Bringing wellness to the community through gardening

Co-founder of Co Armagh's An Tobar Community Wellness Centre Kathleen Finnegan-Agnew gives the low-down on the benefits of gardening for general wellbeing

An Tobar's Margaret Finnegan

Tell us about An Tobar Community Wellness Centre and how it uses horticulture to improve the wellbeing of the local community.

We are a not-for-profit social enterprise at Finnegan's Nursery & Garden Centre, Silverbridge. We offer nature-based interventions to individuals and groups to improve health and wellbeing. This includes social and therapeutic horticulture, community gardening and social farming. Gardening can bring profound positive change, from improvements in physical and mental wellbeing to gaining skills and knowledge.

What qualities and experience do you have that make you suited for this post?

My sister and I have been in the horticulture business for over 30 years. Margaret has a degree in horticulture and has also completed studies in social and therapeutic horticulture. I graduated with first class honours in law and attended training courses with Ecowellness Ireland. I recently graduated from UUJ with an advanced diploma in social enterprise and have begun studying for a teaching diploma in mindfulness. We have a dedicated team of experienced staff and volunteers who contribute to maintaining the community gardens and programme delivery.

What do you grow and how do you utilise your produce?

We grow bedding plants, flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables. We sell these to the public and use them in our programmes. We grow flowers for flower arranging with groups, especially older people, who are less physically able. Older people love potting up bulbs or flowers and getting their hands dirty. This is a novel sensory experience and boosts mood and stimulates memories. Our kids' cooking classes use whatever is harvested from the garden. For some it's the first time they've tasted vegetable soup or salads. We also run educational gardening programmes for 13 local schools. The Grow Your Own Picnic programme teaches the children how to sow, plant and take care of fruit and vegetables.

You've created a sensory garden – how did that come about and what makes it different from a conventional garden (from conception through to execution)?

The ethos is for a garden that is accessible to all, stimulates the senses and enhances biodiversity. We have a large area of established gardens which provide the perfect setting for horticulture therapy. The raised beds originally used to display plants are now being converted into garden spaces. The sensory garden is a work in progress and something we are continuously developing. When considering garden design and choice of plants, we consider a balance of how they can be accessed by our participants and how they stimulate the senses. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender work well.

You also run kids' gardening clubs – does that present any particular challenges?

The kids' gardening club is one of the most enjoyable things we do. Before it started, we weren't sure if children would be interested in gardening. We were concerned that very young children wouldn't be able to participate. We found, though, that children of all ages love gardening and being outdoors, planting wildflowers, tree seeds, potatoes, pumpkins, courgettes – the messier and muckier the better!

You've planted 13,000 native trees to create a new woodland – what's the reasoning behind this project and what has been learned from it?

The new woodland is named Brian's Wood after two uncles. We are passionate about trees and it is Margaret's dream to plant the woodland with native trees to leave a legacy for future generations. The trees are planted over six hectares of land that was formerly grazed by our cattle. We have reduced our livestock numbers but it is a necessary step away from traditional farming which is no longer sustainable or environmentally friendly.

Any future plans?

We received a £30,000 loan from the Building Better Futures Fund which will allow us to keep developing and improving our services to accommodate more participants. We aim to recruit more volunteers and extra staff as the business grows.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: