Can gardening help reform habitual drug abusers? Celebrity gardener Monty Don has taken a group of ex-offenders under his wing, and two years into this pioneering project, is starting to see rewards.
By Claire Heald
BBC News Magazine
On a peaceful six-acre plot in Herefordshire a group of people are tilling the soil, planting crops and tending the sheep and chickens.
It has been a good harvest on the smallholding, bearing marrows, tomatoes, salad leaves - although rabbits have massacred the brassica.
So far, so cosy, rural England. But before this crop of horticulturists were here their harvest was heroin and other drugs, reaped from the proceeds of stolen goods.
They say gardening is good for the soul. For Monty Don, who dreamed up the scheme to help the ex-offenders, the mystical and practical benefits of it are beyond doubt.
"I have a complete faith in the healing power of the land," he says. "They tease me about it, 'Monty and his mystical view of the land...' but I see it also as a pragmatic thing, particularly in rural communities."
Deceit and self-loathing
It may sound like the high ideals of a well-known TV gardener - a sort of Jamie Oliver's Fifteen for the land rather than the kitchen - but it has practical bearing, says Don. While drug abuse is widely seen as an urban ill, it's no stranger to rural communities and all the volunteers in Don's care live locally.
This generation has been alienated from working on the land and the social, mental and physical well-being that comes from being in touch with it, says Don, 51. It's a long way from the deceit and self-loathing of drug addiction.
Hard physical work brings rewards, the theory goes
"You cannot cheat nature," he says. "You can't lie to a pig that needs feeding or a plant that's got to be grown. And if you produce good food, lovingly, with hard work, prepare it with care and share it with other people... the ritual of that gives self worth."
He can vouch first-hand for such therapeutic effects. Despite his sunny demeanour, Don experiences depression and working the land has helped him, he says.
A core group of about 10 volunteers on drug testing and treatment orders work three days a week on what's known as the Monty Project.
The group has just brought in its first harvest, but finding a plot and setting it up initially proved a struggle. The project has funding and on-going support from the Probation Service, the gardening charity Thrive and Don himself.
Its produce is supplied to farm shops and the hope is to start a modest box scheme - where customers could order a regular delivery of veg.
No Gardeners' World-watchers
Unlike Oliver's Fifteen - in which TV cameras documented the Cockney chef's efforts to start a restaurant with a group of drop-outs - Don's proteges are "all drug addicts, and until they shake their habit there's not a hope in hell".
And it's not his name that draws their commitment, says Don, but trust, high-hopes and self reliance. "Most of them don't make a date with Gardeners' World on a Friday night," he quips.
The offenders' problems are stark, and so is their description of how the project helps.
"I had a kid and I wanted to be a father to him," says Tom, 22. "When I started I wouldn't have been able to tell you how it helped. Now, my order is ending, I'm clean and I'm looking after him."
Working the soil in such a peaceful environment takes the "stress from my shoulders" he says.
It also a practical distraction, says Rocky, the former policeman and probation officer who oversees them: "It's miles from their drugs and the people who take them out shop-lifting. It's a safe place and it's much better to be out here working."
How have the group fared? About 27 have been through the project. Many stayed and worked hard, a couple dropped out, two or three "were nicked" again, says Don.
Those involved say its success rate is higher than equivalent work. In 2004, a parliamentary watchdog found 80% of offenders handed a treatment and testing order were re-convicted within two years.
Public high points
The effort so far has been "hard, grim and battling" says Don. Their low came when one of the group, Martin, died.
"When somebody you know, 23, is found dead with a needle in their groin in the lavatory, that is a horrible disaster, a tragedy so it's shocking."
Don likens the task of turning a group physically wrecked by years of drug abuse into capable workers, to athletic training. First they toiled in short bursts. By the summer, when everything began to grow, peer pressure and increased strength meant they pulled their weight.
Monty Don: "I am under no illusions about the massive struggle"
High points came with an open day where families, friends and even police and magistrates, were invited on site "to eat our sausages from the pigs we raised and salads we had grown".
At Ludlow food festival they competed alongside professionals "We stripped our land bare. The group were fabulous, getting up at 5am, into the field harvesting, setting up the stalls, taking the money, talking to the public."
But there have also be private victories, like when "one mother said 'You've given me my son back'. Or seeing someone who's refused to eat at a table for weeks on end just quietly sitting down and tucking into their lunch, or someone ringing up saying they'd got a clean drug sample for the first time in a year."
The plan now is to establish a second site, then a base camp to train people to set up similar projects across the country. Don plans to raise £1.5m this year to fund it and has a book, Growing out of Trouble, and an up coming TV series on the project.
When Martin died, he says "it rammed home that 'you are in this now and you must pursue it until the end'.
"I am under no illusions about the massive struggle. But there are distinct and profound successes far in excess of any other scheme that's up and running and it's far cheaper than any alternative."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
This confirms something I have always believed, that punishment is often self-defeating in drugs cases. And just saying "You must come off drugs" is pointless.
There is nothing you can do that will make a drug addict feels worse about themselves, so give them an opportunity to feel better. To value their own lives to the point that the incredibly hard struggle of giving up the chemical and emotional support provided by drugs is worthwhile. I would love to get involved in some way and help.
Sandy, Derby, UK
Fantastic story. It shows what many of us working with alcohol and drug users have known for ages, that imaginative, hard-working initiatives can help change people's lives. Well done to Monty Don.
John Reading, Brighton
Having volunteered for several years at a homeless shelter in Cambridge I can relate to the challenges you are all facing on a daily basis. I've experienced the ups and tremendous lows when you suffer a set back. Keep at it, you will win. Well done. Andrew
Andrew Ryde, Enfield, Middx
This scheme is fantastic. I don't think that it is gardening per se that is the key factor, however, it is doing a valuable, practical activity into which you can throw yourself and enjoy yourself. We need to be encouraging young people to go into gardening, joinery, plumbing, cooking etc as well as academic subjects. That way everyone will have more of an opportunity to work towards something they are interested in and not get disillusioned and turn to drugs.
Ryan Taylor, Clapham, London
Wonderful to see such a positive venture. It's so easy to be negative about drug-takers. Great to see some of them coming around again and joining the rest of us in the real world.
Peter Neal, Altrincham
For years gardening has been seen as a 'soft' option for those privileged in prison. Reading this article shows that it isn't easy or soft, but very hard work and the results are manifold.
I realise that these people are not incarcerated in body but I would say that they are definitely imprisoned in spirit, and if there are people, like Monty, prepared to help them to free themselves, they should be encouraged.
Nancy, Brighton, UK
I am very moved. I go into the garden to work when I am stressed or tired or life is too much. So from my own personal experience I can see the value. I hope it goes from strength to strength.
Jo Jacques, Guildford, Surrey
This type of technique is already used in areas such as cognitive behavioural therapy. By giving the brain manual (and rewarding) tasks there is a certain amount of plasticity and 'rewiring' of older learned habits. It can work quite well for the milder forms of behavioural patterns.
Peter Hobden, Oxford
There are a few derelict allotment plots around Bristol in some of the most deprived areas it would be very interesting and rewarding to get a project on the go around here.
I often find that a few hours on my allotment are more than enough to treat the blues.
Andy Hamilton, Bristol
Our friend Emilio here in Italy works with a Cooperativa Speciale La Corte dei Miracoli (The Court of the Miracles cooperative) growing organic vegetables on a local organic farm, where the majority of people involved are recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Although it is tough going, he says it give self worth.
Renee Ventris, Fivizzano, Italy
There are other schemes like this. One in Devon has been running for years and has seen many drug addicts live and work the land to become free of past addictions and grab hold of a new life.
In the 1970s,on my days off from work as a mental nurse, I used to give a hand on a friend's farm in Bossingham, near Canterbuty, Kent, helping his son to come out of his drug addiction. I always thought there was something magic on the land. On return back to Mauritius, I helped my close relatives to come out of it by exposing them to hard work on the sugarcane farm. It is true that this therapy works.
Naushad Ally Suffee, Coromandel, Mauritius
The above article is what a lot of us say about gardening and in particular 'grow your own'. My husband and I have two allotments and have been self sufficient in vegetables for the last 15 years. I am a senior theatre sister and welcome the summer months when I can come home after a stressful day at work and spend an hour or two on the allotment. We all live very busy lives but need the stimulation of growing things for us to grow, thrive and be healthy.
Marianne Slater, West Drayton, Middlesex
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