New life and fresh hope is budding at the TWIGS Community Gardens. Sue Bradley pays a visit.

SNOWDROPS are flowering in the TWIGS Community Gardens. These delicate white blooms push their way through the soil towards the end of every winter to herald the approaching spring; a tiny symbol of better things to come for people struggling to cope with their day to day lives.

In a week or so they will give way to nodding daffodils, followed by tulips, cherry blossom and, eventually, roses.

And so the seasons turn, the birds sing and TWIGS Community Gardens work their magic on yet more people in need of peace, beauty and the feeling of being closer to nature in order to help them make sense of an otherwise chaotic world.

TWIGS – Therapeutic Work in Gardening in Swindon – was set up 20 years ago to give people experiencing mental health problems the space to regain their confidence and self-esteem and learn new skills.

Situated on a former council amenity horticulture site in Cheney Manor, just down the road from Manor Garden Centre, its seven vibrant gardens are looked after by up to 80 or 90 ‘service users’ under the care of a small team of staff who are assisted by around 30 volunteers, many of whom bring specialist skills such as woodworking and design. A range of crafts and activities, from willow coppicing and weaving to pot throwing, is also offered.

Over the years TWIGS has played a part in turning around the lives of hundreds of people, many of whom return from time to time to see how everything is looking and even roll up their sleeves to help keep the gardens looking beautiful.

At the same time the site welcomes scores of visitors who call by every week to enjoy the flowers and sculpture, use the fitness equipment and soak up the peace and tranquillity of this floral oasis on the edge of a busy industrial estate. Many come to glean ideas, whether it’s to make their own plots more wildlife-friendly, create cottage or Japanese-style areas, or fill certain spots with medicinal or edible plants. Some buy plants and craft items and several round off their time there with a pot of tea or bowl of soup at the Olive Tree Café, a popular off shoot of the community gardens with its own vegetable patch that’s run by Phyllida Richards and her team.

TWIGS service manager Alan Holland has been with the charity for several years and witnessed the way the gardens have developed and the impact they’ve had on those looking after them.

“The themed areas have evolved over the last 15 to 20 years and we have put together an extensive collection of trees, shrubs and perennials, so much so that we could be regarded as Swindon’s Botanical Gardens,” he laughs.

“The emphasis of the garden is on encouraging people to engage with nature and gardening and creative activities. We have poly tunnels and glass houses, so there’s always something we can be doing even if the weather is unpleasant.

“In addition we do work for the Woodland Trust in four local woods around Swindon, which is a great way for service users to experience a working environment.

“There’s always lots going on and we keep very busy. There are some people who have been diagnosed as being bi-polar or with schizophrenia, although the majority of people we see are experiencing depression and anxiety.

“We offer places initially for two years, although most people won’t even need that length of time.

“At the same time we can offer longer term places if we feel somebody is benefiting that much from being here.”

The original impetus for TWIGS came from Anne Billingham, a well-known social entrepreneur from Swindon who had befriended two men with mental health needs and was keen for them to benefit from the therapeutic effects of gardening.

In time she convinced Swindon Borough Council to allow her to take on its recently vacated amenity horticulture site, where local authority workers used to grow bedding for local parks, and brought together a group of like-minded people to help her to set up a therapeutic garden. A Reaching Communities grant from the National Lottery enabled the charity to take on its first two members of staff and since then it’s gone from strength to strength.

Many of the people finding therapy in the garden are encouraged to give it a go by GPs or social workers, and it’s possible for individuals to self-refer themselves too.

Funding for TWIGS comes from a range of sources: it receives grants from Swindon Borough Council, although it, like many charities, has seen a significant drop in funding in recent years. Donations from members of the public and sales of plants, cut flowers, crafts and other items produced on the site, along with the small entry fee paid by visitors, help to keep it going, as does the activities of its fundraising arm ‘Friends of TWIGS’, who raise around £30,000 a year for the gardens and Olive Tree Café by holding everything from Kilimanjaro climbs and golf days to practical workshops for the public.

The gardens also help to raise money for other charities when they open for the NGS (National Garden Scheme), with this year’s dates set for Sunday May 21 and Sunday July 23, from 1pm to 5pm.

The team at TWIGS is planning a range of activities throughout 2017 to celebrate the charity’s 20th anniversary.

There will be a spring open day on Sunday April 23, from 11am to 4pm and a TWIGS fest from 11am to 4pm.

• TWIGS Community Gardens, close to Manor Garden Centre, Cheney Manor, Swindon. SN2 2QJ.

Case study

Mum-of-three Steph Perry says TWIGS Community Gardens are a life saver.

Steph first came to the site as a service user back in 2003, after the stress of single-handedly raising her children, including her autistic son, caused her to suffer a breakdown.

She’s come a long way since those dark days and now has a part time job that involves working in the Olive Tree Café and helping to run the kitchen garden behind it, both of which she thoroughly enjoys.

“I was in a bad place when I first came to TWIGS,” explains Steph, who lives in Ashton Keynes.

“I came here not knowing very much about gardening or anything, and I was totally lacking in confidence.

“At the time they were running City and Guilds courses, and I learned a lot from them.”

Steph attended sessions at TWIGS for several years and subsequently attended horticultural courses at Lackham College before volunteering at The Olive Tree Café and going on to get her job in the kitchen garden.

“It saved my life to have an outlet like this, a safe place to which I could come,” she says. “I like to be out in the open and when I’m gardening I feel a real sense of freedom from the rest of my world, which is chaotic - along with a sense of fulfilment.

“I love it here and feel I’m respected by those around me. I’m still not ready to go out into the big wide world to work – I still have bad times and I help to care for my special needs son and I’m still re-building my life. I think this place is wonderful – it’s made a world of difference in my life.”