Green Synergy uses community gardening, therapeutic horticulture and city farming to improve well-being

Originally founded in 2012, Green Synergy is a Lincoln-based charity which uses community gardening and horticultural therapy to help improve people’s lives.

They work in disadvantaged communities and with vulnerable people, including those living with mental health conditions, learning difficulties, physical disabilities, long-term health problems and unemployment.

They use gardening to build skills for life and work, improve mental and physical health and educate people about the environment, food and farming.

See Green Synergy's website

Creating a community garden hub

In December 2019, the Bright Ideas Fund awarded Green Synergy £14,965 to support testing the viability of a community garden hub. This included a community café; shop; shared office and activity space that other voluntary groups and public bodies could also use in the Sincil Bank area of Lincoln.

The viability of the project was investigated through a site visit, meeting Lincoln and Lincolnshire County Council officers, desk research of the viability of a community café and shop, considering available space and attractiveness of the location for the community, staff and passing trade.

At the same time, another site for a community garden was identified in the grounds of Lincoln Hospital. This was deemed to be a better opportunity following consideration and the focus changed to this 2.5-acre opportunity.

The grant was used for building design drawings initially for the first location which were adapted for the Hillside Hospital location future stages, to cover legal advice fees for the lease, some staff costs and staff and trustee educational visits.

Critical friend support

This was provided through the programme which resulted in an effective and trusting relationship with Green Synergy staff and trustees. Support included sharing learning with another Bright Ideas funded project in Worksop with similar outcomes, exploration of funding opportunities, desk research, board development support, improved governance and business plan development.

The critical friend support allowed for a flexible support approach which was able to take advantage of the new lease opportunity, work effectively with Mary the CEO, and trustees, and to visit inspiring projects to provide ideas. In addition, the support allowed for some governance issues to be addressed too which improved the working relationship between Mary and the trustees.

Diversifying income

Community gardens are challenging to raise significant earned income from. Green Synergy is still reliant on grant funding and has accessed medium-term funding to cover staffing costs which it is accessing from several sources. However, it has developed a good record of accessing funding due to having popular, clear messages and a visible CEO. They have been successful with over 20k of crowdfunding, over 10k in donations from private companies, and numerous in-kind contributions. For example, they have also developed good and expanding relationships with numerous private companies. Such as Lindum building contractors provided staff and equipment to develop the gardens.

Other income generation ideas being developed include:

  • Growing the consultancy offer such as therapeutic garden design
  • Increasing usage of the gardens linked to wellbeing, health and specialist audiences such as people with dementia and being able to meet their safeguarding needs and social prescribing
  • Build on Corporate Social Responsibility opportunities
  • Development of premium experiential days at the gardens such as how to care for hens
  • Charged for volunteer/team building day offers at the gardens
  • Growing to sell high-end novel crops such as exotic mushrooms, cut flowers, wild foods
  • Seeking to include a livestock paddock and small woodland within a new lease agreement for a Forest School and small scale animal husbandry/therapy additions
  • Fundraising through creative approaches such as a Guinness Book of Records challenge to raise income but also the profile.

Demonstrating impact

Green Synergy is locally rooted with its office base close to the garden and has developed good relationships and engagement with the community. It has transformed the bramble covered site to a well used and valued community garden both formally and informally. For example, it is used by hospital staff, visitors and local residents.

There is a phased approach to further development once a long term lease has been agreed which includes a polytunnel and centre building. As part of this, the group has worked hard on demonstrating the impact of the gardens to the City Hospital and has accessed impact evidence gathering support from Lloyds Bank Foundation. This along with a positive profile has increased recognition. For example, they have been asked to host BBC Radio 4 Gardeners Question Time show in the Autumn. There is a good and active social media presence.

Strong structure

The organisation is better run and has matured. There is a stable team with highly motivated staff who are effectively delivering the operational work which is freeing Mary up to spend more time on external, relationship development opportunities. In addition, the trustees are integral to supporting staff and are clear in their direction. Mary as the founder has been able to hand over work to staff, have clear support and challenge from trustees and is better able to focus on the CEO role.

Helping people to socialise, learn and thrive

The mission is to use community gardening and city farming to help people socialise, learn and thrive. They started out looking to create a community garden hub, inclusive of a community café; shop; shared community office space and community activity space that other voluntary groups and public/community services can also use. This was proposed on a site near Lincoln centre underneath a flyover and new road. The site was not felt to be compatible following visits and advice and so the focus moved to an overgrown site next to Lincoln hospital. The pre-feasibility advice was important as it allowed the group to then focus on an alternative which did not include a community café and shop

Making a difference to real people

Together with the local community, the hospital, schools, businesses and voluntary groups, they are transforming it into a beautiful, edible, accessible space for everyone to enjoy. Whilst Hillside Community Garden is the main focus for activities there are a number of community gardens being supported across the Lincoln area where gardening sessions are run and free to everyone

The impact of the community business on local people

‘Tower’ used to be nick-named ‘the forgotten estate’. The community garden has helped to raise its profile positively. The Garden has been on the TV and radio, local people love this. They generally feel very proud of the garden. The garden is also helping to reduce incidents of anti-social behaviour by providing local children with somewhere to go, support and diversionary activities.

The garden is also working with the hospital to provide therapeutic activities for patients in psychiatric care. As the garden develops, they will be able to increase the level of involvement with the local community. The project is planning to work with local schools.

The project also provides training opportunities for local people who are unemployed.

I’ve found myself waking up early in the mornings with a sense of purpose

“Prior to joining the project, I was suffering from alcohol and drug dependency, which was partly due to a lack of having something to do. My mental health was rapidly deteriorating. Since joining I’ve found myself waking up early in the mornings with a sense of purpose. I have always enjoyed gardening and wanted to become my own boss running a landscaping business. The project has given me the self-confidence to know I have still got the skills to work in the industry and to start applying for jobs again, taking me a step closer to my dream.” Phil BBO Participant

People in a garden litter picking

“My son and I moved to the Tower Estate after being homeless for three months it felt like we had no choice but to accept the house.  Obviously grateful to have a home, it was still hard to settle in. However, my friend and I happened to walk past the community garden and started chatting with the people who were gardening. We instantly volunteered to help at the next session. Ever since then I have become more sociable, my confidence has grown, and I have become more passionate about gardening.” Sam, BBO Participant

Putting the community in control

We use a participatory approach to all of our work. Green Synergy belongs to everyone who is involved in it, and everyone who helps to create the garden becomes part of its legacy. We continually consult with our beneficiaries; they are integrally involved in the design, management and delivery of our projects. We also regularly consult with the wider community on the charity’s development and future plans. Everyone who is actively involved in Green Synergy is given ‘membership’ status and is entitled to vote at our AGM

We really benefited

Mary had the following comment on the benefit of accessing Bright Ideas Fund support:

“We really benefited from the mentoring to get guidance, expertise, perspectives and a really supportive critical friend approach. This and the grant were real benefits of the programme to us.”

Find out if the Bright Ideas Fund could help your community business idea