St Mary’s Secret Garden founder Paula Yassine on the ‘mindfulness’ of gardening

Paula Yassine at St Mary's Secret Garden which she manages

Paula Yassine at St Mary's Secret Garden which she manages - Credit: Paula Yassine

Emma Bartholomew meets Paula Yassine, the director of St Mary’s Secret Garden in Hoxton – and finds out how it helps just about everyone

Paula Yassine at St Mary's Secret Garden which she manages

Paula Yassine at St Mary's Secret Garden which she manages - Credit: Paula Yassine

Paula Yassine got into therapeutic horticulture when she moved to Hackney 12 years ago, and couldn’t continue with arboriculture “because there weren’t a lot of forests in central London”.

She now runs the St Mary’s Secret Garden charity in Pearson Street, Hoxton.

“Gardening is proven to enhance your wellbeing,” said Paula, 53, who lives with her husband in Lower Clapton Road, and originally trained as an intensive care nurse when she left school.

“Ever since man walked we have been farmers and part of us is unhappy if we don’t access it.

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“We are natural beings. We are animals, and we are affected by the seasons and the weather, and we have forgotten that in London.

“Being in a green environment automatically reduces your blood pressure and your body automatically starts to de-stress itself. You can even get a similar effect standing by a nice picture of a wooded scene.”

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People with learning and physical disabilities, those with life-changing conditions like stroke survivors and people living with HIV, people with mental health troubles and children all come to spend time gardening.

“Anyone can garden,” said Paula. “Even with limited use of your hands or eyesight you can sow seeds and pot a plant.

“It’s sensory, with the touch and feel of leaves and the smells. You will see your seed grow into a flower. It’s not quick, and there’s a sense of patience – mindfulness is the trendy new word for it – to take stock and wait for things to happen.

“Also you get to eat what you grow,. We have a poster that says: ‘Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you can also get tomatoes from it.’”

St Mary’s is named after the old parish church in Haggerston that was bombed during the Second World War. It had been used as a dumping ground in the ’80s and ’90s. National horticultural charity Thrive took over, which is how Paula got involved – she worked for Thrive before founding the garden as an independent charity in 2006.

She doesn’t have much spare time to do anything but garden, although she has just resurrected her hobby of painting watercolours – of flowers, naturally.

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