6 July 2022

Volunteers plant seed of cooperation to ease cost of living pressures

| Lucy Ridge
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two women hold seedlings

Rosemary Castle delivers a box of seedlings to volunteer Judi at the Tuggeranong food pantry run by Communities@Work. Photo: Supplied.

A renewed interest in self-sufficiency and gardening took over when COVID-19 hit.

But starting a garden can be costly, so the Canberra Seed Savers Co-operative decided to rally its members to empower disadvantaged people to grow their own food.

The Seedlings for Community program, now gearing up for its sixth season, raises and distributes free seedlings to community groups.

The recent autumn program from February to May boasted 23 volunteers who handed out a whopping 2600 seedlings to 13 community organisations.

Program coordinator Rosemary Castle says the results have been fantastic.

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“We recently got some feedback from Canberra City Care that one of their clients had grown tomatoes from one of our tomato bushes and said they were the best tomatoes they’d ever eaten in their entire life!” she says.

“[A food pantry] organisation said a client had taken a tomato plant and then grown so many tomatoes they didn’t know what to do with them so they brought them back to the pantry to share.”

Most of the seedlings are delivered to food pantries which offer them alongside pantry staples. But the group also delivers to organisations working with migrant and refugee communities, and programs that support disabled children and adults.

box of seedlings

New growers buddy up with more experienced gardeners to make it a real program of growth. Photo: Supplied.

“We encourage our volunteers to develop relationships with the organisations which they’re very good at, and it’s led to all sorts of amazing opportunities,” Rosemary says.

“It’s a real trend for organisations to take our seedlings and not only give them out [to clients] but also to grow some on-site. That’s where we can offer additional services such as workshops and advice. All sorts of collaborations have come out of it.”

Food security and availability of fresh vegetables are a key concern for food pantries and community groups with more people feeling the pressure as the cost of living rises. The mental health benefits of gardening are also valued by the organisations and recipients.

woman holds box of seedlings

Volunteer Rachael displays the seedlings she’s grown for the program. Photo: Supplied.

The volunteers who raise the seedlings are a mix of new and experienced growers.

Seeds, potting mix and recycled pots are supplied to them, along with access to community resources including experienced gardening mentors, a private Facebook group to share their progress and ask questions, and plenty of helpful videos.

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All seedlings are grown from the Seed Savers collection of high-quality, heirloom, open-pollinated seeds. They’re chosen to be seasonally appropriate, easy to care for, and suitable to grow in pots or small spaces.

Rosemary says they make sure the plants are healthy and well suited to the climate to give people the best chance of success when growing them in their gardens.

gift-wrapped seedlings

Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services (MARSS) gift-wrapped seedlings from the program are given as Harmony Day gifts. Photo: Supplied.

The program began with money from an ACT Government grant but is now funded by the Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative and run by its volunteers.

New volunteers to grow seedlings are welcome, no growing experience is necessary. There are delivery and logistics roles available too.

Rosemary says the benefits of volunteering go beyond the joys of gardening.

“It’s a wonderful way to get to know your community a lot more. And it’s so much fun to see the results of it.”

Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative logo

Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative has been swapping seeds since 2006. Image: Supplied.

The Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative is based at the Canberra Environment Centre. Visit its website for more details.

To find out more about volunteering, contact canberraseedsavers@gmail.com

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