Vulnerable adults’ lives transformed by green-fingered project

  • Date

    Tue 20 Mar 18

Roots and Boots participant Dave with Brighton & Hove Food Partnership community gardener Rosie Linford

Essex researchers are calling for local and national authorities to do more to promote community gardening schemes after evaluating a three-year project for vulnerable adults in Brighton.

The Sharing the Harvest project by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership saw more than 2,000 people with learning disabilities, autism, or experience of mental health problems, homelessness or addiction, volunteer in more than 75 community gardens across Brighton. Our research found that:

  • 97% of participants reported improved happiness, mood or wellbeing
  • 89% reported improved physical health
  • 90% reported greater skills or confidence 

The evaluation was carried out by our pioneering Green Exercise Research Group. Research team member Professor Jules Pretty said: “We know that nature is good for our wellbeing, and that activities in green places bring both mental and physical health benefits. 

“Community gardening does something more: it links people in urban settings to places where food can be grown together, and shows how skills and confidence can be built.”

The study also found that participants increased their fruit and vegetable intake by an average of 14% and physical activity levels across the group increased between 10% and 17%.

Jess Crocker, senior manager of Sharing the Harvest, said: “Even more promising [than the mental health benefits] are all the other benefits the project brought about, such as improved diet and increased exercise. The people we work with are more likely to have poor physical health and face a range of life challenges, which makes these improvements even more important. Community gardening is quite clearly powerful medicine.”

Building Saunders Park edible garden, Saunders Park, Brighton (Image: Brighton & Hove Food Partnership))
Building Saunders Park edible garden, Saunders Park, Brighton (Image: Brighton & Hove Food Partnership)

The research team’s report concludes that community gardening schemes should be integrated into Brighton and Hove’s health policy and practice. The study’s findings are especially pertinent for a city such as Brighton and Hove where mental health needs are particularly high. Compared with national averages, a third more people in Brighton and Hove have a diagnosis of mental illness, twice as many people are hospitalised following self-harm and a third more die by suicide.

Professor Pretty said: “Sharing the Harvest contributes to wider public health, taking pressure off acute and chronic care services in the NHS. This suggests local and national authorities should play a more active role in promoting community gardening, as it clearly brings wider health and wellbeing benefits."

As well as hands-on gardening activities, Sharing the Harvest offered advice and one-to-one support to vulnerable adults to enable them to attend gardens, ran workshops and training events, and included talks about volunteering and visits to gardens to share knowledge and ideas. 

The Sharing the Harvest project was supported by the Big Lottery Fund and built on Brighton & Hove Food Partnership’s previous work setting up and running community gardens.

Sharing the Harvest participant, Dave
"it helped me to see that there was more to life than the run-down place I’d found myself in"
Dave Sharing the Harvest participant

Case studies


Dave, 53, took part in Roots and Boots for one day a week while in a residential rehabilitation unit. Roots and Boots was a therapeutic gardening project for adults who had multiple and complex needs through homelessness, drug or alcohol addiction and mental health difficulties. 

Dave said: “That day took me away from the demons in my mind and gave me a bit of space. That was valuable and gave me something to work towards. It gave me the idea that there was something else out there. It’s nice to know you’re contributing to something positive and it helped me to see that there was more to life than the run-down place I’d found myself in.”


Chris, 54, was referred to the Saunders Parks Gardening Group after a mental breakdown. This group worked in the Saunders Parks Edible Garden a vibrant, edible community garden created from a forgotten and neglected space in a public park in Brighton.

Chris said: “It’s nice to get up in the morning to do something worthwhile. Getting out into Saunders Parks with people of similar interest and outlook and mental illnesses makes you feel you’re in a group and you’re not the only one. I’m on state benefits and I’m looking now to find part-time or full-time employment in gardening.”