St Paul’s Woodland Garden project is a nature, food growing and community project located in Camden. The project offers people, in particular, those experiencing social isolation and/or mental health issues, an opportunity to come together with others to enjoy a green space, watch the birds, grow food, cook and create a haven for wildlife.
The project, run by Green City Projects in partnership with St Paul’s Church, is just over three years’ old. It is located on one quarter of a church plot at the top of Camden Square. The original Victorian church was bombed during WW2 and replaced by a “temporary” building which is still standing today. This back story is relevant to the garden. The top soil is less than 30 cm deep – after that your spade hits the rubble of a church laid waste by war. However, the soil that is there is rich and dark, created by layer after layer of leaves dropping each year.
Funded by the National Lottery, the Woodland Garden project offers a safe space and a warm welcome to a number of groups including patients from the mental health recovery and rehabilitation wards at St Pancras Hospital and people living in the community with ongoing mental health issues. Participants come along on a weekly basis and get involved – planting, sowing seeds, topping up the bird feeders, managing the compost and creating wildlife habitats. The sessions are also a chance for people to connect with others and just hang out for a bit. In 2019 we were amazed and delighted to win the Church of England’s and Conservation Foundation’s National Green Health Award. This scheme acknowledged the way the project had made use of church-owned land to support people’s mental wellbeing.
I didn’t really want to go this morning, but I am glad I did. It helped me so much to feel better. There was a lot to do in the garden which kept my mind busy.
The garden is bordered by mature plane trees along with an old lime. These trees create dry shade conditions which can be a challenge for a gardener. When we first started, we planned to grow more food. However, after a season of getting to know the space, we realised it wasn’t an ideal food growing site and we were pushing it in the wrong direction. We changed tack and decided to embrace what we found and see the garden as more of a wildlife space. It is now roughly divided into 20% food growing and 80% conservation and wildlife.
For food growing we identified the spot which received the most sun and installed raised beds. We have grown include pumpkins, tomatoes, salads, borlotti beans and onions and surprisingly, chillies do well too. We worked with a charity called the Orchard Project to source varieties of apples which could cope with some shade. We held a tasting harvest lunch so we could have our say in which varieties we liked best. We now officially have an orchard as we have five apple trees.
When we first arrived we did an audit of the plants and identified 20 species such as green alkanet, cow parsley and common burdock. Over the course of our time here we have more than doubled that, for example, introducing yellow archangel, St John’s Wort and Meadowsweet as well as a mix of woodland grasses. We have started recording the insects we find including speckled wood butterfly, hairy footed bumble bee and marmalade hoverflies and each year we take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch.
Although gardening is our core activity we also do cooking and art. In December 2020, with the help of Camden-based charity, Friendly Hand, we installed outdoor kitchen facilities, including a covered area and an oven so that we could continue to work in the garden and stay safe during the pandemic. We ran a summer programme with the Trauma Stress Clinic at St Pancras Hospital where half the group made lunch whilst the other half gardened. We would sit down together and eat and agree the following week’s menu! One participant said it was the first time in over a year that she had sat down with others to eat a meal.
For those of you thinking of visiting St Paul’s Woodland Garden project for the Open Garden Squares Weekend, one attraction is that it is an accessible outdoor space. This was a condition of our Lottery funding and rightly so. We installed paths and an accessible composting loo. We also plan to put our culinary skills to the test and prepare a number of woodland edge inspired cakes, pesto and cordials!
You can find out more about London Square Open Gardens Weekend 2022, and book your tickets here.