Saturday, 1 June 2013

Hackney’s Top Secret

St Mary’s Secret Garden in Hackney is true to its name. A real gem, moments away from Hoxton station, where horticultural therapy and training for people with mental health issues, learning difficulties and other health problems take place successfully in the heart of the community. Its secret is to blend together excellent horticultural and community practice, winning last year both the first prize for Hackney in Bloom (Best Voluntary Garden – Professional) and the Green Flag Community Award.

You may not know that, as well as hosting Gardeners' World, Monty Don is also a supporter of Thrive, the organisation which established St Mary’s Secret Garden twenty years ago. Emerging from the ashes of a council depot, the garden has grown and developed over this time, but still retains some of the founding volunteers and clients who first made the garden what it is.
The focus is on food growing, but there are different delights to the garden every corner you turn. On arrival there is a welcoming bench at reception and then a path through the wild garden lures children and adults alike away on a bug trail. Bees buzz happily around, and produce such a popular honey that it has a local waiting list and has also made the grade for sale at Borough Market. The heart of the garden is given over to training the many clients who benefit enormously from the space. A trainer was gently introducing people to sowing when I visited, exhorting them to first feel the seeds in their hands before committing them to the soil. The fame of the compost produced on site is also spreading and a cyclist stopped by to buy a bag for her balcony garden in one of the nearby tower blocks. The first early potatoes were late but there was a healthy crop of broad beans and lettuce – all carefully protected from the voracious London pigeons. A new 'Wish You Well' garden is open for everyone to enjoy, sporting mosaics produced with the help of a volunteer artist, and flowers to soothe the senses.

Innovative signs lead you around the garden – made by the Ministry of Stories and involving local children in conjuring up rhymes and poems. Plants spill out of drawers and all manner of objects, all found abandoned locally, including a child’s car seat. Sempervivum is very happy in a yellow sink top and fuchsia in a kettle.

There are impressive arrays of plants and herbs to buy, carefully nurtured in the greenhouse and polytunnel. The volunteers will be working hard this week to prepare for their opening for Open Garden Squares Weekend on June 8th and 9th – they will be packing their garden with all manner of things to buy. Sadly, funding for such excellent initiatives as this is diminishing with the changes to benefits - and funding from social services is down;  so buying the jam, the chutney or the lavender bags, as well as the plants, is truly making sure your money supports a good cause. They also hope that there will be natural beauty products for sale, made by a local pop-up produce project and Hackney Young Carers, along with lots of tea, coffee and cakes.

And, as you stagger away, after buying all the wonderful stuff on offer, you can pop into the gardens of the nearby Geffrye Museum, before you get the train back from Hoxton.

Information on visiting St Mary's Secret Garden