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Garden Organic member survey shows improvements to Ryton Gardens a lower priority than other activities

The newly published Annual Report and Accounts from Garden Organic updates on the sale process of its Ryton Gardens headquarters.

Chief executive James Campbell said of the proposal, which has attracted opposition from some members: “Last year was also a time for reflection, and a serious look at how we can continue our work all across the country. As demand for our outreach work has strengthened visitor numbers to our organic demonstration garden at our headquarters at Ryton have fallen.

“This is partly due to the success of Garden Organic in spreading its message far and wide, and people no longer need to travel long distances to obtain information on organic gardening.”

A 2017 survey of Garden Organic’s membership, held before the announcement that the garden was for sale, showed nearly one third of members wanted the charity to focus on increasing activities in their areas and over a quarter said more advice and support on organic growing tailored to where they lived was their priority. Only 9% suggested improvements to Ryton Gardens. Some 28% wanted more advice on organic growing, 32% wanted more activity in their local area, 15% wanted more access to partner organic gardens and 6% wanted more special offers. Other ideas were 8%.

The survey, of about 400 people, and one from 2016, helped inform future Garden Organic policy.

Campbell added: “This research together with the decline in visitor numbers and the increasing financial burden of running our 22 acre site has led our trustees to explore a range of options for the site to release much needed funding to increase the work we are able to do locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. This process remains ongoing and no decision has yet been made on plans for the site.”

The report states that in 2017, there were 3,000 visitors to the gardens on weekdays (41% down on weekday visits in 2016 and “following the trend of falling visitor numbers in recent years”). Weekend visitors receive free entry “due to the costs associated with manning the shop and entrance area but are encouraged to make a donation. These weekday figures include just under 500 visits from Garden Organic members, accounting for less than 3% of the total membership base.”

Garden Organic’s trading arm Organic Enterprises made £92,000 profit in the year to 31 December 2017, up from £75,000. Total funds generated through donations, membership, legacies, trading and charitable activities in 2017 were £2.16m (2016-£2.6m), with £2.21m expenditure (2016-£2.46m). Net assets are £801,000 (£852,000).

The report states: “We finished 2017 with an unrestricted deficit of £61,237 (2016 – surplus of £195,319) before actuarial movements on the defined benefit pension scheme. Despite being a deficit, this result was better than we had budgeted for, due to closely managing our costs and also due to our receiving additional legacy income that we had not expected.

“The charity has a variety of funding sources, which offers some resilience against economic instability. In particular, our membership give us unrestricted income which we are able to spend across our charitable activities, whilst also funding some of the charity’s support costs. However, fundraising within the charitable sector is becoming increasingly difficult and this has caused a significant fall in our income since last year. Our net current assets position has remained healthy, ending the year at £243,996 (2016 – £312,422) as we continue to manage our assets and liabilities.”

Save Ryton Gardens campaigner and ex-staff member Michael Walker said: “No-one knows the feeling of members or the sale’s effect, because the questions Do you support the sale of Ryton Organic Gardens or not?’ and ‘Would its sale affect your membership?’ have never been asked directly.”

He said Garden Organic is in a difficult financial position, with income down 16% last year, so he understands the need to look at the long-term future of the organisation. But he added: “I believe the most significant financial risk facing the organisation would be the reduction in membership income arising from the sale of Ryton Organic Gardens.”

Campbell added: “It’s been a busy year for Garden Organic. Our outreach work was a major source of pride for us as we look to spread our message to more communities than ever before. We were particularly pleased to continue to deliver our organic social and therapeutic horticulture projects for adults with learning disabilities, young carers and disadvantaged young people.”

Work included  food poverty projects in London where they help people to supplement their diets with home-grown organic vegetables, to composting education work in Cumbria, tackling the challenges of sustainably managing household waste in a rural setting.

Over the last year Garden Organic and more than 535 registered volunteers have been supporting Master Composter and Master Gardener projects in 15 geographical areas around the UK.

The charity has been encouraging people to grow more organically and sustainably and have delivered 48 organic horticultural training events across the country, including their first training course at Dumfries House in Scotland.

In London, Garden Organic is leading a partnership (Food Growing Schools: London) with an aim of getting every London school involved in food growing. This involves attending assemblies, networking events, London Food Borough meetings and school marketplace events. Monthly newsletters offerteachers support with funding and free resources as well as support with growing.

Garden Organic also helped raise awareness among members and the general public about the issues surrounding the EU relicensing of gyphosate. The license was renewed for five years rather than the 15 years proposed.

Garden Organic members participate in running horticultural experiments. In 2017 a dahlias survey found that dahlias continued to attract bees into October when many other plants had finished flowering. 

The charity shared 158 different varieties from its Heritage Seed Library with members through its annual seed list, including 19 new varieties not shared before. In total the library protects 780 different varieties of heritage seeds.

Meanwhile Garden Organic continues to work with its volunteer Master Composters, Master Gardeners, Growing Buddies and Food Buddies to support individuals, community gardens, schools and horticultural therapy projects at grassroots level across the country. With helps from its members and local organic groups, its vision is to take organic growing directly into the back gardens and allotments of people throughout the UK.

Members of Garden Organic will have a chance to hear more about the charities work and vision for the future at its forthcoming AGM on May 18. The sale of Ryton is also on the agenda.

This post was written by: HortWeek