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Sipping a cup of tea, Martin* reflects on his experience being immersed in gardening and landscape work: ‘This opportunity has been like a breath of fresh air.

‘It’s definitely increased my confidence and it’s been really good working for different customers. There’s a real sense of satisfaction at the end of the day when the client can see the results of our hard work.’

Martin attends Cherry Tree Nursery, a Dorset charity that helps people with mental health support needs.

One of the main strengths of the project is the incredible power of the community to support each other.

Ray Alderton, Cherry Tree Nursery

For one day a week he does work placement with one of the nursery’s trade customers, Crazy Daisies, working alongside owner Lee and a couple of other staff on jobs ranging from wall building to planting wildlife gardens.

Lee is impressed with Martin: ‘He has approached every task with enthusiasm and a real eye for detail,’ says Lee.

‘He shows a willingness to learn new skills and different techniques building on what he’s learned at Cherry Tree Nursery. He takes a genuine pride in the work he has done and is a very hard-working member of the team.’

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Such a testimony says a lot for the mission of Cherry Tree Nursery to restore people’s mental wellbeing and give them purpose, a mission that is celebrating 30 years of changing lives.

More than 700 people have benefited from this commercial plant nursery’s work in that time, successfully blending a haven for people with severe and enduring mental illness and a realistic working environment.

Cherry Tree Nursery is the first project of the Sheltered Work Opportunities Project (SWOP), a charity created in 1990 to respond to the impact of the Care in the Community Act.

Canon Rosalyn Aish, pastor of St Ann’s psychiatric hospital in Poole, and a fellow philanthropist Cyril Speller, formed the charity to provide a safe space where people could get support, take part in therapeutic horticulture and belong to a community.

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Clients, known as volunteers, must have a primary diagnosis of a recognised mental health condition excluding learning disabilities or dementia. They join Cherry Tree after referrals from community mental health teams, GPs, support workers, Jobcentres and other agencies. People can also refer themselves and everyone does taster days to see if the project suits their needs.

Volunteers are not paid to work at the Bournemouth-based nursery, nor does Cherry Tree charge them to attend. People are not limited in how long they can stay, with some coming for a few weeks and others for much longer.

Ray Alderton, Events Co-ordinator at Cherry Tree Nursery, said: ‘We learn very quickly that every person who comes to us is unique. They may share a “diagnosis” but everyone experiences their own problems in their own way.

‘We listen without judging and offer support where we can. One of the main strengths of the project is the incredible power of the community to support each other. As staff, we facilitate this and keep the lights on!’

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The nursery produces 100,000 plants a year for sale to trade and public customers and volunteers take part in all aspects of the nursery’s work, from potting seedlings to operating the till, helping customers, cleaning and administrative tasks.

They also have educational opportunities including accredited horticultural courses, basic numeracy and literacy classes, plus a twice weekly Citizens’ Advice service on site, events, outings and social opportunities.

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There are about 150 people currently benefiting from the nursery’s holistic approach and an environment where there is not only meaningful activity but also friendship and mutual support.

Ray added: ‘Our strapline is “Caring for People Caring for Plants” and we believe it is possible to live a happy and fulfilled live alongside mental illness. There is no doubt, we do save lives.’

Update: In normal times, Cherry Tree Nursery relies on plant sales to pay its way but since coronavirus it has had to close. One way you can support it is by buying plants online from its sister organisation, Chestnut Nursery.

*Name changed to protect identity

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