Page last updated at 23:51 GMT, Thursday, 15 May 2008 00:51 UK

Fighting drugs with garden gloves

Whitchester House
Whitchester House near Duns in the Scottish Borders helps to rehabilitate young men with a range of problems

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South of Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

At the age of 16, Stephen Smith held up an ice cream van.

Two years later he graduated to holding up a shop.

Struggling with a heroin addiction, he says he had little self-esteem and his life had no structure.

Now, however, at the age of 29 he feels a garden with one of the finest rhododendron collections in Scotland has helped to turn his life around.

Whitchester House, at Duns, in the Scottish Borders is, he says, a "special place".

There are people who leave here with a great future - it is really life-changing
Stephen Smith

"My life was in turmoil, there was no structure," said Mr Smith.

"But through working it gave me a structure - it reminded me what I enjoyed doing in that work.

"You are getting involved, you are seeing great progress and that gives you confidence in yourself that you can achieve something in your life."

The house has been leased by Christian charity Teen Challenge since 2002.

The gardens had fallen into neglect and have gone unseen by the public for more than a quarter of a century.

However, thanks to the work of about 20 residents with a range of "life control" problems they are to be opened once again.

Rhododendrons - Picture by Science Photo Library
The gardens are home to a wide variety of rhododendrons

"It used to be world famous for these gardens and their rhododendron collection," said centre manager Steven White.

"There are still a lot of people locally in the gardening community who are interested in the gardens."

Beric Wells said his team of gardeners had made a real difference.

"The gardens are beginning to emerge from their years of neglect," he said.

"The Rhododendron Society has already been here to inspect some of the very rare species which we have uncovered."

The young men at Whitchester take on an 18-month residential placement which sees them help tackle the horticultural issues.

Lowest ebb

At the end of the process they can achieve a gardening qualification.

According to Mr Smith, however, it offers more than simply a piece of paper.

He was at his lowest ebb when outreach workers from his local church suggested he might benefit from a placement.

After interview it was decided that Whitchester could help him out.

"My problem, I don't believe, was the drugs - I don't believe that was the root problem," he explained.

Whitchester House
There are usually about 20 residents who help work on the gardens

"I was a paranoid wreck, I didn't want to be around anybody.

"I have been on the brink of suicide but through doing the programme you are doing something - they are showing you a better life."

Mr Smith said the transformation in his fortunes was typical of many people who ended up working on the Borders' garden.

"A lot of us didn't stick in at school or have anything when we left," he said.

"But there are people who leave here with a great future - it is really life-changing."

Locals and visitors alike will get the chance to judge their efforts on Saturday when the "forgotten garden" is opened to the public.

It will be open between 1430 and 1700 BST with tickets costing 15 and the funds going towards the horticultural charity Perennial.

MSPs agree on drugs policy revamp
05 Feb 08 |  Scotland
Huge rise in Scottish drug deaths
30 Aug 07 |  Scotland
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23 Jul 07 |  Scotland

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