Gardening is now being recognised as therapy but The Butterfly Garden has long helped those who are struggling with life. I chatted to its founder Chris Evans about this remarkable charity.
It’s impossible to walk through The Butterfly Garden without someone stopping me to talk. Students ask my name, am I looking for Chris, what’s the notebook for, and give me detailed accounts of how they plan to spend their day. When we eventually find Chris, our chat is punctuated by interruptions as they eagerly join in.
I’ve been visiting the scheme since its early days and yet the sheer scale of what it achieves with little more than goodwill and determination never fails to move me.
Like so many good ideas, it started by chance when a group of autistic children were taken to Dundry Nurseries, Chris’ family business, to talk to him about growing plants. Recognising how much they got out of the trip, he invited them back.
“Then somebody phoned and said ‘I’ve heard about your project’ and after that I was lost,” he says with a smile.
At first, the scheme, which is open Monday to Friday, was confined to developing a garden out of unused land behind the Cheltenham nursery. That original ‘Butterfly Garden’ is still there but the work now covers far more and activities have moved into greenhouses and buildings, acquired through fundraising and donations.
The students have changed too. Although, The Butterfly Garden still helps those with autism, it now includes all learning disabilities, those who are physically disabled, people suffering from bereavement, stroke victims, those with dementia or mental health issues, and people dealing with alcoholism.
“It’s just about people coming together in the broadest sense. Everybody will have some struggle on their journey and it’s much easier to deal with it if you are able to share it.”
Today, 15 years on, there are 243 registered students, with up to 60 on site at any one time, and Chris deals with agencies across the county from schools and colleges, to mental health services, social services, day care providers and GPs. Groups, including Help the Aged, a stroke group and Men in Sheds, use the facilities.
“It’s about cohesion and bringing the community together in all its guises. When you can do that you stick massive holes in prejudice.”
The Butterfly Garden has grown organically not with any overall plan but in response to a perceived need or a sudden opportunity.
Recycling began when someone dropped off a load of unwanted plastic flower pots.
“Some of the students just naturally wanted to tidy up,” says Chris. “They started sorting and tidying according to size and colour.”
Deciding to see if they could be recycled, he discovered he’d need a recycling licence. Having obtained one, the charity now recycles everything from cardboard to old videos.
“People bring all sorts of random things in.”
A recent donation included a box of kilts and Loch Ness monster hats – Chris is exploring the possibility of turning the hats into glove puppets.
Sometimes, the donated goods are used by students; when I visited, the art room was full of poppies for a Remembrance Day display made from the bottom of old bottles and the insides of DVDs.
Art is just one of the ‘classes’ along with cookery, woodwork, craft, Zumba, drama – there’s an outdoor performance space – knitting and sewing, music and puppetry. Yoga and tai chi are held in the yurt. All are run by volunteers who just turn up and offer their services when it’s convenient.
In the same way, students are free to do what they want. Some may spend hours sorting horticultural plastic, knowing they can break off at any time. Others move from activity to activity. Some stay all day, others just for a few hours.
Gardening is still at the heart of The Butterfly Garden. There’s an allotment-style space where students learn how to grow flowers and vegetables and another area has been turned into individual allotment plots that the students ‘own’.
“It’s not ‘This is your space and I’m going to tell you how to do it’. It’s all about ‘This is your space and you’re going to learn how to do it’. Some of them have had great crops this year.”
Meanwhile, Chris is experimenting with getting them to look after cuttings and seeds over winter in one of the greenhouses.
What was a wilderness at the end of the site has been turned into a wild garden by students, inspired by a poem by Robert Frost ‘The Road Not Taken’.
Based on a figure of eight, it has objects, such as a green-painted bicycle, along the route, making each journey different, according to which path you choose.
Having managed to buy a piece of ground alongside the nursery, Chris and the students created The Butterfly Garden Meadow, which is open to anyone to use. A carefully constructed path makes it accessible to those with limited mobility, while making two ponds and planting 350 trees mean it attracts a range of wildlife; visitors are encouraged to take photos and add them to a folder recording what’s been seen.
The Butterfly Garden was turned into a charity some years ago to safeguard its future and distance it from the nursery business. Although the charity occupies land behind the firm, the two are separate: students don’t grow for Dundry Nurseries and the nursery staff don’t work for the charity. Instead, flowers and veg grown by the students are either taken home or shared with other organisations; recently some plants were used in the garden at the town’s Sue Ryder home.
All this work is funded through donations – both of goods and time. There’s a ‘bring-and-buy’ shop, run on an honesty box system and a café, that fills in the gap when the nursery’s main café is closed.
Over the years, local firms have donated the time and skills of their staff to build raised beds or fundraise. The charity extends its facilities to anyone who wants to use them and has hosted everything from NHS team meetings to lunch clubs.
“We want people to feel they can integrate with us.”
This sense of non-judgemental inclusiveness extends to the students. Anyone can turn up and join in regardless of age or need, there’s no charge and no need for a referral by another agency.
“We’re open to everybody,” says Chris, adding, “Sometimes there’s a problem you cannot see.”
• For more information, visit The Butterfly Garden website