Roots to Fruit

Green-Fingered Social Enterprise

Gardening was something entrenched into Streetly gardener and lecturer Jonathan Ensell from the very early days of his life. His great-grandad Oscar Britzius had a farm with pigs and chickens and sold land for a pound an acre.

Jonathan Ensell

After a difficult time spent in Germany during the Second World War, which included some outspoken comments about the Nazi regime, Oscar decided to make a change in his life and branch out into opening a nursery.

His son – Jonathan’s father, Paul Ensell – inherited the land and has had it ever since. Jonathan has even built his house on there.

As a family, they have clocked up some 167 years of expertise in the gardening trade.

Asked to put into words what he particularly loves about gardening proved difficult for the 36-year-old to answer but he eventually enthused: “The great thing about being in the garden is you are out in the open in the great outdoors. You can engage with anybody in the garden, of any class or any society or any age.

“You can have conversations there and enjoy the nature. Everything in life just melts away and it is all about the garden. Gardening is something I grew up with, it is in my blood.”

The former Streetly School and Rodbaston College student’s journey to realise his ambition of opening a ‘not for profit social enterprise’ centre has now finally been completed.

And along the way he’s seen everything from the lows of prison life to the highs of meeting royalty.

His desire to serve all people from any background in local communities and to empower them to get involved with gardening accelerated when he was employed at a Midlands prison in the gardening department.

Jonathan has now been working in horticultural training and lecturing for the past seven years, the last three teaching within some of her Majesty’s » walled gardens, where prisoners have been benefiting from his accredited gardening courses. There he has taught young offenders the green-fingered art.

He said: “Working with the youngsters was a real breakthrough. I taught them all sorts and they really enjoyed hanging baskets, which I thought for offenders was especially impressive.

“I managed to persuade Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield to donate compost and with the seeds and herbs the youngsters grew their own plants from scratch.

“We were the 10th-best prison grounds when I arrived but after eight months we went up to fourth best, which is unusual because it is young offenders.

“This was a big breakthrough for myself as I had only done mainstream education. But to teach people with difficult backgrounds inspired me and gave me confidence to get into the industry.”

Jonathan received even more inspiration when his work was recognised by royalty at Buckingham Palace.

He continued: “The work I did with the young offenders and the progress we made with the prisons was picked up by the Guilds.

“I received national recognition for my work by City and Guilds, being presented with a medal of High Commendation in March 2012. This was followed by a prize in April 2012 given by HRH Princess Anne at Buckingham Palace from the Worshipful Company of Gardeners.

“Then I was asked what I was doing on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in the June so I said I had no plans and then they invited me to lunch at Westminster Palace with the Queen.

“I could not believe it, I was blown away. All royalty including Prince Charles’ children were there, it was a real honour. It has been one long journey to the centre, I always wondered what I was going to do with the nursery and from then I knew.

“All these accolades planted a seed in my mind that I wanted to share my knowledge and love of gardening with others.

“I’m really excited about this project – I’m passionate about every aspect of horticulture and even more enthusiastic about developing skills and training for as many different people as possible.”

Jonathan’s aim is to make gardening and horticultural activities accessible to anyone, including those with disabilities, mental health problems, learning difficulties and the unemployed.

His hope is that his teachings will help students improve their lives, wellbeing and become economically active.

He has set up a training and activity facility at local independent plant nursery Oakdene in Streetly. The centre is completely free. As a class, it has been running from January this year but as a centre for approval, it has been running since March.

He said: “We are not going to compete with most of the other centres which charge as we offer our services for free in pretty much every subject. I wanted to create a different kind of college, not one that just specialises in 16-to-18-year-olds, one that breaks the barrier, caters for everyone of all ages and takes gardening to a different level.

“For homeless people, people with drug addictions, people who are not accessing qualifications and training, we can help to make them stand on their own two feet.”

“All the feedback I have had is that it is really good and people welcome my centre as an alternative learning environment which benefits people on different levels.”

Every Wednesday from 10am until 3.30pm Jonathan, along with his two volunteers Sue and Steven Gardener, teaches students the art of gardening.

The classroom which the class learn in is completely recycled and made using an old log cabin, old windows and doors and allotments » made out of old scaffolding boards with the aim that the students ‘do not feel intimidated by the environment’.

Jonathan said: “It seems as if society is driven to provide a ‘one size fits all’ service, where people can only access one service separately. We are bucking the trend where you can gain training, work experience and enjoy therapeutic social gardening activities all under one roof.

“There are sessions that are designed to help raise self-esteem, provide gentle exercise and teach a range of gardening skills. We have one to one sessions and classroom sessions for socialising.

“The benefits are endless. You can learn new skills, meet new and different people, do the environment some good and come back home with some tasty healthy vegetables that will put you on the right track.

“Now we have centre recognition from ABC Awards, we are in the great position of being able to deliver up to seven different qualifications from Entry Level Two to more advanced courses at Level Two, looking at a wide range of gardening and horticultural subjects.”

Jonathan currently has five signed up to his course – three boys and two girls – and offered up a case study of the success of his teaching.

He said: “Someone came to me with learning difficulties. He had lots of questions to answers and struggled quite a lot. He could do Level One but could not make the step up to Level Two – which is effectively the equivalent of an apprenticeship at GCSE level.

“Now, with me, he has nearly completed it. Teaching him does not feel difficult at all, I have methods for all different types of people which I have learnt over the years. The key is about building confidence with these people who start from nothing.”

Now, despite realising his dream, Jonathan admits his quest does not stop here though and he now plans to offer a weekend course in recreation from September for those who want to learn how to design their gardens, grow plants and maintain them on a weekend programme. He has been in touch with Age UK so he can incorporate the elderly into his classes.

Jonathan, who is married to Claire and has two children – Nathan, two, and Sam, three – even had time to offer some top gardening tips for Journal readers.

He said: “My first bit of advice to anyone, not just avid gardeners, is give gardening a go and really stick at it. Give every part a go and you will get satisfaction back.

“Start with a flavour – there are so many facets but pick one that appeals personally to you, whether it be by name, characteristic or appearance.

“The key thing is balance – what I mean by balance is your plant should be at a pH level of seven, if it is it is well-balanced. Work with nature. Do not put the plant where it does not want to be.

“Finally, and most importantly, build a relationship with the plant. In any relationship with a human being you might not hit it off from day one, you have to get to know them and as you do you learn things you like and grow fonder of them.

“Do not let a fancy name put you off, find out more about the plant’s characteristics and demeanour, research into it and as you know more about the plant, the name will come to you and you will fall in love.”

By Sutton Coldfield Observer  |  Posted: August 27, 2014 

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