Verwood Opportunity Centre case study

Verwood Opportunity Centre, Dorset


In 2009 staff at the Verwood Opportunity Centre (VOP) found that their clients, people with physical and learning disabilities, wanted to feel more integrated with the local community and also have the chance to do meaningful work. This resulted in the creation of the Sensory Garden, a new wildlife-friendly garden on open space next to the Opportunity Centre and neighbouring Community Centre.

Project description

Working with a local landscape garden designer, the Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) developed a scheme to improve the area outside the Opportunity Centre, immediately next to the new Community Centre.

The first step for the Sensory Garden project was to develop a partnership, without which the project could not have been achieved:

  • East Dorset District Council (EDDC) donated the land;
  • Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) helped co-ordinate the design process and agreed to look after the management and maintenance, once the garden was completed;
  • The Verwood Opportunity Centre (VOP) promised to build usage of the space into their service-users’ daily activities;
  • The neighbouring Community Centre offered general support to the project;
  • Private companies, including a local landfill operator, provided the funding, and
  • The local Emmanuel School helped with the planting during the implementation, as well as setting up a Tuesday gardening club.

A new layout was then developed by a local garden designer. The garden was laid out in the form of a spiral, and contains easily accessible raised beds designed to appeal to the senses. Tactile scented planting with a wide variety of foliage and leaf colour make the site equally attractive everyone. Particular attention was placed on making the garden accessible to all. For example, the path around the garden was made using materials enabling wheel chairs, walkers and pushchairs to move freely.

Implementation was carried out by a local contractor but clients of the Centre helped with smaller elements, such as making the signs for the sensory beds. Maintenance of the garden is co-ordinated by the DWT who work alongside staff and users at the Opportunity Centre, all of whom are welcome to do as much or as little work in the garden as they like.

Key achievement

Those planning the Sensory Garden had the foresight to locate it on public land where the NHS care facility adjoins the community centre. Accessible to both, the garden is well-used and helps integrate users of the Opportunity Centre within the wider community. Regular and informal social contact with those from the VOP is already helping to overcome some of the stigma surrounding the issue of learning disabilities and being located within public open space rather than being confined within the VOP site boundary sends out a clear message that centre users are very much part of the local community.

What are the health benefits?

There are numerous benefits arising from the project – for wildlife, with improved habitats, and even for the local authority landowner, with savings in grounds maintenance costs for them now that DWT have taken over this site.

In terms of health benefits, over the years usage of the space has increased and many of the VOP clients now regularly choose to spend time outside in the Sensory garden rather than indoors. It is believed that some users of the garden are on lower levels of medication than they were previously, now that they are able to enjoy a higher level of physical activity in the fresh air.

Some users of the centre experience episodes of agitation and frustration and for them, being able to be taken outside into the sunshine really helps defuse the stress and anxiety that they are experiencing.

Shane Carter (a service user from the Centre), said “We are really able to get involved with the garden, helping with the plants, building nest boxes, even the signs were wood burned by us. It’s been great to work in this garden, helping to create something for the community and us to enjoy”. The DWT continues to maintain the site, monitoring the planting carefully as it matures.

A manager’s perspective:

Noel Bergin, Conservation Officer at Dorset Wildlife Trust, said: “The idea is that the different sections of the garden will be ongoing projects for the Opportunity Centre, schools and other community groups to look after. Hopefully not only will it be a wildlife haven within the town, but visitors will leave with ideas on how to improve their own local area for wildlife”.

Lessons learnt

  • Partnership working - can mean good results for all. None of the participants in this project could have achieved these results by themselves;
  • Appropriate scale – this is a modest project focused on half a dozen raised beds, yet they are the catalyst for unleashing the collective energies all around. The garden is also a modest addition to the existing facilities for all concerned;
  • Flexible and accessible – the garden offers many ways for people to enjoy it: by simply looking, by walking around, by gardening, by working for wildlife, as part of a celebration.


Noel Bergin. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.