Shop front twilight
Approaching the Old Moat Garden Centre and Café in Epsom, it all seems straightforward enough - the kind of place that does what it says on the tin.

You can buy a plethora of plants, enjoy a coffee and shop for garden tools and all manner of gifts in a thoroughly modern retailing environment.

But the Old Moat is different because it combines an award-winning commercial enterprise with community outreach that is helping around 150 people a year.

Local county and borough councillor Bernie Muir describes the Old Moat as ‘the shining star in my division’, and others like what it is doing too, notably Horticulture Week which named it 2019 Garden Centre Outlet of the Year.

Life-enhancing

It is clearly gaining a place in the heart of locals as well, who appreciate that it cannot only cater for their buying needs (the Old Moat’s growth levels are 65 per cent above average for regional competitors), but that it’s providing life-enhancing opportunities for people with a mental health diagnosis to engage with the world of work.

All profits from the centre are ploughed back into the charity which provides work training and experience in horticulture, retail and catering to people with varied mental health needs, including depression, anxiety and stress. The charity also works with other organisations to provide courses in stress management, goal-setting and emotional resilience among others.

Naturally a lot of work revolves around plants, as the centre grows a lot of its own stock, so there is plenty of need for planting out, potting on, weeding, watering and harvesting around the walled garden site.

Jane and team cropped

The therapeutic nature of the gardening environment is an important part of the centre’s appeal, says Debbie Dibble, Team Manager at the Old Moat House: `The rhythmic nature of many gardening tasks enables people to put aside any negative thoughts or stresses.

`Furthermore, it is an activity that anyone can do, and can foster a sense of control, where other areas of a person’s life may feel unmanageable. Many people join us with no prior experience in gardening, but thrive under the guidance of a trainer, and a supportive social atmosphere to enjoy each week – an escape from everything for a while.’

Referrals

People can refer themselves to the Old Moat, but others arrive via referrals from GPs, mental health support workers and local authorities.

`For some people just walking through the gate is a huge achievement,’ said Joy Ridley, Fundraising and Events Officer at the Old Moat. `We help to build confidence and skills and give them something to put on their CV.

`It’s a very supportive environment where we work at their pace. Our trainers and supervisors have regular meetings with them, but everything is led by the individual, expectations are not too big.

`The sort of thing people say is that it gives them routine when they didn’t have any as well as purpose and something to work towards.

`It develops their social skills too. For example, one lad has blossomed from someone who was shy and didn’t have much confidence to someone who now easily talks to customers and is brilliant with them.’

Plant panorama

Accolades

On average, clients stay for up to two years before moving on, maybe to study for qualifications or other employment.

Although the centre has picked up many accolades of late, its future hasn’t always been secure. In 2017, local NHS funding for its services came to an end and the management faced a stark decision – close or invest.

They choose investment and overhauled the Old Moat’s facilities as a result, offering an improved customer experience that has led to revenue increasing by 55 per cent since redevelopment.

Commercial success has not diluted the Old Moat’s primary purpose though, as Joy Ridley reiterated: `We’re a wellbeing service first and a garden centre second.’