Plotting to heal

Meet allotment enthusiast Annabelle Padwick, who’s using her passion for growing to help gardening therapies take root in mental health care

‘Gardening changed my life’ says Annabelle Padwick, founder of Life at No. 27, a groundbreaking project which aims to help bring gardening into the heart of mental health care in the UK. After experiencing poor mental health and finding that many of the 'standard' treatments on offer weren't quite what she needed, Annabelle took matters into her own hands.

Unequal treatment

Treatment for mental health can be considered something of a lottery. Analysis conducted by the charity Mind in 2019 revealed that people living in South Yorkshire can currently expect £220 spent on their mental health each year, whereas those living in the Surrey Heartlands fall behind with just £124.48 allocated to each person.

It's not just funding that varies; support options can differ greatly. What you’re offered from your GP isn’t always under your control, with long waiting lists and availability influencing options.

‘Gardening changed my life and I want it to be offered to people alongside more traditional therapies – such as medication-based or talking therapy – as these don’t always work for everyone’

After encountering challenges with her own mental health in her early 20s, Annabelle found an escape in gardening and has now launched her own social enterprise, Life at No.27. It has been so transformative that she gave a talk about it to visitors at the RHS Cardiff Flower Show.

  ‘The goal is make gardening a UK-wide prescribed therapy, bringing gardening and the power of growing your own food to people that don’t even realise they need it,’ says Annabelle.

Giving people a space to grow

To bring this goal to life, Annabelle has done an intense amount of training and now delivers bespoke therapy programmes in schools around Oxfordshire – working with students who have social, emotional and mental health needs. She is also currently hard at work creating the first adult site that will become the flagship for Life at No.27.

Based in Towcester, Northamptonshire, Annabelle has taken an area of land and transformed it into a circular space divided into a series of wedge-shaped plots. The idea is that each plot will be allocated to someone struggling with anxiety, depression, low mood or low self-esteem.

Through referral – either through a GP or mental health charity – that person will have the opportunity to care for their own patch of land in a supportive and understanding environment in a bid to boost their mental health.

There will also be a series of raised beds around the site, offering facilities for those where access can be a barrier to gardening, as well as communal beds for volunteers to get involved.

‘Each person will have full control over their plot for a year,’ says Annabelle. ‘I’ll be there for support but I think it’s important that people have responsibility and space to do it on their own. While playing a part within a big team can be beneficial, it can be incredibly rewarding and powerful to achieve something by yourself.

‘A full growing year gives the most benefit as people can see a plant grow from a small, inconspicuous seed, which I think is really rewarding.’

How Life at No. 27 began

The idea for Life at No.27 came from Annabelle’s own experience of growing. In her early twenties, Annabelle began to struggle with anxiety and panic attacks – to the point where she could no longer leave the house.

‘Nothing that the doctor prescribed really helped,’ she explains. ‘I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but that didn’t really work for me. I had to come up with my own coping mechanisms.’

At the time, Annabelle had been living in the city with no access to personal outdoor space. She was inspired to move to the countryside, where she fell in love with growing vegetables in containers. This was the catalyst for change and where she found the confidence to take on an allotment, plot no.27. She had a new motivation and focus, but was soon faced with a whole new set of challenges.

‘I got my allotment when I was 27. There wasn’t anyone my age there and no one was very helpful, just saying I was mad or that I would give up,’ Annabelle reminisces. ‘There’s always someone on an allotment site who can say the wrong thing and ruin your day, especially if you are struggling already. I ended up blogging about my journey and progress on the allotment, that how Life at No. 27 started.’

The blog soon won Annabelle a legion of fans and, as her confidence continued to blossom, she became a popular addition on YouTube videos, radio shows and began speaking about her journey at gardening events up and down the country. She was also taken on as an ambassador for the gardening and health charity, Thrive.

‘My aim is to spread the message about how good gardening can be for your health and wellbeing’

 ‘My confidence has come a long way. I always get super nervous ahead of giving a talk, but I’ve learnt to put my nerves to one side. I think about those I’m talking to and if I help just one person, it makes it all worthwhile.’

The future of Life at No. 27

The goal is to have the flagship site for Life at No.27 open in spring 2020. GPs in the local area will be able refer their patients in the early stages of mental health challenges to Annabelle. If all goes well, wellbeing spaces from Life at No. 27 could start to become a common sight up and down the UK.

‘Having people here will be incredible. It’ll make all the hard work worthwhile,’ says Annabelle. ‘Once it’s up and running, I hope to get enough support to replicate it around the UK. I’m already starting to think about a second site.

‘It’s going to be difficult to measure success in a scientific way as it’s so individual. I know the RHS and Thrive are looking into the effects of gardening on wellbeing, but for me it is about the tiny steps that make small differences then lead to incredible changes.

‘If I see a person smiling for the first time or someone starting to chat when they would normally be silent – that is progress for me. We have to remember people are individuals with personal bespoke needs, not numbers.’

Find out more about Annabelle and Life at No.27

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.