Jennette Arnold
London assembly member for North East London — fighting your corner at City Hall
Well-being through Gardening: My visit to St. Mary’s Secret Garden, Hackney

Well-being through Gardening: My visit to St. Mary’s Secret Garden, Hackney

On Wednesday 14th June, I had the pleasure of joining Councillor for Hoxton East and Shoreditch Feryal Demirci to visit St. Mary’s Secret Garden in the heart of Hackney. After a group of local volunteers started clearing a disused green space in 1986, the garden then began to engage with local community and disabled groups using horticulture as therapy. In 2006 the garden became St. Mary’s Secret Garden with “a greater mission to bring gardening and garden based activities to the wider community for the benefit of all, whilst still maintaining its therapeutic roots.” The name St. Mary’s was kept as a reminder of the lost heritage of Hackney – a magnificent John Nash designed Gothic church which was situated nearby and bombed severely in 1941.

Attractions in this beautiful 0.7 acre garden include a woodland area that is especially nice in early spring, food growing area, herbaceous borders, herb and sensory garden area and a thriving pond. It provides a quiet haven for the local community; a unique venue to hire; training for resident organisations; planting advice; organically grown seasonal produce; school visits tours and workshops for events and festivals. Most importantly, St. Mary’s Secret Garden provides community placements and is an accredited provider of training for people with learning disabilities, mental health problems and other long term health issues.

On Wednesday Cllr Feryal and I joined the therapists and a small group of diverse adults with varying learning difficulties. Philip, Nosson, Mary, Dawn, Debbie, Genghis and Mike were all very welcoming to us and we began the day by establishing the tasks for the day and why. Everyone had a role to play in maintaining the garden and seemed to enjoy the process of establishing who was doing what. After that we sat down with garden founder Paula for a chat about the garden. “We always try and incorporate the community” she told us, “although our services are delivered to Hackney residents with learning difficulties and mental health issues.” Paula explained to us how the overall theme of the centre is “well-being”: it is an accredited training centre for food growing and healthy eating but as Paula explains, it also “brings people together and helps to combat loneliness, which is a problem in Hackney.”

The centre has two paid therapists, and is supported by a mixture of volunteers, some of whom are recovering from mental illness thanks to the work of the garden. As well as being a community garden, Paula tells us that between 1-1,500 people come through on the weekend with vintage stalls and poetry. It hosts five small beehives thanks to a partnership with The Golden Company, an organisation that works with young people not in education, employment or training to nurture entrepreneurial spirit through establishing and maintaining beehives and running a stall in Borough Market. And this community-focused partnership epitomises the collaborative way that St Mary’s interacts with the local community and works together to ensure that as many different groups can benefit from the space.

After discussing the great work that is carried out at St Mary’s, the conversation turned to the struggles that Paula and her team face to ensure that the charity can stay afloat. Paula explained how many of the funding streams – that as a small charity they greatly rely on – are drying up. The other big issue is the limitation that arises from a 6year & 364 days lease. Like many small independent charities, St Mary’s is unable to obtain large capital and long term revenue funding, even though they have provided essential ‘green lungs’ to Hackney: providing valuable environmental and therapeutic support to an area that still struggles with gang violence and turf wars. Both Cllr Feryal and Jennette have promised to help her tackle these issues in whatever ways they can.

Cllr Feryal adds, “It’s been fantastic coming to the Secret Garden, and it truly is a secret, a gem in the middle of Hackney that provides amazing opportunities for some of the most vulnerable residents in Hackney. It’s been a real pleasure meeting the users of the garden and the people who actually manage this fantastic space. It’s mind-blowing the different plants and different parts of the garden and as I say, it’s truly a gem and I’m really pleased that it’s in Hackney.”

Jennette also expressed the same sentiments: “this is a lovely asset to Hackney and undoubtedly an important community centre. I will work with Cllr Feryal to use all of our channels and options, in order to help Paula and her team to keep this gorgeous garden up and running.”

Open Garden Squares Weekend

As a testament to the valued nature of St Mary’s Secret Garden, the weekend of 17th and 18th of June saw many surrounding residents visiting the garden as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend. The hidden gem opened its doors, offering poetry sessions with their resident poet, a vintage style tea and cake room, plus a plethora of honey and jam to buy that they produce on site using the hives and plants that thrive there. Thanks in part to the lovely weather; the garden was already blooming early on Saturday morning with many people enjoying the sensory garden and quiet spaces on offer.

To keep up to date with what’s going on at St Mary’s and to see some photos from the day you can follow the garden on twitter @stmarysgarden. If you’d like to visit St. Mary’s Secret Garden you can find all the info you need to know, including how to help out, via their website www.stmaryssecretgarden.org.uk.