There’s not a lot of spinach to be found – either the slugs or the birds have been feasting. But the raspberry bushes are treasure troves, studded with perfect ripe rubies right at the moment of sweetness. I eat a handful right away, and then sneakily circle back several times for more.

Others are eating as they go too. Fadi, who has been attending the woman-only sessions in the wellbeing garden for a couple of years now, is biting into one of the russet apples as she strides up to the top of the plot with a watering can. Emma Wynters, one of the volunteers, pulls tiny yellow cherry tomatoes from the plant inside the greenhouse and pops them into her mouth.

“You can eat your seven-a-day so easily here,” she says. A few feet away a stew is being cooked in the plot-shed. Lunch, a communal meal made from the prizes of the morning – onions, sunshine-yellow courgettes, runner beans and more tomatoes – and then eaten around the green plastic table at the top of the plot, is right at the heart of the Sage Greenfingers day.

From the table where we eat, you can see right down into the Don Valley, the old industrial heart of Sheffield, once a thrumming centre of the mining and steel industries. “There’s not much down there now,” says one member of staff. Up until the 1970s Sheffield’s employment levels were consistently above the national average – it was a proud and wealthy town. But as the steel and mining industries crumpled and disappeared, unemployment soared meteorically from 4% in 1978 to 15.5% in 1984.

As always in recession and decline, the effects on the mental health of the population were profoundly negative. (The situation was made worse by the closure of two large mental health institutions in the area as part of Margaret Thatcher’s Care in the Community scheme.) Even now, despite an impressive resurgence in Sheffield’s economy in the early part of the 21st century, unemployment, particularly among young people, is significantly higher than the national average, as are the levels of mental health problems and dementia.

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project, Sheffield.
Vegetables are part of a growing feeling of achievement at Sage Greenfingers.
Photograph: Sam Atkins

Why green is good

It was partly in response to these problems that in 1996 the Pittsmoor Surgery, in Burngreaves, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Sheffield, decided to support an innovative communal growing project. Green therapy, or ecotherapy as it is now often known, was (and still is) a small but growing area with an increasing body of research to back it up.

Psychologist Oliver James, asking himself earlier this year why “immersion in greenery (even if only a municipal park) or huge landscapes (mountains, the sea, deserted regions)” should “reduce depression, delinquency, addiction and other problems”, concluded that “we are twice as likely to be emotionally distressed if we are urban rather than rural (and four times more likely to suffer schizophrenia). Part of the reason for this is the estrangement of night from day, caused by a lack of exposure to natural sights, sounds and smells, and dislocation from the natural rhythms of the seasons. Ecotherapies work because they reconnect us with nature; its external reality but most fundamentally, our inner natures. Mind, the mental health charity, has stated that it wants “everyone to have access to ecotherapy”, and in 2013 launched a campaign to have ecotherapy recognised as a mental health treatment in its own right.

Sage Greenfingers is a ripely mature example of ecotherapy in action. Based initially in a single plot in the Grimesthorpe allotments, over the years since it has expanded over three. Four days a week volunteers from the local community and trained health workers spend the hours gardening and chatting with a huge mixture of people who usually come to them through referral. “We deal with people with a very wide range of conditions,” explains director Diana Tottle. “They range from fairly low levels of depression and anxiety right through to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis and alcohol issues. In some cases we’ll have worked with the same person through several episodes over several years; one man, for example, has been into rehabilitation several times and then come back to us, for about six years now I think. It’s one of the things I think is most important about the garden – that we’re around for the long term. So many therapies now – CBT for example – is just short term; six weeks or 12 weeks.”

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project
Sage Greenfingers project member Carmen Reid.
Photograph: Sam Atkins

There are also a number of asylum seekers who come, “who are often dealing with some very traumatic events, such as torture, or the loss of close family members”. The group work together, and try to find time to just talk gently as they weed or water or harvest runner beans, to make space for offloading and quietly listening. A social worker once told me that the best most productive chats are always in the car when there’s no eye contact and no pressure – and the same seems to be true in the gardening: “It’s just easier for people to open up,” says Tottle.

What does the garden mean to the people who come there? Diana hesitates for a moment, and then says, with faint embarrassment but determination, that she thinks for some of them, “it makes life worth living. Some people can get desperately low, feel as if they’re never going to get out of this, but coming to us, knowing that they are part of a group where their presence is appreciated, where they’ll always have a warm welcome, it gives a structure to their week.”

Julie, one of the garden regulars, has been sitting in the greenhouse, delicately assembling collages from dried flowers with volunteer Emma Wynters. She has been coming for five years now. “The first time I came was with my CPN (community psychiatric nurse) and everyone was sat around having lunch. They showed me round; everyone was really friendly. I suffer from depression. I’d been at home for a long time, I was just too tired to do anything. The garden brightens up my day up. It keeps my mind occupied.”

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project, Sheffield.
Helen Lyle, support worker at Sage Greenfingers.
Photograph: Sam Atkins

Rita, another regular, has started gardening at home too: “I grow courgettes and tomatoes in my garden,” she says proudly. Before she started coming to the project, she didn’t like to go out of her house. “I cried all the time,” she says. “I was so so sad.” She still has bad days now, “but the garden helps”. Emma has only been volunteering with the project since last summer, “but even in that short time I’ve seen how people change and open up. The garden gives them more confidence within this small group. It’s like the safe little Sage family”.

Lunch is done. Full of good food, I listen to the fat buzz of bumblebees over the lilac flowers and some bolted marjoram behind me, and to the gentle talk around the table. There are a few spots of rain beginning to fall; we slowly pile up the bowls as Helen is reading through the list of jobs still to be done that afternoon. “Weeding the paths and beds, and cutting back the brambles on the bottom of the site (we’ve already done a bit of that). Water the polytunnel – anyone? Feed the tomatoes – have we already done that? I haven’t smelled anything. And there’s some more harvesting to be done too please!” Fadi is slowly wiping the table, Rita is picking up the water cups. “Also,” says Helen, “please remember to take some runner beans home with you.” There are, it seems, plenty for everyone.

So far in this series …

1. The community supported farm

2. The bike repair co-operative

3. The community garden centre

4. The community forest

5. The meat-rearing collective

6. The owl conservation group

7. The neighbourhood community scheme

8. The local beer-growing group

9. The Solar Schools project

10. The clothes swap project

11. The beekeeping group

12. The repair cafe

This article is part of the Live Better Community Project month. In September, we are showcasing 17 community projects from around the UK. On Wednesday 24 September, we will ask you to vote for your favourite project. The project with the most votes will be awarded £1,000 of funding, and two runners-up will each receive funding of £500. One voter chosen at random will receive £150 worth of gift vouchers for Nigel’s Eco Store. Terms and conditions here.

With thanks to: 10:10; FOE; Project Dirt; Neighbourly; UK Community Foundations; Groundwork; Business in the Community; Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens; the Prince’s Trust; Garden Organic; the Royal Horticultural Society; the RSPB; Keep Wales Tidy; The Wildlife Trusts; and Mind.

Interested in finding out more about how you can live better? Take a look at this month’s Live Better challenge here.

The Live Better Challenge is funded by Unilever; its focus is sustainable living. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.