A single leaf from a succulent can be plucked, left for a few days to callous over and set on top of some good soil where a new plant will sprout from the scar in a bit of horticultural magic known as propagation.
“I call it cloning,” says Lance Whitton. “That way people know straight away what you’re talking about.”
Whitton, who’s in his 50s, is all about sensible words and sensible clothing. Dressed in cargo shorts, well-loved joggers and gardening gloves, Whitton darts around the small plot tucked into the back corner of St John's Anglican Church in Darlinghurst. He moves with a frenetic energy, watering the plants, organising plastic pots and selecting succulents that are ready to be potted.
Pictured: Lance Whitton
This small garden, featuring mostly succulents in various stages of propagation in mid-November, is run by Street Growth, a not-for-profit charity improving the lives of homeless and disadvantaged people through horticultural therapy. Darius Rountree-Harrison, the president of Street Growth, founded the organisation after volunteering for a few years at Rough Edges, a partner cafe.
During several years of volunteer work, Rountree-Harrison had served as a first responder on a few incomplete suicides. “That was a trigger for me to want to do something more,” he says. “I thought a lot about what was occurring in the lives of individuals that could be addressed in a simple way to improve their wellbeing. The thing that really stuck out for me was a lack of opportunity and ability to focus the mind and self-soothe.”
After hearing a podcast about the effect of nature on the psyche, Rountree-Harrison decided to start a community garden and received support from Rough Edges. “The early years were really about figuring out our values and just enjoying the space,” he says. “From that, we sort of solidified our direction into community wellbeing and social enterprise.”
The wellbeing aspect is the most important part, says Rountree-Harrison. During gardening sessions, attendees do a check-in about how they’re doing mentally, socially, financially and physically. Many of the plants growing in the garden have naturopathic elements, and naturopaths have led sessions on the uses of those plants.
Pictured: Street Growth gardens
One of the community members who has benefited from an increased focus on his own wellbeing is Whitton. Whitton came to Sydney six or seven years ago, where he found a job as a council worker, but he hit a rough patch shortly after. “Things sort of hit the wall,” he says. He found himself homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Whitton grew up the youngest of four kids on an Aboriginal mission in Moree, up near the Queensland border, where he was raised by his Aboriginal grandmother. He left the mission at 15, got married young and had five kids before getting a divorce. Whitton has several grandchildren and one great grandchild, although he doesn’t see them much.
After hitting that wall, Whitton got help, got a caseworker and “sorted out a few things,” he says. Then he found Street Growth, almost by accident. He was walking by the church one day and saw a few volunteers. He met a few more and got involved. Although Whitton had never thought much about gardening at that point, he found the work grounding and therapeutic. “When I’m gardening, it’s relaxing for me,” he says.
Pictured: Lance Whitton
The second important part of Street Growth focuses on social enterprise. The group grows orchids and the aforementioned succulents, which are sold. Of the profits, 50% gets split between the community, and 50% goes back into the garden. At the last sale Street Growth participated in, they raised about $1,000 and each community member took home about $83. “It may seem like a small amount of money to us, but it really makes a difference,” he says. One man who received that $83 had just lost his job and was saving to pay for a new professional qualification to improve his employment prospects. That $83 went a long way, Rountree-Harrison says.
In mid-November, the group was preparing succulents for an upcoming holiday sale at St John's Anglican Church on Dec. 9. Street Growth is also working on some expansion plans, including expanding the physical garden into some space in the adjacent lot, working with Airbnb to host workshops on mental health, mindfulness and homeless issues, and looking into a partnership with the City of Sydney.
But for Rountree-Harrison, the most important thing is how the program has helped individuals. “I can say that since this program started, some of the people that prompted it have joined and they haven’t had those issues since,” he says. “Some of them have transitioned off the street into full-time housing. It’s been a really wonderful project to run.”
For his part, since Whitton started with Street Growth, he has found housing, a job and a community. He’s studying horticulture at TAFE and hopes to one day return to his hometown, where he has family. “Things really worked out for me,” he says. “I’ve come back to my life and to reality.”
As he tucks the final succulent into a cleaned pot full of soil, Whitton reflects on his with Street Growth. “When I was in a bad place, I went into a shell,” he says. “I didn’t want to express myself. I’ve learned to mature a bit more. Now, I’m just loving life.”
Learn more about Street Growth here.