Walton Lea Nursery (Pennant)

Walton Lea Project

Walton Lea Nursery is an unusual place. Not only does it operate as a commercial nursery, run from a Victorian walled garden, but it also provides supported employment for around 50 adults with learning difficulties. The nursery, near Warrington, has become a tourist destination and was given the Visitor Attraction of the Year Award by local businesses.
Kate Fitch, horticulturist for the project, says that people with learning difficulties have really benefited from the project. "It builds up people’s sense of worth. We have people who come here with zero confidence. After a few weeks they are able to mix with people, communicate and do things they had never been able to do before. It makes a huge difference."

Around 50 adults with learning difficulties work at the centre. The adults are aged between 17 and 60. The majority are men, although there are seven women. Most of them work at the garden two or three days a week. At any time there are usually around 16 adults working at the nursery. In addition, there are four support workers. Most of the workers are referred by Warrington Borough Council and the nursery receives funding through social services.

The workers do various jobs from growing to selling. In addition, the nursery runs a mobile shop that takes produce to sheltered housing. The project runs a farmers’ market once a month.
The garden was built in 1864 — on a site that was exactly one acre and which was carefully aligned to make maximum use of the sunlight. The nursery grows a wide variety of cottage-style plants and unusual heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables to make the nursery an interesting destination for local people.

Fitch says: "We specialise in unusual items such as oriental poppies and interesting penstemons, which are sold in pots. As far as edible produce is concerned, we can’t really compete with the supermarkets, so we concentrate on interesting soft fruits such as blackcurrants, redcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries." The nursery also sells strawberry plants in hanging baskets. "People like these because they look unusual and are less prone to slugs," she adds.

Most of the produce is grown without pesticides and the nursery scrupulously re-uses pots and trays. The garden has a variety of top fruit such as Victoria plums and damsons as well as traditional varieties of apples and runner beans.
The nursery continues to develop. In 2007 a new classroom — built in a log cabin — was provided through landfill tax credit funds. In addition, the nursery received £20,000 from the Secret Millionaire programme on TV. "This was wonderful, because it gave us a lot of publicity and meant that local businesses were keen to support us," says Fitch. She now has her eyes on the future and hopes to build more glasshouses, for which the nursery is currently looking for sources of funding.

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