Wednesday, May 19, 2010 - 11:37

Homeless people and prisoners on day release are converging on the site of the RHS Chelsea Flower show to create the biggest garden the event has ever seen.

Five hundred people being cared for by 43 agencies and 50 from eight prisons have been guided by a team of gardeners from the Eden Project in Cornwall, led by award-winning designer Paul Stone.

At nearly 600 square metres, the Places of Change plot will be filled with 10,000 plants in time for the opening of the world’s most famous flower show, running from May 25-29.

This ambitious 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, Communities and Local Government (CLG), and the London Employer Accord.

The garden 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 overall theme is craft and enterprise. The garden is split into a number of different zones – crops and food, floristry and leisure, medicine and health, industry and manufacture and conservation and environment.

The aim is to demonstrate that horticulture is a core human activity, offering a foundation for many opportunities to build skills, provide space, allow recovery, grow business and adapt to changing and difficult times.

As visitors explore the site, they will see a dramatic central spine, suggesting construction, inhabitation and growth – a reference to the stories of the participants. The garden also features areas representing derelict land, inhabited by wild flowers as a symbol of regeneration and discovery.

Places of Change has been developed by participating agencies from all corners of the country including Deptford Reach in London, the Salvation Army in Plymouth, St George’s Crypt in Leeds and Stonham Women’s Services in Hull.

They, and their service users, have been involved at every stage of the garden’s development, from planting, gardening, design, construction, and carpentry during the site development, to on-site hospitality and multi-media facilities during the week of the show.

In doing this, they have developed new skills that will enable them to move onto further training and qualifications, and turn their lives around long-term.

One of the headline features of the garden will be a giant man made of hundreds of healing plants grown in the precise bodily regions to which they could be applied. He will have ginger root for intestines and stomach, echinacea for his throat and nose and gingko biloba for his head. The man will overlook the medicine and health zone of Places of Change.

Also working on the garden’s health zone are Herefordshire SHYPP (supported housing for young people project), whose clients have chosen the theme of toxic and healing plants for their design, and have recruited two herbalists from London to work with ten young people, to teach them about their own health, plants and their healing properties.

Returning participant Nick, from St George’s Crypt in Leeds, said: ''Chelsea was the icing on the cake for me last year after doing my NVQ in horticulture. Looking back on it, it was a bit of a turning point for me. It was so good to be part of a team and be treated like a normal human being, which doesn’t always happen when you are homeless.”

Newcomer Dean Hartley, a resident at Chapter 1/FreshStart in St Austell, Cornwall, for almost a year, has helped pot the plants in the project’s grounds and will be working on the garden at Chelsea. He said: “It’s great to be involved in this project. I’m a fan of the Chelsea Flower Show. I’ve done some gardening in the past and plants get under your skin after a while. When you’re nurturing them, you’re nurturing yourself at the same time.”

The Places of Change garden follows on from the success of the 2009 Key Garden, which saw over 200 homeless service users create the Silver Medal award-winning show garden. Many have now gone on to further the skills they gained via further training or jobs placement. Participants involved consistently reported a big confidence boost, new skills, and renewed hope for their future. Many are taking part again this year to improve their newfound skills.

Adjacent to the garden there will be trade stands showcasing some of the excellent work undertaken by homeless people and teams, which will serve to reinforce the information about the Places of Change programme, as well as that of the participating agencies.