In a small corner of Lincolnshire, tucked away in the picturesque countryside between Lincoln and Newark, lies Sage Gardener, a group quietly improving people’s health and wellbeing through the great outdoors and connecting with nature.
The wintry sky is bright, and the birds are chirping when we arrive for our visit to see first-hand how Sage, a community interest company, supports its members. Nestled among woodland and meadows is a welcoming cabin where the kettle is always on, but we can’t wait to explore the site, so a warming cuppa will have to wait for now…
As reported, Sage Gardener is the winner of our Community Awards 2021 bursary (read more here: hmtsthughs.org/community-awards-night). In partnership with Lincs FM, we awarded its directors, Dave and Jane Newman, with £1000 to contribute towards their work.
“It’s a known fact that engaging with the natural, green environment reduces stress,” Dave tells us, as we begin our tour. “Sage offers people the chance to meet others and share experiences, and learn about gardening, flowers and rural crafts.
“Our core activity is what we call Friendship Days once a month. We started it off for people with dementia and their carers, with about four or five people. We’ve grown so much that just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, we had about 30 people. Now, we also welcome younger people with mental health challenges.
“There’s a programme called Wood Fit, which involves weekly outdoor exercise sessions, and woodland bathing, too. On Wednesdays, for example, people come to have a coffee and a chat – the socialising aspect being very important – and then we do activities afterwards, like woodland walks and so on. We also run various other types of sessions, for new parents, for instance.
“It’s all about connecting – that’s at the heart of what we do here.”
Between them, Dave and Jane share a lifetime of experience in horticulture, floristry, and related industries, and each have more than 25 years of experience in teaching and training.
This background led them both to launch Sage Gardener five years ago, specifically for those in our communities for whom connecting with nature is beneficial for their health and wellbeing. The organisation is run entirely by volunteers and relies on donations and grants for its funding Its oldest member is aged 96.
“We both retired and were looking for something to do with the skills we have,” says Dave. “Also, we had my parents living with us for quite a while with dementia issues and knew some other people with dementia, so that’s how Sage began.”
In fact, Jane took early retirement and, having been carers for her in-laws with very little support available to them, the couple always said that if they ever had the chance, they’d establish something that supported carers and families as well as the affected individual.
When Sage Gardener first began taking on members, there was no water or power at the site. Dave and Jane would cook soup over a firepit and bring sandwiches in. Now, although sadly some of those original members have passed away, their carers still attend.
We walk with Dave as he explains about coppicing and the other ways in which the land here is preserved. The area beyond the site is home to designated ancient woodland that goes back about a mile, and although parts were cut down in the 1960s and 1970s and replaced with pine trees, he says, there are still patches of truly old trees. “They won’t have changed in centuries,” he says. “The original Eagle Hall, of which this part is the lodge, was originally a Knights Templar dwelling and they used it for soldiers to recover. If you look at it in today’s terms, it was probably for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress.
“So really, this place has been used for therapeutic purposes for a thousand years. Of course, you can get the same benefit from a small garden or an allotment, so we enjoy teaching people who come here to look for nature wherever they can, on their own doorstep.
“Equally, a lot of people won’t have access to this kind of site – so we hope that people who don’t or won’t ever visit but hear about what we do can take something from it, too.”
Dave shows us what is believed to be an old orchard, home to a Bramley apple tree and two others that were catalogued in the mid-1800s. It now encompasses a bird-watching area that’s also used for photography sessions.
“We also have basket weaving,” he says, stopping to look up at the canopy of trees. “We’ve got hazel, ash… we’ve been cutting roughly one-seventh of the trees down every year to manage things like Ash Dieback disease, which has unfortunately struck some of the trees here.
“On the face of it, people may think Sage Gardener is simply about gardening and planting, that kind of thing. Actually, it encompasses nature so much more than that. We use the whole of nature, and a lot of the craft activities we do is geared around that.
“Today, you’ll see we are sticking autumn leaves to paper plates to create collages, so we use the materials readily available around us. Today will also be about encouraging healthy eating and, with some care home residents, we will be sowing seeds so they can grow cress and pea shoots on their windowsills.
“A lot of that is very tactile, of course; a physical activity – touching and connecting with nature is so important. We also have a lot to do with mindfulness, too. It’s the full thing – it’s not just gardening.”
Next stop is Witch’s Corner, a suitably spooky, overgrown clearing featuring a rustic wooden bench and arbour that currently has a skull balanced on top. In October, it was the setting for storytelling sessions held by a ‘real-life witch’.
“As well as supporting the people themselves, we involve their families and wider networks, such as the grandchildren of those with dementia,” Dave says. “We’ve held a couple of Halloween events for the children to visit the witch, walking through the woodland with their torches as it got dark to have a word with her.”
We leave Witch’s Corner behind to visit the sensory garden, planted with donated flora and fauna to attract seasonal butterflies and bees. This area also contains a patch of textured ground on which people can safely walk barefoot. The gravel crunches and pops, and the sand shifts – again, another way of connecting to the land.
“There’s always something to do in every season,” Dave adds. “It’s not just about when the sun is shining and there’s a beautiful blue sky. It is just as peaceful and beautiful in autumn and winter as it is spring and summer. The regulars get to see it change throughout the year, and there are always different colours and textures to admire.”
Jane joins us now. “I don’t think many people realise how good nature is for them,” she says, thoughtfully. “We tend to be cautious, and health and safety orientated these days – to our detriment. There’s something quite magical about the barefoot walking, as an example, and feeling nature underneath you.
“We need to be doing things like this, or we may end up with a generation who are too worried or nervous to do anything at all. It’s all about getting a balance. There are very few rules here; obviously we’ve had more during the Covid pandemic, but we keep them to a minimum.
“We do everything to help other people; everyone here is a volunteer and we are always in need of money, so the bursary from the Community Awards 2021 and winning the award meant the world.”
So, how do you get involved with Sage Gardener? The workshops and activities are advertised, which are booked in advance for a voluntary donation, and Jane checks that they match Sage Gardener’s care ethos; otherwise, people can be referred through social prescribing, via health professionals. There are also volunteering roles.
Inevitably, the coronavirus lockdowns had an impact on activities, which is partly why there are changes afoot for 2022. The group will leave its current leased home in the village of Eagle – which it uses two days a week – to move closer to the communities it serves and, as a result, allow other organisations to enjoy the surroundings Sage members have benefitted from.
Dave and Jane will take on an allotment in nearby Witham St Hugh’s and land within a private garden at South Scarle; both locations will enable the group to “spread out”, says Dave. They are also taking on the outdoor space of a large sports venue in the city of Lincoln and looking at working more in the Bracebridge Heath area. The group also goes out to visit specific groups, such as one in Sleaford that works with excluded children.
“It’s a case of us going to the community, rather than the community coming out to us,” he explains. “Additionally, this site is used by a child therapist we’ve long paired up with, who must use it on their own without the presence of other groups, and the demand for their service has increased hugely since the lockdowns… so much so that now she has five therapists sharing the site.
“It’s given us the chance to reassess how we carry out our activities and how to improve them, so we’re moving on from our original home – but in a good way. Things are changing.”
For more information, visit sagegardener.co.uk
COMING UP: We hear from Isla, a Sage Gardener volunteer, whose PTSD is eased by connecting with nature.