Just an hour’s drive from Sydney is a little-known garden that’s become both a haven and a life-changing opportunity for people with disabilities.
Characterised by the deafening drone of cicadas, rambling paths, lush greenery and grazing chooks, The Secret Garden & Nursery in Richmond is the site for a special horticultural therapy program offering a chance for people with different abilities to get their hands dirty.
The “Plants, Animals and Nature” (PAN) program sees participants engaging in a range of activities, from repotting plants, to collecting produce, to feeding farm animals.
Coordinator Marianne Farrer, 51, believes the program is changing countless lives for the better.
“What we do here is give people a sense of caring and nurturing for something,” Ms Farrer told 9news.com.au.
“Our program enhances participant’s skills. So when they come here they learn to do something and also get the opportunity to socialise.
“It helps us out too cause we’ve got a fairly big nursery to run and with only three staff and need as much help as possible.”
Resident horticultural therapist Karen Gray, 53, said PAN helps participants to build their confidence.
“I’ve seen one participant who wouldn’t even get out of the bus [to enter the garden] because they were too scared,” Ms Gray said.
“Gradually, over a period of time, that person was walking around the whole garden.
“The program helps build participants’ self-esteem and gives them a sense of belonging.
“Seeing big smiles on participant’s faces has been incredibly satisfying.”
Some participants have enjoyed the garden so much they have opted to stay on as volunteers, coming several days a week to help out in the garden and adjoining nursery.
Trav Darroch, 25, was a volunteer at The Secret Garden for the last six years before coming on board as a part-time garden assistant.
Mr Darroch, who has Asperger’s syndrome – a form of autism – said working in the garden has had a positive impact on his life.
“It gives you a sense of being part of something wholesome,” he said.
“It makes me feel part of the community – wanted, needed.
“I love it. It’s like no other place on earth.”
Volunteer Lisa Dingle, 31, who has Down syndrome, said she can’t praise the garden enough.
“I love working in the potting shed, potting plants and looking after people with disabilities, and I love all the people around here, ‘cause they’re so good to me,” she said.
But it’s not just program participants who are reaping the benefits – the Secret Garden draws an array of native wildlife, including pardalotes, black cockatoos, bulbuls, fairy wrens and possums.
The five-acre community garden, founded 25 years ago, sports a vegetable patch, fruit trees and a number of animal pens and hutches.
Established in large part through the Work for the Dole program, the garden – run on the proceeds of the adjoining nursery – is also enjoyed by members of the public.
“People often talk about the sense of feeling really relaxed coming here,” Ms Gray said.
“It’s a very peaceful place to be.”
“A lot of customers are just overwhelmed,” Ms Farrer agreed.
“They say, ‘My god I didn’t know it was so beautiful’.”
A larger replacement garden is currently in development in a neighbouring area.
Encompassing 15 acres – triple the size of the existing garden – it will feature a café, a plant shop, a men’s shed, a pizza oven and a horse-riding facility for people with disabilities.
Tipped to become a new community hub, the new garden is expected to be finished in winter 2017.
For it be successful however, Ms Farrer said more financial support and volunteers are needed.
“We’re unfunded and rely on the sale of our plants to keep us afloat,” she said.
“All staff work part-time. We have to put in a lot of voluntary hours as well.
“At the moment financially it’s getting a bit difficult keeping both gardens going.”
She has urged anyone curious to pay the garden and nursery – which features a range of rare, unusual and “sensory” plants – a visit.