Educational nursery in Goulburn helping people and plants to bloom

John Thistleton 11 October 2021
Kirstie Chalker

Kirstie Chalker, horticulturist at Growing Abilities in Goulburn. Photo: Supplied.

It generally takes a few years before new plants in freshly turned earth produce the colour and personality that become a daily source of wonder and contentment. In the same way, Growing Abilities is developing into an educational and therapeutic nursery for people with disabilities in Ross Street, Goulburn.

It began in 2007 with an idea from Challenge Southern Highlands, a group based at Welby. From a public meeting of about 100 people, educators and volunteers continued nurturing the concept, negotiating the lease for a six-acre site at Bradfordville.

Horticulturist Kirstie Chalker was interested from the beginning, and five years ago was offered the horticulturist’s role at Growing Abilities.

“I love watching people develop confidence,” she says. “When you nurture people and plants, they grow. To witness the slow emergence of personality and strengths in people – I get such a buzz out of that.”

Propagating plants from cuttings has always excited Kirstie.

“I will never get tired of it,” she says. “It’s like witnessing little miracles every day. I’m passionate about therapeutic horticulture.


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“For me, it has helped overcome a lot of things. It has helped save my life and is such a positive, hopeful activity to do.

“It connects you with nature, the seasons and, in a way I never thought possible, connects you with other people. That is what Growing Abilities is for me. It’s a place where people meet, share knowledge, share friendship and learn.

“I’ve always loved plants because I thought I could not get on with people as well. I have since become a better ‘people person’ because of plants.”

Growing Abilities has rejoined with Challenge Southern Highlands to extend the disability services offered to the Goulburn community. As a registered National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) provider, the partnership’s services include day activities, supported employment, a school leaver employment supports program, and mentoring.

Growing Abilities’ staff has grown from two part-timers to a complement of three full-timers and six part-timers.

Group of people working around table at Growing Abilities

Pottering away at Growing Abilities is (from left) Kirra, Adam, Bradley and Jesse. Photo: Kirstie Chalker.

“We all got this place to where it is through dedication and volunteer work,” says Kirstie.

“No-one got paid, and I want to acknowledge their hard work to get us to this point. Challenge Southern Highlands helped us to get up and running. It has been a struggle [without them] to have enough people to run the business side of things and expand to its potential. Challenge’s return is like everyone’s dream come true.

Spring is a great time to see the nursery’s staff, students and volunteers all thriving like the plants.

“We have veggie, herb and flower seedlings – a little bit of everything,” says Kirstie.

“Natives and exotics are all grown onsite. This is cool-climate gardening. What gives me pride is we have grown everything onsite here – we haven’t purchased any plants from anywhere. However, we will be acquiring a larger variety of plants from elsewhere to provide variety for our customers.

“We have a lot of native tube stock from seeds, wattles, eucalypts and hakeas. Shrubs are grown from cuttings, and trees grown from seeds.

“They have survived thanks to people bringing in their cuttings. I encourage people to bring in their cuttings because they see what we do. We accept secondhand pots, and we collect jars because we make pickles and jams from our produce.

Jennifer arranging flowers at Growing Abilities

Jennifer has no shortage of colour from which to choose for her work at Growing Abilities. Photo: Kirstie Chalker.

“I want to get workshops up and running as soon as COVID-19 lets us get people onsite.”

Kirstie has long been a garden enthusiast.

“I love it when people show you around their backyard, in their own garden,” she says. “You can tell when a garden is loved and nurtured. I love growing veggies and herbs, and I’m passionate about permaculture. I love the little person tinkering away in their back gardens.

“People bring in cuttings. If I don’t know what variety it is, we call it ‘Sharon’s geranium’ – that’s how we label it. We are small scale, and we can get away with doing that. I get the person to write on the label ‘seed propagated by’ and their name.”

Every plant, it seems, has its own story.


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