Like many brilliant ideas, Gro-Organic really began by accident. A keen gardener since she first helped her grandad with his tomatoes at the age of three, Sarah Gill was spending a Saturday working to create a raised bed at a friend’s home on the Chelmsley Wood estate, when what they were doing started to attract the neighbours’ attention.
One by one, 25 people of all ages began to lend a hand, and neighbours who rarely spoke to each other were soon working side by side, sharing stories and even contributing packets of plant seed. They were all back the following weekend, and before long a ‘gardening club’ had formed.
She may not have intended it, but this was a ‘light-bulb moment’ for Sarah. The area has problems – crime, anti-social behaviour, unemployment, social isolation – but gardening could be a way to bring people together, enable them to build skills and confidence, and put something back into their community.
The seed was sown and word rapidly spread. Soon Sarah had an “army” of around 80 volunteers, including many long-term unemployed people, willing to knock on doors and ask for donations of gardening tools and materials.
By the end of 2010 Sarah had £2,000 funding from the Prince’s Trust to develop community gardens and the Gro-Organic social enterprise was born.
It has expanded rapidly, and proved able to break down inter-generational and other barriers. Housing associations and councils turn to Gro-Organic to help engage with tower blocks and hard-to-reach areas, commissioning Sarah to identify issues and then work with residents to resolve them through gardening projects. Birmingham and Black Country Community Foundation offered £5,000 funding to develop a garden on another estate with problems similar to Chelmsley Wood.
New offshoots keep appearing, like training for teachers to help them link the outdoor environment to school curriculum topics. The Wellies to Bellies programme takes children – including those from areas where food poverty and malnutrition are real concerns – through the food chain.
One school gardening club has grown from three to 40 children (and their parents), and turned round poor attendance and discipline. “Some didn’t even know carrots came from the ground – now they’re growing their own food,” says Sarah.
When she was asked to develop derelict land at Chelmunds Cross – which the council was spending considerable time and money having to protect and clean up – Sarah first spoke to local people about what they wanted, as well as convincing them to stop fly tipping, littering and vandalism.
What the community helped develop was the Victory Garden, now used by hundreds of nearby residents regularly. It supplies fresh fruit and vegetables to elderly residents living in isolation and families struggling with food costs, and anyone in need can pick their own on ‘Free Food Friday’. The residents have taken courses in keeping hens and can now supply nearby households with eggs.
The Gro-Organic team have also supported garden users into employment and training.
Sarah’s previous business experience in sales and managing large teams has paid dividends in developing a strategy to expand Gro-Organic. So has advice and practical support – and funding – from the Prince’s Trust and Solihull Community Enterprise Success Programme, which helped her set up as a CIC. Her dad Steve, a retired civil engineer and architectural project manager, helped plan larger gardens until someone could be trained up to take on that role.
Gro-Organic now has 10 full-time staff to help it expand, all willing to work for below the market rate to make a real difference locally. The team includes landscapers, labourers, funding, finance and office admin support, a commercial and new business director and a community director to organise work and activities.
The company plans to develop profit-making arms such as domestic landscaping services and sales of gardening tools so that it can pay staff – including Sarah herself, who’s taken the bare minimum in salary so far – and fund community activities. Annual turnover has risen from £32,000 to £400,000 although cash flow has proved a problem.
What would really help is more professional expertise in areas like risk analysis, possibly as part of large commercial bodies’ corporate social responsibility initiatives. Seconding specialist support to Gro-Organic would be an invaluable contribution.[MEA1]
But however big it gets, Sarah is determined that Gro-Organic remains “a business with heart” where everyone is welcome to get involved.
This can mean actively addressing potential barriers and divisions. She gave up working towards a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) qualification three-quarters of the way through because it felt too traditional and exclusive. “It seemed a boring way to approach gardening, and possibly divisive when many of the people we engage with were excluded from school.”
In fact, it’s now her policy not to recruit anyone who’s RHS trained. And however good they are professionally, they won’t get a job with Gro-Organic if they don’t genuinely care about people and how lives can be changed by the power of gardening. [MEA2]
The Gro-Organic philosophy is that “this is a chance to share experience and learning, and try things out – no one is judging you and there’s no right way to do it”.
It’s definitely working. “We have created an environment that actively involves the people least likely to enjoy gardening, and would never have given it a second glance before. We’re defying a lot of people’s perceptions,” says Sarah.
The 160 regular volunteers aged 18-25 have had their share of problems in their lives, including mental health issues, offending and drugs. Gang members who are still tagged or on licence have joined projects.
At Gro-Organic they don’t advertise work experience opportunities, just ask people who might be interested. Some need a lot of support, particularly since three generations of unemployment in Chelmsley Wood means young people simply don’t have experience or understanding of the work ethic. Staff have travelled with isolated and vulnerable individuals from their homes to a site so they can join in.
Gro-Organic is building relationships with churches and schools, and gets calls from all over about getting ‘urban gardening’ done. Sarah and her team are constantly talking to individuals like local MPs, doctors and councillors as well as organisations.
“We’ve woken up the third sector and shown there’s a different way of doing things,” she says. But it has been a struggle to get the NHS and local authorities, including public health services, to believe in the positive impact of ‘street gardening’.
Now it’s part of social prescribing initiatives as health professionals recognise the knock-on effect of physical exercise, a chance to learn and new friendships on all sorts of issues. Probation and youth offending teams are already convinced of the benefits in reducing crime and anti-social behaviour..
Public health services are working with Gro-Organic to analyse data on community gardens, particularly emerging evidence that getting involved has stopped individuals’ mental health problems spiralling.
“Learning something new in a real environment is very empowering. You see people think ‘I can do this’ and have pride in what they’ve achieved.”
Secrets of our success
- Keep it ‘bottom up’ so it’s doing things with, not to, the community.
- Create real opportunities for people in familiar settings.
- Don’t underestimate how strong word of mouth can be. Network and engage as widely as possible.
- Be non-judgemental – and prepared to challenge perceptions.
- Stick to your core principles.
- Plan for expansion and get people with the right skills and attitudes on board.
- Demonstrate the outcomes as much as possible.