Monday, May 24, 2010 - 15:53

Homeless people and prisoners on day release have created the biggest garden ever seen at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Five hundred people supported by 43 homelessness agencies and 50 from eight prisons have teamed up with gardeners from the Eden Project in Cornwall to grow and plant the Places of Change garden, led by award-winning designer Paul Stone.

Among them is Paul Pulford, known as Scruffy, a former heroin addict who has turned his life around through gardening.

He has led a 15-strong team from Providence Row Housing Association and Crisis Skylight, London, who have created the 50 square metre environment zone within the 590 square metre garden, with a theme of homes for people and wildlife.

With its forest garden and traditional woodland hut alongside a range of trees and foraging plants, it is proving a magnet for early visitors to the world’s most famous flower show, which officially opens tomorrow (Tuesday May 25).

“I’ve heard there’s another garden at Chelsea with diamonds in it that is costing £20 million to put together,” he said. “The hardware for our zone cost about 300 quid. Since I’ve been at the show I’ve had a really good look around and there is a lot to see, but I don’t think anything beats ours.”

Paul places most value on how gardening can transform lives, including his own. With its plants for heath, healing and food, his lovingly-tended zone is testimony to this.

“Everything has been grown or recycled. It is so natural it is already swarming with insects and birds,” said Paul, 49, from Brick Lane, East London, who worked on the silver-medal winning Key garden last year.

“Working on this project has helped the team out immensely. Morale has really gone up. Gardening has healed me and healed other members of the team.

“I was depressed for 25 years but now I’m happy because I get to go out to play every day. I love gardening with wild flowers. Life is brilliant for me at the moment. We’ve spent 2,000 man hours on this garden. Blood, sweat and tears. But every moment has been worth it.”

The Places of Change project is a major collaboration between several key partners: national housing and regeneration delivery body the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), national membership charity for homeless agencies Homeless Link, the Eden Project, and Communities and Local Government (CLG).

It is being funded by CLG and the HCA’s Places of Change programme – a £80m capital funding programme that aims to bring about a step change in the way homeless services are perceived and challenge stereotypes around homelessness.

The Places of Change garden follows on from the success of the 2009 Key Garden, which saw more than 200 homeless service users including Paul Pulford create the Silver Medal award-winning show garden.

Many have now gone on to further the skills they gained through further training or jobs placement and the aim is the same this year.