Growing in confidence

A community garden set up to help disabled learn new skills and build confidence is inspiring other projects around the country. Andrew Vine met the woman behind it.

Liam Wainwright weeds the flower beds at Growing Zone in Kippax. Picture by Tony Johnson

JUNE Perkin is in perpetual motion, from the polytunnel to the soft fruit beds, from the sensory area to the orchard, handing out seeds to be planted and compost to be riddled.

By the time she gets home, she’ll be filthy from head to toe, but there’ll be little rest because then the mountains of paperwork have to be done. That’s fine, though, because today, like every other day, she’s elated by what she’s seen and heard.

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What she’s seen are people growing and developing, gaining in confidence and making new friends. And what she’s heard is their laughter.

June is the founder and driving force of The Growing Zone, a community garden in Kippax, a village near Leeds, created from five derelict allotments to bring together disabled people and get them out into the fresh air to learn about plants and crafts.

It’s the most welcoming of settings, along a grassy track amid houses and allotments, filled with flowers and young plants waiting to go into the beds, designed to be accessible to those with mobility problems whatever their age.

Word has spread about The Growing Zone, and ever more people are coming to spend time there – 2,700 in the last year – from across West Yorkshire, parts of South Yorkshire and even as far away as Scarborough.

And now, June’s vision is inspiring others around the country to set up similar projects, with requests coming in for advice on how to get started.That’s going to mean even more paperwork, but that’s fine as well because June thrives on being busy.

She’s just turned 65 and remains an ebullient, restless bundle of energy, devoted to her project and always thinking of ways to make it better for both the children and adults who love coming here.

And yet just a few years ago, the idea of doing this had never entered her head as she went about everyday life with a job as a project analyst and a hobby of gardening on two allotments near her home in Kippax. The need to go shopping on a sunny day when she’d much rather have been working on the allotments provided her eureka moment when she went to the White Rose centre in Leeds

“This particular day was red hot, and I was in a really bad mood because I’d rather have been digging,” said June. “At the White Rose, I was quite shocked when I saw all these youngsters and older people in wheelchairs with carers inside, just sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘They should be outside, it’s too nice to be in here’.

“I came back an hour later, and it just hit me, they’re still just sitting there. I came home and I was sitting down on my allotment and it was a lovely night and everybody was working and laughing, and I couldn’t get these people out of my head. I thought, ‘Everybody’s got the right to do this’.

“I thought, ‘There’s no point moaning about it, get something done’, so I went home and drew the plan.”

With the support of her husband, Robert, 67, June set to work. She persuaded her local allotment association, which had been won=dering what to with five derelict and overgrown plots, to hand them over to her in trust for 25 years.

Work began on clearing them in spring 2008, with volunteers from further and higher education and businesses lending a hand. It was a massive task, with skiploads of rubbish being removed before the creation of a garden divided into areas including wildlife, fruit and vegetables, and sensory beds where those with vision problems can feel the plants. Crafts including woodwork and pyrography – scorching patterns into wood – were added later. Volunteers from community groups have made the furniture and potting benches.

It’s a place of vibrant colours and optimism, but there is the occasional reminder of the vulnerability of some of the people who love the garden. Amid the bright woodwork, a shed remains unpainted because it bears the handprints of two children who have died.

The community around The Growing Zone has embraced it. After the garden was broken into and its furniture stolen, June arrived to find replacements piled up outside the locked gates, left there by anonymous well-wishers who wanted no thanks, but simply to help. Keeping the project going financially is an uphill struggle. There have been grants from Comic Relief and support from businesses including Zurich and Barclays and Yorkshire banks, but even so it’s a rare month when June and Robert don’t have to put their own money in.

But it’s worth it. Over and over again, June and the volunteers – the eldest of whom is 90 – who come to help have seen changes for the better. Young people who have been withdrawn and lacking in confidence have blossomed as they work with the plants and crafts.

“There’s always one of us behind a shed having a little sniffle because we have so many firsts,” said June. “Within a couple of hours of people being here, you see something just come out because there are no pressures, no timetables, no demands, everybody is allowed to be themselves.

“You see people totally and utterly change and you look and think, ‘When did that happen?’ Every single person who comes up here has got something to give, and they want to give, and they want to take away that feeling they get when they come up here.

“I take it home every night. We go down that road sometimes and we look like we’ve been up a chimney and we’re exhausted, and your jaws ache because you’ve been laughing all day. I’ve got more friends now, and more out of life. I don’t need to sit at night with a glass of wine and watch a soap because I’ve got more important things to do and it’s because of these people.”

The requests for advice on how to start similar project arrive constantly. “We’ve been inundated with requests from people to help them do a similar thing, from all over England. We’ve had visitors from the north-east, from Staffordshire,” said June.

The only concession she’s made to the demands of running The Growing Zone has been to give up one of her own allotments. But the remaining one is devoted to growing vegetables which are then sold to raise funds.

If she has a regret, it’s that she didn’t start sooner. “I should have done it years ago, but I was too busy going to work, having nice clothes, doing what everybody else does, going on holiday.

“At first, I was quite ashamed of myself that I hadn’t seen it before that day at the White Rose. I was quite upset, but I was upset through anger because I hadn’t seen it before, and why hadn’t anybody done anything about it because it’s in your face.

“You can do so much for nothing. You come up here in the summer and the people in the houses all around say all you can hear is laughter.

“It’s a good job I’ve no kids, because I’ve got about 200 now.”

The Growing Zone can be found at www.growingzone.co.uk