For this month's mindful moment, Helen was welcomed into the fantastic wellness project local to us, Manchester Mind Allotment.

It may have started out as a slightly cloudy morning, but the positivity of this project shone through!

Thank you for speaking to us today in this beautiful space!

Can you start by telling us a a bit about how the Mindful Allotment was created and what the project offers week to week? 

Of course. We have had the allotment space for 23 years and over this time it has been used intermittently for different projects, but there was never any dedicated funding to really make the most of the space. Then about 4 years ago Manchester Mind decided to invest in the project themselves through money from donations. This allowed us to employ a gardener to design a community space, working alongside our volunteers to build the pathways, greenhouses, vegetable and flower beds you see now. 
In an average week, Monday is an open day when our volunteers and people who have previously attended courses with us can drop in to help maintain the site. Then on Wednesdays we run our therapeutic sessions, which we're hoping to expand to another day in the near future.

How can people access your sessions and services?

The therapeutic garden sessions we run here are a pilot in the Manchester area, which can be prescribed by GPs, health professionals and social workers, and is now opening up to self referral. It's a 6 week course, comprising a two hour session each week focusing on food growing and sustainability. We introduce the concept of growing your own food, provide drinks and snacks that make been made with produce from the allotment, and talk about how you can use fresh produce in your own kitchens. 
Manchester Mind, and the other local Mind organisations, also offers lots of other sessions, courses and advice. Your local service website is the best place to find out what is available in your area and access our resources.

Why is being outside and gardening in particular so beneficial to our (physical / mental) wellbeing? 

A word we hear often is hope. Being outside, connecting with nature and seeing how things grow and change over repeated visits can allow people to hope for change in their own lives too.
It also helps give a sense of purpose for people who's lives have lost routine and structure. The food from the allotment is used for our food projects, providing food for families struggling to access food, and knowing that they are helping to provide this service and support to other people can give our volunteers a real sense of pride and purpose and help build their confidence.
On a therapeutic level, the allotment is a quiet calm environment, which can be used as a safe space for people to start conversations about mental health struggles. When people are busy with their hands and focusing on a manual task, we find they can find it easier to open up about difficult topics than if they were just sitting down face to face with no distractions.

What wellbeing improvements have you seen in members of the project who visit the allotment? 

A big thing we try to do is to introduce the idea of self care. We know that people struggling with their mental health are less likely to be able to access healthy food themselves. This can be for financial reasons, but another important factor is due to lack of motivation to look after and care for themselves. By teaching people how to care for and nurture plants we can also start introducing the concept of caring and nurturing yourself, whilst also encouraging people to get interested and excited about food and cooking again.

How did you navigate the project through various lockdowns?

Unfortunately, we weren't able to offer therapeutic sessions during the lockdowns. However, because the produce from the allotment is used in our food projects our team and volunteers were classed as key workers and so they were still able to come and work on the land and harvest the produce. 
Demand on our food services increased dramatically with the pandemic, with people struggling to access food while isolating and impacted financially by job losses. We were lucky enough to have a lot extra volunteers during this time, particularly people working in hospitality who were put on furlough, which allowed us to really expand the services we provide. 
We know that people can find raw produce intimidating, so instead of delivering veg straight from the allotment our food projects turn the produce into something that makes more sense to the people we support. This can range from peeled and prepared veg that is ready to cook, to recipe boxes, to ready meals. We're fortunate to be able to provide quite a tailored service depending on peoples individual needs.

Shopping locally or organically isn’t always accessible, what tips have you learnt from the project and volunteers do buy fruit and veg that’s affordable and seasonal?

We're actually in the process creating a guide on just this subject! It will be added to our website soon. But in general we always talk to people about in importance of buying seasonally, what times of year to buy produce at the cheapest prices. We also advice people to check for veg that is close to it sell by date or has been marked as damaged, as this is still perfectly usable and can really cut the costs of what you are buying.

What are the easiest vegetables to grow ourselves?

We always recommend starting with something simple. Lettuce or tomatoes can be easily grown on a window ledge, and fresh herbs are a good way to start growing things you will actually use in your kitchen. Fresh mint is a great one as you can also use the leaves to makes fresh mint tea.

What new projects are Manchester Mind working on during the year ahead?

We will be expanding the sensory garden in the allotment. We find the smells, sounds and the touch of the plants in the garden can be really helpful in calming and grounding people recovering from trauma and offers a safe environment where we can start introducing therapeutic conversations.

A huge thank you to Tara, Iffat, Nico, Sam and everyone at Manchester Mind Allotment.

Photography: Emma Beaumont

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