This article is part of our Voices of the Economy series. The project brings together the economic experiences and opinions of people from a range of different backgrounds and showcases voices which are not heard as often when we talk about the economy. To find out more and share your own story, click here.
Chris Vaughan is a member of Warm Earth, a Birmingham-based social enterprise which grew out of a local residents association he chaired. He sees gardening as one of the ways of using a common interest to bring people together in his ethnically, economically and socially diverse neighbourhood. You can find Warm Earth on Facebook and Instagram @WarmEarthBrum.
We are a not-for-profit gardening enterprise, based in inner city Birmingham, called Warm Earth. Before lockdown, this year was on track to be our most successful year yet.
We had an expanding customer base for our flowers, vegetables, window boxes, hanging baskets and compost. We were beginning to harvest a significant amount of nutrient-rich castings from our wormery to sell on as a highly effective fertiliser.
Best of all, we had in development a raised bed which regulated its soil temperature and moisture through the use of chip technology. When brought to market, this product will hopefully be a source of income and future jobs. It’s the reason we called ourselves “Warm Earth”.
Then the lockdown occurred. We were devastated. We’d already bought everything we needed for the new season and it was now all in danger of going to waste.
Our relationship with a number of vocational colleges, which we were cultivating with a view to helping with their curriculum in the long term, was put on hold. Various projects with care homes, assisted living schemes, local surgeries and clients with complex needs had to be interrupted and plans to supply nearby building projects with flower beds, planters and hanging baskets were abandoned.
We had to stand down our growing band of volunteers and just do basic maintenance until the day our enterprise stuttered to a halt, like so many other incipient businesses.
But then the city council intervened. As a business we are embedded in our local community, which is regarded by the council as a ‘Pioneer Place’ because of the level of grassroots activity that goes on and which they hope can be replicated elsewhere in the city. The council saw us as a possible channel for reaching out to key workers and people isolated in quarantine.
Accordingly the city council gave us a grant to distribute plant starter kits free of charge to improve people’s mental wellbeing, either by getting them outside into the garden or cultivating a plant indoors as a focused activity. All we needed to do was to get the word out to the right quarters.
Warm Earth is situated in the grounds of a hospital. We have an arrangement to utilise three large greenhouses there which are a throwback to a more self-sufficient age and no longer used. Our first move, therefore, was to contact the hospital authorities. They arranged for us to be filmed and for our offer to be put on the staff website.
We then contacted our local surgery who agreed to include contact details on their telephone messaging and we got Birmingham Community Healthcare Trust, who run clinics close by, to mention us in their staff newsletter. We also alerted our social services and third sector contacts and various community groups of our acquaintance, including a mother and baby group and a group which caters to the deaf.
Besides helping to pay us for our initial outlay, which we had thought would be money down the drain, the council initiative helped us reach a whole new group of people. As well as getting free plants to help them in the lockdown, these people have now become aware of our presence. After we re-opened in mid-May, along with other garden centres, many have become regular customers.
We are still waiting to resume all our other activities but our volunteers are now back, keeping a social distance and tending the plants, while a new set of customers are beating a path to our door. We are now ready to start growing the business again.