping a hive and caring for some healthy bees yourself. P1010153

So, today we went to pick up our first hive from Stephen at the Cambridge Bee Keeping Association. It’s flat pack!

We will be very excited to get it built and populated so we can enjoy watching honey bees join our other pollinating insects at the project. Watch this space for updates!

Ruth 🙂

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The Benefits of Nature Therapy

One important aspect of Social/ Therapeutic Horticulture is the passive enjoyment of nature. In our society, technology can mean that we are not in touch with the rhythms of the natural world. Just working in an office with artificial lighting, screens and heating every day means that some people don’t even notice the cycles of the day and night/ summer and winter. This disconnection with our natural environment can lead to so many problems for the individual including stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

The physical and mental benefits from immersing oneself in the natural world are starting to be recognised widely. At the Cambridge Cyrenians Allotment Project we are very aware of the benefits from just being on the allotment site away from the city, the hostel, the streets. Group members are encouraged to sit in the wildlife area or the social space and just enjoy the fresh, green environment just as much as they are encouraged to get their hands dirty and learn horticulture skills.

We also like to take trips out to green spaces so the group members can benefit from passively being in a natural environment, away from the working space.


Last week we visited Milton Country Park in North Cambridge. It used to be an old quarry but now has been developed into a lovely green space with native planting/ lakes and is maintained by the council.


Whilst we walked around the lakes Peter told us all about the different bird calls we could hear. Sue said that she felt really relaxed and happy in the woods. Jo stood and breathed in the fresh air. Keith wandered off into the trees. I could see the benefits straight away as tense shoulders dropped, faces brightened up and we all relaxed.


We spotted lots of beautiful wildlife and got some new ideas for our project including the amazing heron sculpture and natural fencing .

We also stopped for a coffee and I surprised three of the Horticulture Certificate students by presenting them with their certificates for another completed unit of work.

Now it’s time for us to get back to work, it’s a busy time at the allotment. But I recommend to anyone reading this to make some time to get out in the woods or by the sea or even in a local park regularly. You will notice the benefit yourself.

Ruth 🙂

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Celebrating Riverside Garden Project’s 1st Birthday

On the 15th March we celebrated a year (and a bit) of successful Social/ Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) practice at Riverside Garden Project.

As part of a redevelopment of the accommodation and offices at the Riverside accommodation project for homeless people in Cambridge (then known as The 2’s) several years ago, there was a memorial garden and allotment space added to the back of the buildings. But unfortunately without anyone specifically managing the space it became very overgrown and unused. In 2015, I wrote to the then manager John Cross to suggest that we work together to develop it into a STH project. So, after several months of planning and fundraising (mainly by staff member Jean-Mary) we got the project off the ground on the 11th January 2016.


Since then we have had 35 participants at the project from the Riverside hostels, some attend on a regular basis and some just drop in occasionally. Some of our regulars have now moved on the more permanent accommodation and occupation.

The participants at the project quote many reasons for their attendance including benefits to their mental and physical health, relaxation, social, keeping busy, learning skills, being part of something positive, confidence building. We do have a good laugh too.

The gardens have been transformed already! Here’s some before and after photos –

So, we thought we would have a celebration of all the hard work that the group have put in over the last 14 months.

Members of the group showed a film crew, regional staff and other visitors around the gardens whilst some decided to keep working as usual.

Then we planted a weeping cherry tree. Several of the current group members helped to dig the hole, plant the tree, back fill and water it.

Cheered on by some of the visitors.


It was a great day of celebration for all of the hard work that the residents at the hostels have done to make the gardens beautiful and plentiful. And the sun came out!

Watch this space for updates on how the project develops even more.

Ruth 🙂



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Yay! It’s March at the Allotment Project!

After a long winter working outdoors I’m always happy to see the beginning of Spring budding. At the Cambridge Cyrenians Allotment Project we have been enjoying the first day of March and even a bit of sunshine this week.

This time of year is when things start to get busy and you realise that all the preparation and maintenance through the winter was worth it. Our beds are mulched and ready for planting. So, it was great to get cracking on the crops this week.

First, we checked the planting plans for vegetables, herbs and flowers and sorted out our stored seeds into monthly sowing groups.

Ben sowed some early peas into the prepared bed and James helped him to cloche them to add a bit of protection as they germinate.

Yas and Pete took charge of some of the early non-hardy seeds. Including – 2 varieties of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and aubergines. The small seeds were sown in rows in trays for pricking out at a later date.

Pete also showed Yas how to make our special recycled newspaper pots to sow the larger cucumber seeds into. You’ll be seeing more of these in the coming months when we start sowing more large seeds.


All the seeds were then watered and left to drain. Our non-heated polytunnel won’t keep our tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and cucumbers warm enough to germinate or protect them from further frosts once they start growing. So, until the weather gets a bit better (by May) all the seeds will be kept safely warm and protected in my bathroom at home. Who needs a bath anyway?!

So, here goes – the season has started! Watch this space for developments.

Ruth 🙂

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Spotlight on Community Member

Every team member at a group project is important to the whole community. They each have there own story to tell and skills to bring to the team.

Barry has been attending the Riverside Garden Project since he moved into the Springs Foyer in July 2016.


Barry says – “I enjoy landscaping and building – it’s quiet here – it’s the only place that’s peaceful.”

Barry has some great stories from his previous employment including lorry driving, delivering for Travis Perkins, farm work, delivering coffins (there’s a very funny story about that one!) and factory line working

So, he has a wide range of skills which he puts into practice at the project – especially using scrap wood and pallets to build anything I happen to mention we need! I have to be careful what I say 🙂

Here’s some of the things he’s made –

The garden project is based behind the buildings backing onto private/ church owned land. When the buildings were originally built, a metal framed fence was put up. But this is really unhelpful for the movement of wildlife. So we’re trying to re-introduce a wildlife corridor. I asked Barry to make wildlife entrances into and though out our project site. So he made these lovely entrances and ramps 🙂

Barry is hoping to get his own place with his sons and get back into landscaping work. We’ll miss him at the project but we wish him all the luck with his future plans.

Ruth 🙂

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Volunteering in Horticulture Therapy

I’ve managed several horticulture therapy projects over the years and one thing I DO know is that it can’t be done without volunteers! Most projects are reliant on either insecure or a serious lack of funding so there’s usually not an abundance of money to pay staff.

At the Cambridge Cyrenians Allotment Project, as project manager, I’m the only paid staff. So we have a few long term volunteers who we rely on to keep the project running day to day. Some volunteers like to get stuck into what ever tasks are planned for the day but some have specific responsibilities such as driving the pick-up van, organising the refreshments or one-to-one support with particular group members.


Jo has been volunteering at the allotments since the beginning! She doesn’t like her photo taken usually but she agreed this time as a one off. She has overall responsibility for the refreshments at our all-important tea break. Jo also gets stuck into any other tasks I throw her way! She’s amazing!


James is our newest volunteer. He has recently moved back to Cambridge from Sheffield. It was in Sheffield that he heard from friends about the horticulture therapy which takes place at Heeley City Farm. The city farm is where I first encountered Social and Therapeutic Horticulture when I volunteered there whilst I was studying Social Care at Sheffield College in 1995! Volunteering there opened my eyes to the amazing therapeutic benefits that ecotherapy, naturetherapy, horticulturetherapy, greentherapy and other outdoor activities can offer to so many people. I haven’t looked back! Looking forward to working with James further as he has interests in permaculture systems.

Today we had three volunteers with us from the Public Services course at Anglia Ruskin University to provide some practical experience of working with people who have issues relating to homelessness.


They really got stuck in helping us clear the polytunnel (for re-covering) and adding bare rooted shrubs to our native hedge (which will surround our whole project site.) They worked really well with the team and other volunteers.

We have had lots of amazing volunteers involved with single projects or long term regulars at the allotments in the past including students at ARU and Cambridge Uni colleges, corporate volunteering teams and local individuals. They have all had a variety of reasons for volunteering with us. Some say it’s to give something back, gain work experience or skills, keep busy, support their mental health, keep fit and healthy, develop social networks. This week, I had the pleasure of giving a reference for one of our ex-volunteers for a job in gardening.

At the allotment project we don’t make a huge issue of status; we’re all equal members of the team. Team members are expected to work at their own pace and nobody is expected to do more than they feel they can. So, the input that our volunteers give to the project can make a huge difference in supporting me to coordinate the project. I really wouldn’t be able to do it without them!

If you’re interested in getting involved in some volunteering get in touch with your local volunteering centre – Here’s Cambridge Volunteer Centre website –

If you’re specifically interested in outdoor therapy your best first contact would probably be Thrive who are the leading Horticulture Therapy providers in the UK – Here’s their website –

Or if you would like to come and visit/ volunteer with us at Cambridge Cyrenians Allotment Project get in touch with me! Its always fun!

Ruth 🙂

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January Jobs at the Allotment Project

I often get asked what do we do over the Winter at the allotment project. On a traditional allotment there can be a lack of jobs to do between harvest time and seeding time. So, most plot holders will leave their allotments to it through December, January and February after they’ve done their winter digging.

However, I have developed the project over several years to provide seasonal work throughout the year so there’s no rest for us lot! 🙂 Here’s some of the things we’ve been up to this week so far.

We’ve taken on another plot next to our project site which backs onto the common so it’s perfect for our proposed bee keeping project (watch this space.) We found some lovely apple and pear trees at the end of the plot. It’s a perfect time for winter pruning for hard fruit trees so I have been doing that whilst Fred’s been carefully clearing some of the long grass from their bases. We won’t clear the site fully until there’s no fear of disturbing hibernating wildlife.


We have been sorting out our saved seeds and ordering some more.


John is designing and building some lovely wooden signs for the allotment committee shop for when it’s reopened in the spring. John used to be a cabinet maker so we’re looking forward to seeing some of the other projects he’s planning to build around the site in the future.


I’ve re-designed part of the project site to include the bee keeping plot so we will be edging new beds and re-planting them over the next few months. They all have to be measured and staked. Mark has also been re-edging some of the existing plots to stop encroaching weeds.

We’ve been tidying up the living-willow archway today so we can get into the wildlife area easier to coppice the willow tree, extend the fence and add a new archway. I’ll report back on that job soon.


‘Other Mark’ had a bit of a clear up around the site today and Fred was Fire Manager for the day.

We’ve been making more solitary bee houses to hang around the site to promote pollinating insects.

… And there’s loads more interesting projects to get our teeth into this season at the allotment project. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

Ruth 🙂