Colin Crosbie, SRUC alumnus and vice-Chair for ‘Independence from Drugs and Alcohol Scotland’ (IFDAS), is working on an exciting new venture: the River Garden Auchincruive, which will welcome its first residents in Spring 2018. The project is the first of its kind in the UK.
River Garden Auchincruive is a residential training centre for people in the early stages of recovery from drug and/or alcohol addiction. IFDAS secured the purchase of SRUC’s walled garden at Auchincruive, which overlooks the banks of the River Ayr, and it seems fitting that Colin, as an SRUC Horticulture alumnus, will be providing his expertise to the garden’s rejuvenation.
As a young adult, Colin actually worked in the walled garden at Auchincruive for nearly a year and a half, before undertaking his Horticulture studies at the then West of Scotland Agricultural College, now SRUC. He then worked at the Savill and Valley gardens in Windsor Great Park before being appointed as Head Gardener to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. He worked in this role for nearly five years, and then moved to RHS Wisley as Superintendent, Garden Manager and finally Curator. Colin has recently returned to his native Scotland to set up his own business as a horticultural consultant and leads garden tours throughout the world.
“If someone had said to me, when I was working here as an 18 year old, and then going on to study Horticulture at Auchincruive, that I would end up travelling the world, looking for plants in the wild- in China and Japan; managing big gardens down south- I would have said ‘not in a million years!’, but Auchincruive gave me the opportunity and I am so grateful. And this is why I am keen to give something back to the gardens here, because of what it gave me.”
Colin was approached by IFDAS when the organisation was looking to acquire SRUC’s grounds at Auchincruive. At the time, he was also volunteering for Bethany Christian Trust who care for homeless people in Scotland, so the opportunity struck a cord.
“Drug and alcohol addiction plays a very large part in homelessness. These people are normal people. Alcohol is a drug addiction, it’s no respecter of education, social background, anything- it can affect anyone. So it appealed to me to be able help people who are recovering from addiction and to do that in this wonderful garden.
“The therapeutic benefit of working in gardens is wonderful. At RHS Wisley, I worked with ex-servicemen, people with PTSD, and children with special needs. When you put them into a garden where they start growing plants, sewing seeds, harvesting, and watch the seasons coming around, you see how inspiring gardening is for people.
“So I thought, yes we can do that in Auchincruive. By growing people, and that’s what we’ll be doing - we’ll be growing people - they will be helping us to grow the garden.”
River Garden Auchincruive residents will have the opportunity to stay with the programme for up to three years. During this time they will learn new skills in the garden, in an onsite café and restaurant, and in a holiday cottage let. Residents will receive support for their mental and physical wellbeing, and importantly be earning their own money. One of the goals of the project is for residents to finish the course with work experience, qualifications and credit in their own savings account.
In addition to his passion for ‘growing people’, Colin has fantastic plans for the garden.
“When I was here in the 1980s, we had masses of fruit and vegetable production. We want to get that happening again, firstly to feed the people who will be working here. Then when we have our restaurant open, our own-grown produce coming into the kitchen onto the plates in front of diners will be quite something.
“And then there is the wonderful garden, which was probably created around 1800. We have a fantastic framework to work with. One of the most exciting things that we want to do in the next three to five years is to bring back the herbaceous borders. At one point the longest herbaceous borders in Scotland were found at Auchincruive. It was the most visited garden in Scotland when it opened. Thousands of people came in to walk round and see the produce on the slope, the wonderful plants in the glasshouses, and these magnificent borders. We want to bring all that back. The people will be helping us to do that are these wonderful people who will be getting over their addiction and working in the garden.
“And gardening is good for your health- look at most gardeners, we’re often in quite good shape! So it will be exciting and of course the residents will be picking up skills and qualifications which will help in the long-term with their employment, and we’ll actually get more people going into horticulture or going into catering as well.”
Whilst his passion for horticulture and the gardens in which it all started for him shines through, Colin is very clear on what motivates him.
“People say to me it must be the garden that excites me. Yes, the garden does excite me, but the most exciting thing is growing people and giving them their life back again.”
For more information on River Garden Auchincruive visit www.ifdas.net