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Last updated: 22:37

A farm shop transforming more than just food


By Stevie Parle | Published on 10 May 2019

During my visits to niche chef-focused producers – such as Flourish Farms last month as part of my work as a Line Resident with Great Northern – I always expect to feel inspired, but it can still surprise me by coming in unusual forms. On a recent trip to Parma, for example, I visited my parmesan producer, met the handsome and hard-working brown cows and was inspired to reconsider how I use this everyday ingredient. But inspiration can be about things other than new dishes. As part of my partnership with Great Northern, I’ve been exploring interesting food destinations all over the network, and this month I set off to Cambridge to explore the fantastic project that is Darwin Nurseries.

A beautiful 20-year-old nursery that is run mostly by adults with mental health problems and learning difficulties, it’s a lovely cycle, long walk or bus ride away from Cambridge station. The nursery also serves as a farm shop full of delicious veggies and has loads of beautiful little plants crying out to be taken home.

I was delighted to be shown around and meet many of the workers, visit the asparagus beds, orchards, greenhouses and the few animals they keep. Seeing all these people happily working away reminded me how therapeutic growing plants can be. I know it certainly helps with my mental health, and I always encourage my kids to get involved in the garden. The patience you need, the effort it takes to tend to something and how you feel working in partnership with nature can’t be beaten. It has an incredible ability to alter my state of mind, so what they’re doing at Darwin Nurseries really makes sense to me.

This is therapeutic horticulture and when you think about it, it really should be available all over the country. As they also echo on their website, mental health is improved in many ways, including giving people a purpose, and by setting and reaching achievable goals. It thereby dramatically boosts self-esteem by acquiring new skills and hopefully improving the chances of finding employment by making co-workers feel more socially connected and ultimately less isolated. So many lives have been transformed by this 7.5 acres of land. If doctors are starting to “prescribe” exercise for health, imagine if they also began to “prescribe” something such as two mornings a week of therapeutic horticulture.

For me at least, gardening has magical powers. Nothing makes me feel the peace of watching my garden grow – not even cooking! I know I’m lucky to have a garden, but even when I just had a few pots on the windowsill, it still brought me great joy.

I loved my day exploring Darwin Nurseries. In one huge greenhouse I found hanging baskets in every state of creation; starting with the empty skeletons hanging ready to be lined and filled, the baskets of promise with tiny seedlings and the ready-to-go ones overflowing with colour and positivity. Many local businesses use them to add lovely colour to their shop fronts and restaurants. I also came across a beautiful little greenhouse created from old plastic bottles and bubble wrap full of heritage varieties of tomato seedlings, and wonderful bean plants just desperate to get in the ground.

The nursery is a brilliant place to pick up some quality plants and they were excellent value too. Amazingly, all the perennials are propagated onsite too. It’s one thing to stick a few bean seeds in a pot and sell the rapidly growing results but creating the hanging baskets and perennial seedlings takes real skill.

I was also lucky enough to meet the animals; a collection of very handsome chickens kept for their good looks (and of course the eggs sold in the farm shop) and a rabble of goats of several varieties living happily alongside three enormous, hilarious, kuni-kuni pigs. The pigs and goats are kept mostly for their therapeutic qualities such as feeding and cleaning and can help inspire people to look after themselves a little bit better. And, judging by the delighted faces of the few kids I saw looking around, the animals are a hit with more than just the staff.

Darwin Nurseries is an NHS-funded endeavour and is suffering like many mental health resources from lack of cash. Whilst times are tough, I still learned about plans for the future, and how the community steps up to help. For example, a handsome new tractor has recently been donated, volunteers come from all walks of life to help out, there’s a newly planted forest area, as well as plans to add stuff for kids so parents can hang out. They seem to be constantly thinking of new ways to make the place useful for both those who work there and for the visitors.

So, if you can, jump on the next Great Northern train and drop by Darwin Nurseries to pick up some food and plants and say hello to those funny goats. Maybe you, like I was, will be inspired to help more people get growing things, spend more time on horticulture and get out and about in the fresh air. Because, after all, it’s good for you!

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