Using Gardening to Empower the Unemployed & People With Mental Disabilities

Using Gardening

For Good

Ciaran Burke runs a social enterprise called the New Growth Project from Marley Park in Dublin 16, it provides free horticultural education for the unemployed and people with learning disabilities. “We use horticulture as tool for dealing with mental health issues, it also aids social integration and gives participants the opportunity to continue with a horticultural education program if they decide to find employment in that area.” It’s an impressive concept that has had a positive effect on many people. Ciaran like many others, suffered from lack of work when Ireland lunged into recession in 2008 but it was during this tough time that this project was imagined, but more about that later.

Ciaran’s a softly spoken man and at his own admission a nerd, a plant nerd to be precise, “I love finding new plants and marveling at their flowers and leaf structures. I love the plant names. There’s a huge diversity of plants. They think they haven’t even discovered half of the plants on the planet.” When Ciaran lists out the Latin names of plants you can see his face delight at the what the names conjures up inside him.

An Education in Horticulture


He’s been working in horticulture all his adult life. A native of Dublin, he grew up outside Swords in the Dublin countryside. “Behind my parents house, was a nursery, which was about seven and a half acres of glass houses. That’s where I started my horticultural career by doing summer work. I’d garden tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, aubergines in the glasshouses. Then out in fields I’d harvest lettuce and turnips and celery. I really liked it. But the boss said to me, “Don’t go into field production because there’s no money in it due to the way supermarkets operate. If you’re really stupid enough to continue on the horticultural path, go do a course at the Botanic Gardens. So I applied there and got in!” After he graduated he worked on a community employment scheme in Ballymun in 1990. “They were really ahead of their time. They were working on the grounds of an old church and created a community fruit garden.” He was offered a supervisor role in the scheme but decided to try working in retail gardening which didn’t fully satisfy him.

After a number of years working in a garden centre a friend of his offered him his teaching place at a Vocational Education Centre (VEC) for a year, he took it and fell in love with teaching. It prompted him to teach gardening as a career. He started to teach Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) courses at the Dublin School of Horticulture with a friend. “I decided to move to the west of Ireland so we split up then the school and I took on the homeschooling elements and started doing the courses in Galway.”

Ireland’s Crash Gave Birth To A New Venture


It was a great venture until the economy had a heart-attack and business dried up. “I found myself in Mayo, not having work and that’s when the idea for The New Growth Project came about, I was actually weeding when I got the idea! I started taking people into my garden and teaching them how to garden. It actually began with four people, all unemployed. Right from the beginning I saw that this was something good. I decided I had to return to Dublin because the bigger population meant it could expand. I just thought I have to go somewhere where there’s work. I can’t spend the rest of my life waiting for things to happen.” But, like most people he was in negative equity with his house which had him anchored. He wasn’t interested in negotiating the mortgage, he just wanted to get rid of the house so that he could start fresh in Dublin. “The mortgage was sold to Pepper Assets. They agreed on a selling price with an auctioneer. Once they achieved that, they wrote off on two-thirds of the debt. So that allowed me to sell our house and move. I’m still paying for it in small amounts, it could have been a lot worse.” It’s important to include that piece of information about Ciaran as he’s walked the walk so to speak, he knows what it’s like to be backed into a wall financially, it makes him relatable to the people that are on The New Growth Project because he can empathise.

He started teaching RHS courses again in Marlay park, allocating a portion of the course fees towards running The New Growth Project. Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council have been very supportive of the endeavour and have allowed The New Growth Project use buildings for classroom and use polytunnels for growing plants. On the day of this interview a group of twenty people were taking part in the project, digging in the summer sun whilst Ciaran looked on. He is a thoughtful man that believes deeply in the importance of this project, “horticulture is a tool that can be used to address issues such as mental health problems, it can build people’s confidence up, it teaches environmental awareness and social inclusion. They’re all the things

Treating People With Dignity


“People may be coming to us who’ve been unemployed not just for the week, but maybe for a year or more. You’re not at your best, it destroys your confidence, your sense of worth and well-being. But coming together with other people a couple days a week to learn something interesting has a therapeutic value.” He is clear that his role and that of the other professional gardeners is to act as tutors, “we’re guiding people and teaching them so it’s not a social club. After 12 weeks, we’ll ask people if they are interested in progressing more towards formal qualifications.”

Integration with people with intellectual disabilities is another key aspect to this initiative. “People with intellectual disabilities can be quite well catered for up to 18. After that age it can be a problem for them just to get access to learn as an equal. There are schemes where they have people with intellectual disabilities only. I think it’s really important that they can be mixed with others. It gives people without intellectual disabilities a better sense of purpose and achievement as they inadvertently start helping others and that makes them feel good. So not only are they taking in terms of learning, they give as well. It creates a nice balance for them. And then for people with intellectual disabilities, they’re treated as an equal in the learning process and the social process. For example when they grow their vegetables they can bring them home. Now they’re being praised for growing this plant, they then feel that they’re providing for others at home and making an impact”

It Soothes Mental Health Issues


Like most great ideas it’s simple and it makes sense. Ciaran is keen to share the gift of gardening and nature with others. When pressed on why he loves horticultural so much he smiles and says, “I suppose it’s the connection with nature and the earth. As you go through life you start dealing with your own mental health issues, we all have to a greater or lesser extent, but an hour or two in the garden can change your mood.” He goes on to add, “it gives you something, a meaning and a purpose without even realising it. So in a way, I suppose gardening is, dare I say it, spiritual. When gardening is approached in the right way, not only does it make you feel good, you can do good as well.” And that is something that the New Growth Project is excelling at, long may it continue.


You can learn more about the New Growth Project here…

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